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Howard Keel Musicals: Box Office Ups & Downs Emblematic of Genre Woes in 1950s Hollywood

Howard Keel musicals: Box office roller coaster ride emblematic of genre woes
Howard Keel musicals at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: Box office roller-coaster ride. Brought to Hollywood in 1948 to star in MGM’s then popular musicals, stage performer Howard Keel seemed poised to reach major stardom after the impressive international success of his first movie at the studio, George Sidney’s tuneful 1950 Western Annie Get Your Gun, in which the newcomer was cast as Betty Hutton’s leading man. These, however, were turbulent times. Initially lucrative ventures, Howard Keel musicals became, like other such MGM fare, unreliable box office performers. Although Annie Get Your Gun was followed by the modest but still profitable Pagan Love Song and two sizable hits, Texas Carnival and Show Boat, Keel’s later vehicles would turn out be less commercially satisfying.

See previous post about Howard Keel and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals of the 1950s: “Howard Keel: The Strong, Singing Type Embodied Rugged American Virility in Mid-Century MGM Musicals.”

Howard Keel musicals: Few quality – or successful – titles during his MGM years

At the start of the 1950s, most Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movies remained as luminous as those cranked out during the previous couple of decades. Behind the scenes, however, there was plenty of gloom on the Culver City lot, as studio co-founder Louis B. Mayer was about to get the boot and be replaced with Vice President in Charge of Production (and former RKO Head of Production) Dore Schary, who had a well-known predilection for “message pictures.”

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

In this time of turmoil – Schary took control of the studio in July 1951 – the front office seemed unsure how to make the best use of their newborn singing star’s capabilities. That may help to explain why, notwithstanding the success of the costly and prestigious Annie Get Your Gun, Howard Keel would find himself usually cast in unrewarding roles in productions that were less ambitious and more forgettable.

Second-rate titles include one of Arthur Freed’s lesser efforts, the 1950 Esther Williams star vehicle Pagan Love Song (named after Freed and Nacio Herb Brown’s ditty, performed in the 1929 Ramon Novarro hit The Pagan), in addition to the pedestrian but popular musical Texas Carnival (1951), also starring Williams; and the modestly budgeted, indifferently received non-musicals Desperate Search (1952), an adventure drama with Jane Greer and Patricia Medina, and Fast Company (1953), a light comedy with Polly Bergen and Nina Foch.

Unique male MGM freshman

Admittedly, Howard Keel fared quite a bit better than most others, as he was MGM’s only male singing newcomer during this period to enjoy regular big-screen employment.

Mario Lanza scored two sizable international hits with The Great Caruso (1951) and Because You’re Mine (1952), but his contract was terminated after the latter (his fourth) film. Another of the studio’s musical imports, former Metropolitan Opera and South Pacific star Ezio Pinza, was sent packing after flopping as Lana Turner’s and Janet Leigh’s romantic interest in two 1951 bombs, respectively, Mr. Imperium and Strictly Dishonorable.

Elsewhere, among the newcomers only Gordon MacRae and the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis duo – all three in Hollywood since the late 1940s – were kept busy. The former, a trained baritone singer, at Warner Bros.; the latter, better known for their comedy schtick than for their crooning/squealing, at Paramount.

Yet, as the Annie Get Your Gun leading man could attest, landing movie gigs didn’t necessarily translate into landing quality projects. Out of Howard Keel’s 15 Metro films (not including a cameo in Deep in My Heart), his reputation would ultimately rest on a total of four musicals. In the years after Annie Get Your Gun, there would be only Show Boat, Kiss Me Kate, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – with the side addition of the sumptuous flop Lovely to Look At.

Howard Keel Show Boat Kathryn Grayson: 1950s' Jeanette MacDonald + Nelson Eddy?
Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in Show Boat: MGM musicals’ would-be Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy of the 1950s. In the 1951 Hollywood version of Show Boat, one of the most successful musicals of the decade, Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson have their big melodic-dramatic moment when they – their profiles magnified by George Sidney’s slowly approaching camera – jointly sing to each other the final lyrics of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Make Believe.” That’s not only a Show Boat highlight but also a high point in the history of movie musicals. Perhaps not coincidentally, that segment is reminiscent of – and, really, more stirring than – the climax of the “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” number sung by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in W.S. Van Dyke’s Academy Award-nominated 1935 MGM hit Naughty Marietta.

‘Show Boat’: First pairing with soprano-voiced Kathryn Grayson

Based on Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s celebrated 1927 Broadway musical, itself an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s bestseller of the previous year, Show Boat – previously filmed twice at Universal – would become another artistic and commercial triumph for the Arthur Freed-George Sidney duo.

With a screenplay by Metro veteran John Lee Mahin (Red Dust, Bombshell), the $2.39 million production marked the first pairing of Howard Keel and (top-billed) Kathryn Grayson, Gene Kelly’s soprano-voiced romantic interest in Sidney’s Academy Award-nominated 1945 blockbuster Anchors Aweigh – adjusted for inflation, an even bigger global hit than Annie Get Your Gun.

