Howard Keel: Brief but memorable MGM career epitomizes the ups & downs of the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s
Actor and singer Howard Keel is best remembered for his larger-than-life characters – both figuratively and, to some extent, literally – in Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and other Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals of the first half of the 1950s; for his portrayal of a musically inclined Wild Bill Hickok in Warner Bros.’ song-filled Western Calamity Jane; and for playing Miss Ellie Ewing’s strong-willed second husband, wealthy rancher and oilman Clayton Farlow, in the long-running 1980s TV soap Dallas.
Although never a top Hollywood name, the good-looking, powerfully built, deep-voiced performer – “a big hunk of masculinity with a voice to match,” in the words of influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper – was the 1950s’ big-screen embodiment of brawny, sexually alluring American manliness, as displayed in musicals in which his heroes sang with, made love to, and tamed and/or were tamed by the likes of Betty Hutton, Kathryn Grayson, Doris Day, and Jane Powell.
An effective performer when given the chance, Howard Keel also had the distinction of having been one of the few male “operatic” vocalists – along with Nelson Eddy, Allan Jones, Dennis Morgan, and Gordon MacRae – to enjoy a steady, albeit brief, film career.
Keel’s relatively fleeting mid-20th-century movie stardom – a meteoric rise followed by a precipitous crash – serves as a representation of the roller-coaster appeal of the Hollywood musical genre during that period.
‘Rotten childhood’ & ‘bitter temper’
Born Harry Clifford Keel (some sources erroneously have him as Harold Clifford Leek; see comment further below) on April 13, 1919, in Gillespie, Illinois, Howard Keel once remarked about his early years:
I had a terrible, rotten childhood. My father [a rough, alcoholic coal miner] made away with himself when I was 11. I had no guidance, and Mom was six feet tall, bucktoothed and very tough. I was mean and rebellious and had a terrible, bitter temper. I got a job as an auto mechanic, and I would have stayed in that narrow kind of life if I hadn’t discovered art. Music changed me completely.
In the mid-1930s, when Harry Keel was in his mid-teens, his family moved to Los Angeles. Some time later, he began taking voice-training lessons, which came in handy when he started working as a singing waiter, and, more importantly, when he began landing roles in musical theater productions.
‘Carousel’ & ‘Oklahoma!’
Besides changing his personality, the world of art also led him to change his name from Harry to Harold. As Harold Keel, he was cast as the replacement male lead in two landmark Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II Broadway musicals of the 1940s, Carousel and Oklahoma! – taking over from John Raitt in the former and Alfred Drake in the latter.
In his posthumously published autobiography Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business (written with Joyce Spizer), Keel would recall, “I not only sang beautifully [in Carousel,] I gave much more of an acting performance than John Raitt did.” Regarding Oklahoma!, he felt that “after playing a part like Billy Bigelow [also in Carousel], playing Curly was kind of a comedown.”
Even so, Keel would score a personal hit as Curly in the 1947 London production of Oklahoma!, staged at the West End’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. That success would lead to a seven-year Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract.
From Harold to Howard Keel
Harold Keel’s only screen credit up to that time had been as an escaped convict who takes married couple Valerie Hobson and James Donald as hostages in Fergus McDonell’s British thriller The Small Voice / The Hideout (1948), shot while Keel was appearing in Oklahoma! in England.
Unsurprisingly, upon his arrival at MGM in 1948, the musical-stage import, as far as American moviegoers were concerned, was a nonentity. So much so that the West Coast-based gossiper Hedda Hopper mistakenly referred to him as Howard Keel in one of her columns. The name stuck.
And just like in the movies, the rebranded 29-year-old Hollywood newcomer – tall, handsome, and gifted with a robust bass-baritone voice – was about to kick off his big-screen career near the very top: co-starring with one of Metro’s most popular stars in one of its most anticipated productions of the year, the film version of Irving Berlin’s 1946 Broadway hit Annie Get Your Gun.
Heyday of the MGM musical
In the mid-20th century, MGM musicals were at the height of their popularity and prestige. Many of the studio’s biggest names of the post-World War II era – Judy Garland, June Allyson, Van Johnson, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Esther Williams, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Leslie Caron, Red Skelton, Cyd Charisse, Frank Sinatra – were either musical stars or had begun their movie careers as such.
One pivotal reason for MGM’s unparalleled success in this particular genre was the work of three producers:
- Studio co-founder and head of production Louis B. Mayer’s nephew Jack Cummings, who generally handled routine but crowd-pleasing fare (e.g., the vastly profitable Esther Williams aqua-musicals Bathing Beauty, Easy to Wed, Fiesta, Neptune’s Daughter) before tackling more ambitious efforts like Lovely to Look At, Kiss Me Kate, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
- Universal import Joe Pasternak, best remembered for developing the career of soprano-voiced girl wonder Deanna Durbin, one of Hollywood’s top box office draws from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s. At MGM since 1942, Pasternak spent much of his time at the studio trying to come up with another Durbin by way of Kathryn Grayson (Seven Sweethearts, Anchors Aweigh, Two Sisters from Boston, That Midnight Kiss) and, chiefly, “all-American girl-next-door” Jane Powell (Holiday in Mexico, A Date with Judy, Three Daring Daughters, Nancy Goes to Rio) in a series of watchable but mostly ordinary musicals.