Furthermore, Show Boat marked the first MGM pairing of Broadway dancer and choreographer Gower Champion and his dance partner/wife, Marge Champion. The studio surely saw the possibility that the Grayson-Keel and Champion-Champion couples might evolve into the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers of the 1950s.

Indeed, back in 1942 Show Boat had been intended as a theatrical and, potentially, cinematic showcase for none other than MacDonald and Eddy. It should also be noted that MGM had already tried the MacDonald-Eddy rehash with Kathryn Grayson and then-Hollywood newcomer Mario Lanza, who had jointly starred in what turned out to be two critical and commercial disappointments, That Midnight Kiss (1949) and The Toast of New Orleans (1950).

Would the chemistry between Grayson and her new leading man result in box office fireworks this time around?

‘Comparisons are not in order’ – but…

Purists generally prefer Universal’s 1936 big-screen version of Show Boat, put together by the studio’s head of production, Carl Laemmle Jr.; directed by James Whale; starring Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, and, from the Broadway production, Helen Morgan; and more faithful to the original stage show – which, ironically, featured a “belated” happy ending not found in Edna Ferber’s novel (but found, also in 1936, in the MacDonald-Eddy musical melodrama Rose Marie).

Influential New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was clearly no purist, rhapsodizing in his review of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s resplendent 1951 color remake:

“Comparisons are not in order, out of due and solemn regard for the faithfully cherished memories of those who adored that previous film. For this Metro version of the great hit is so magnificent in so many ways, especially in its presentation of the lovely Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein 2d songs, that any comparative estimation would have to say it puts that other in the shade. …

“But candor compels the observation that Show Boat has never reached the screen (it was also done, you may remember, in 1929 [directed by Harry A. Pollard, and starring Laura La Plante, Joseph Schildkraut, and Helen Morgan]) in anything like the visual splendor and richness of musical score as are tastefully brought together in this brilliant recreation of the show.”

Life enriches art?

As the virile but self-destructive Mississippi riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal, Howard Keel is in solid form in Show Boat – in Crowther’s words, playing the part “with devilish charm and idyllic manliness.”

As a plus, Keel gets to belt out “Make Believe” and “Why Do I Love You” while duetting with and making love to an unexpectedly moving Kathryn Grayson – who had, to lesser effect, sung “Make Believe” with Tony Martin in MGM’s Arthur Freed-produced, 1946 Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By.

Perhaps the performances of both Keel (at the time married to Oklahoma! chorus girl Helen Anderson) and Grayson (at the time separated from her husband, actor/singer Johnnie Johnston) were enhanced by real-life circumstances. According to Keel’s autobiography, Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business, the two began a romantic liaison during filming. “It was torture for Katie and me to pretend to be just good friends,” he would recall, “when our love for each other grew and grew.”

Also ever-expanding was Show Boat’s box office take. The remake earned MGM an impressive $7.62 million in worldwide rentals ($5.29 million domestically[1]) – in the genre, second only (not adjusted for inflation) to Annie Get Your Gun.

So, had Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer found its unshakably profitable, mid-century singing lovebirds?

See below the Show Boat 1951 trailer, with Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner (as the “mulatto” Julie, with singing voice by Annette Warren; earlier on, the role had been intended for Judy Garland), Joe E. Brown, Agnes Moorehead, Robert Sterling, Gower and Marge Champion, and William Warfield singing “Ol’ Man River.”

‘Lovely to Look At’: Jerome Kern inspires lush Howard Keel & Kathryn Grayson reunion

Following Show Boat, Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson were reunited in another MGM rendition of a Jerome Kern Broadway hit based on a literary source and filmed elsewhere in the 1930s: Lovely to Look At (1952), from Kern and Otto Harbach’s 1933 musical Roberta, itself an adaptation of author/screenwriter Alice Duer Miller’s novel Gowns by Roberta, published that same year.

The first stage-to-screen transfer had taken place at RKO in 1935. Directed by mid-level artisan William A. Seiter, the slightly-above-routine but commercially successful production starred the 1936 Show Boat’s Irene Dunne as a fashion designer at a top Paris gown shop, Roberta, whose American owner (Helen Westley) dies without leaving a will.

Supporting Dunne were square-jawed Randolph Scott as her love interest and Roberta’s new owner, and, as comic relief/specialty dance number performers, box office draws Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Troubled MGM spares no expense

Several years earlier intended as a vehicle for Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Betty Garrett, Lovely to Look At – named after the Oscar-nominated song Jerome Kern and lyricists Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh had composed specifically for the 1935 film – was envisioned as a more elaborate endeavor than the original Hollywood version.

Despite the tough times – in the aftermath of the advent of television and the United States v. Paramount Pictures antitrust decision – MGM, about to begin the process of divestment from its parent company, distributor Loews, Inc., seemingly spared no expense. Studio head Dore Schary may have preferred “serious-minded” films, but for the most part Metro’s musicals had remained reliable moneymakers.