- Former songwriter Arthur Freed, responsible for the bulk of the studio’s upscale song-and-dance productions of the era – among them Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway, On the Town, Best Picture Oscar winner An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon – which allowed him to use top talent both in front (Garland, Astaire, Kelly, Ginger Rogers, etc.) and behind the camera (George Sidney, Rouben Mamoulian, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, Charles Walters).
Arthur Freed was thus the man to bring Annie Get Your Gun to fruition. The project was to be directed by veteran Busby Berkeley (Gold Diggers of 1935, The Gang’s All Here) from a screenplay by future best-selling author Sidney Sheldon, adapting Dorothy and Herbert Fields’ musical book. Judy Garland, stepping into Ethel Merman’s Broadway shoes, was set to star as the gun-getting titular character, Old West sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
‘Annie Get Your Gun’: Troubled + costly production
In Annie Get Your Gun, Howard Keel was to portray Annie’s romantic interest, Wild West variety show marksman Frank Butler, the first of Keel’s larger-than-life movie-musical characters. In all, this was a fantastic opportunity – but there would be a double price to pay.
For starters, Keel recalled having to turn down the role of Lt. Joe Cable in the 1949 Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s smash hit South Pacific. William Tabbert landed the gig.
Next, there were problems on the set. Keel broke an ankle during rehearsals, which meant that Judy Garland, at the time under severe emotional strain, had at first to carry the shoot on her shaky shoulders.
Unable to stand the pressure – and at odds with Busby Berkeley, who had previously directed her in several MGM musicals (e.g., Babes in Arms, For Me and My Gal) – Garland began arriving late on the set; at times, not showing up at all. After several weeks, she was fired from the project.
Howard Keel vs. Betty Hutton
Judy Garland’s replacement was bouncy Paramount musical star Betty Hutton (Incendiary Blonde, The Perils of Pauline), who would recall the experience as an unpleasant one. “The cast were awful to me,” she would tell Turner Classic Movies’ Robert Osborne in 2000. “They wanted Judy in the part. … Howard Keel, they were just terrible to me. Annie was the heartbreak of my life. I wanted that picture so badly, and I had the worst experience.”
Keel, for his part, remembered things differently, asserting in his memoirs that Hutton “upstaged everyone in every scene. … George Sidney [who replaced Charles Walters who had replaced Busby Berkeley] held her down as much as he could, [but] she was a fistful.” Later in the book, he added that his Calamity Jane co-star, Doris Day, “would have been a much better Annie.”
Ultimately, the behind-the-scenes upheavals in no way diminished the final product’s A-list pedigree or its happy-go-lucky buoyancy. One of the liveliest Hollywood musicals of the period – in large part thanks to Betty Hutton herself – the costly Annie Get Your Gun ($3.74 million) turned out to be not only one of the biggest moneymakers of 1950 but also Metro’s most commercially successful release in the genre (not adjusted for inflation) up to that time: $7.75 million in worldwide rentals, of which $4.65 million in the domestic market.
Fast-lane to major Hollywood stardom?
As a consequence of the remarkable success of Annie Get Your Gun, Howard Keel seemed to be on his way to major movie stardom.
The early 1950s, however, were complicated times, not only at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer but everywhere in Hollywood – then besieged by the rapid proliferation of television sets, profound socioeconomic changes, and the aftereffects of the U.S. government’s Antitrust Case of 1948.
So, could major stardom still be achieved via the musical genre?
“Howard Keel: The Strong, Singing Type Embodied Rugged American Virility in Mid-Century MGM Musicals” follow-up post: “Howard Keel Musicals: Box Office Ups & Downs Emblematic of Genre Woes in 1950s Hollywood.”
Howard Keel movies’ box office
 Annie Get Your Gun budget (not including marketing or distribution expenses) and box office figures via online sources referencing Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Eddie Mannix Ledger, found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library. Bear in mind that “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 movies, check out: Howard Keel: ‘Dallas’ Resurgence Following Abrupt Downfall.
Hedda Hopper found in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, October 1954.
Howard Keel publicity shot: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Ava Gardner and Howard Keel Show Boat image: MGM.
Betty Hutton and Howard Keel Annie Get Your Gun image: MGM.
“Howard Keel: The Strong, Singing Type Embodied Rugged American Virility in Mid-Century MGM Musicals” last updated in June 2019.