With color cinematography by George J. Folsey, art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Gabriel Scognamillo, dance choreography by Hermes Pan (Fred Astaire’s dance collaborator on Roberta), and costumes by Adrian, Lovely to Look At did justice to its name. Under the guidance of Vincente Minnelli, a lengthy fashion parade – reminiscent of the one seen in the studio’s The Women back in 1939 – had a reported $100,000 price tag.

In all, the Jack Cummings production cost a hefty, Arthur Freed-caliber $2.81 million (vs. Roberta’s $610,000 budget; or about $1.2 million in the early 1950s).

Lovely to Look At: Howard Keel Kathryn Grayson musicals from blockbuster to flops
Howard Keel musicals: Lovely to Look At with Kathryn Grayson. After Show Boat, MGM reunited Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson in one of the studio’s most opulent musicals of the 1950s: Lovely to Look At (1952), featuring more Jerome Kern music and directed by veteran Mervyn LeRoy, whose credits included Warner Bros.’ peppy Gold Diggers of 1933. Perhaps exhausted after witnessing Rome go up in flames in his mega-blockbuster Quo Vadis, LeRoy seemingly had no energy left for Lovely to Look At, a handsome but lethargic all-star mix of music, dancing, romance, comedy, drama, and fashion. In the form of imaginary mirror apparitions, Howard Keel has the thankless task of singing the otherwise fine title song, but Kathryn Grayson at least gets the chance to deliver a capable – as a singer (less so as an actress) – rendition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

Stellar cast & ‘name’ screenwriters

To boot, Lovely to Look At boasted a stellar cast, even if of more modest wattage than initially planned: top-billed Kathryn Grayson, who, once again, has her heart broken and patched up before the final fadeout; Howard Keel, doing both the breaking and the patching up while attempting to put on a show at his deceased aunt’s chic but bankrupt dress salon (a radical plot departure from the original), along the way getting the chance to belt out the title song as a one-man quartet; plus a clownish Red Skelton (second billed), unfailing show-stopper Ann Miller, Astaire-Rogers-like dancers Gower and Marge Champion, and a French-speaking Zsa Zsa Gabor in her film debut.

Future Academy Award winner George Wells (Designing Woman, 1957) and veteran lyricist/screenwriter Harry Ruby (Oscar-nominated for the song “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” from The Strip, 1951) penned the Roberta adaptation (the very one that had been originally intended for Garland, Kelly, and Sinatra), with additional dialogue by Andrew Solt (The Jolson Story, Little Women).

Major artistic & professional letdown

Yet something failed to gel. One key problem for Lovely to Look At is the rusty direction of veteran Mervyn LeRoy (Best Director Oscar nominee for Random Harvest, 1942), who had handled several Warner Bros. musicals of the 1930s (e.g., Gold Diggers of 1933, Happiness Ahead), but whose previous effort in the genre had been the Irene Dunne star vehicle Sweet Adeline – back in 1935, the same year the original Roberta came out.

In spite of its name cast, Jerome Kern’s music, and all the production values that MGM’s money could buy, Lovely to Look At was a major letdown, especially when compared to Keel and Grayson’s earlier pairing. Prestige names or no, there would be no Academy Award nominations. (Show Boat had been shortlisted in two categories; Annie Get Your Gun in four, winning for Best Scoring of a Musical Motion Picture.)

But the eventual absence of Oscar nods was less of a blow to MGM than the fact that, directed by the man whose preceding effort – the Ancient Rome epic Quo Vadis – had become one of the studio’s biggest moneymakers ever, their illustrious and pricy color musical had wound up a significant money-loser: a relatively modest $3.77 million in worldwide rentals resulted in a not-at-all-modest $735,000 loss.[1]

Lovely to Look At undoubtedly made Metro’s brass aware that the Kathryn Grayson-Howard Keel team might not be destined to become the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy of the decade after all.

“Howard Keel Musicals: Box Office Ups & Downs Emblematic of Genre Woes in 1950s Hollywood” follow-up post: “MGM Musicals Box Office Fail: Could Howard Keel Career Be Rescued After Three Consecutive Flops?

Howard Keel musicals: Box office

[1] Show Boat and Lovely to Look At budget (not including marketing or distribution expenses) and box office† figures via online sources citing MGM’s Eddie Mannix Ledger and the Ledger itself, found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library.

Roberta’s budget via online sources citing Richard Jewel’s article “RKO Film Grosses: 1931-1951,” found in the Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Vol. 14 No. 1, 1994.

† “Rentals” refers to the studios’ share of their films’ total box office gross.

For information on the inflation-adjusted box office figures of several Howard Keel musicals, check out: Howard Keel: ‘Dallas’ Resurgence Following Abrupt Downfall.

Publicity shot of Howard Keel, seen in musicals of the 1950s: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Image of Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in Show Boat: MGM.

Image of Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in Lovely to Look At: MGM.

Show Boat 1951 trailer with Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson: MGM.

“Howard Keel Musicals: Box Office Ups & Downs Emblematic of Genre Woes in 1950s Hollywood” last updated in June 2019.

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