Home Classic Movies MGM Musicals Box Office Fail: Could Howard Keel Career Be Rescued After Three Consecutive Flops?

MGM Musicals Box Office Fail: Could Howard Keel Career Be Rescued After Three Consecutive Flops?

Howard Keel MGM musicals: Texas Carnival publicity shot with Esther Williams. In his MGM musicals of the 1950s, Howard Keel was almost always paired with small, girl-like leading ladies – Betty Hutton, Kathryn Grayson, Ann Blyth, Jane Powell – which at times made the broad-shouldered, six-foot-three actor-singer look less like their love interest than their lover daddy. Equally broad-shouldered, five-foot-eight Esther Williams was an exception; the big-sized big-screen couple were seen in three MGM musicals: Pagan Love Song (1950), Texas Carnival (1951), and Jupiter’s Darling (1955). In his autobiography, Keel would remember the Easy to Wed and Easy to Love star as “very easy to work with.”

See previous post about actor-singer Howard Keel and the ups and downs of the MGM musicals of the 1950s: “Howard Keel Musicals: Box Office Ups & Downs Emblematic of Genre Woes in 1950s Hollywood.”

Howard Keel: Unstable professional path as Golden Age of the MGM musicals not so spotlessly shiny

A good marker for the start of the Golden Age of the (color) MGM musicals would be the year 1943. With the United States still embroiled in World War II, Louis B. Mayer’s studio released a couple of escapist titles – in radiant Technicolor – that found wide acceptance among the moviegoing public: Du Barry Was a Lady and the all-star Thousands Cheer.

Exuberant color musicals – sporadic Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer endeavors until then (e.g., the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy vehicles Sweethearts and Bitter Sweet; much of The Wizard of Oz) – would become the studio’s most prominent offerings in the ensuing years.

While the war was still raging, American moviegoers (and later on, international audiences) could find temporary refuge from reports about bombed-out cities, incinerated bodies, and all-around human savagery while watching the likes of Judy Garland, Red Skelton, Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, and Kathryn Grayson sing, dance, and/or swim in blockbusters such as Meet Me in St. Louis, Bathing Beauty, Anchors Aweigh, and Ziegfeld Follies.

Post-WWII formula

The formula remained the same in the postwar years, with most MGM musicals offering a colorful mix of singing, dancing, romancing, and fluff.

Titles included The Harvey Girls, Till the Clouds Roll By, Easy to Wed, Holiday in Mexico, Good News, Fiesta, A Date with Judy, Easter Parade, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, The Barkleys of Broadway, Neptune’s Daughter, On the Town, Summer Stock, Nancy Goes to Rio, Three Little Words, Two Weeks with Love, Royal Wedding, An American in Paris, The Great Caruso, Singin’ in the Rain, and, co-starring Howard Keel, Annie Get Your Gun, Pagan Love Song, Texas Carnival, Lovely to Look At, and the unusually dramatic/socially conscious Show Boat.

Several of these became instant classics; others were meant to be unambitious crowd-pleasers. In the 1940s, most were profitable – a number of them, immensely so. Mishaps like the Fred Astaire-Lucille Bremer bomb Yolanda and the Thief ($1.64 million in the red) and the Frank Sinatra-Kathryn Grayson disaster The Kissing Bandit (a mammoth $2.64 million loss), were glaring exceptions.

Things took a swift downturn following the meteoric rise of television set ownership and radical social and political changes not only in the United States but elsewhere as well, including those – e.g., the antitrust Paramount Decree, blocked international funds, tariffs – directly affecting the bottom line of the Hollywood studios, which saw their earnings plummet from their 1946–1947 peak.

In the musical genre, Howard Keel, with two major international blockbusters (Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat) and a third solid hit (Texas Carnival) on his resumé, had been quite lucky until Lovely to Look At. But during this increasingly tenuous era – not helped by the fact that most of his non-musicals (Callaway Went Thataway, Desperate Search, Fast Company) had flopped – Keel needed a strong boost to his box office standing.

Howard Keel Kiss Me Kate Kathryn Grayson: MGM musicals go totally metaHoward Keel’s MGM musicals: Kiss Me Kate with Kathryn Grayson. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther raved about the third and last of Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson’s MGM musicals, George Sidney’s Kiss Me Kate, noting that “together they’re smooth and melodious in the romantic ‘So In Love’ and deliciously arch and sprightly in the rolicking ‘Wunderbar.’” Also in the cast: Ron Randell as Cole Porter, Keenan Wynn, James Whitmore, Bobby Van, Tommy Rall, future Best Director Oscar winner Bob Fosse (Cabaret, 1972), and invariable show-stopper Ann Miller, who, at the film’s 3D screenings, likely made audiences recoil in horror each time she kicked her far-reaching legs in their direction.

‘Kiss Me Kate’: All-around meta musical

Despite its Arthur Freed “feel,” the upscale George Sidney-directed musical comedy Kiss Me Kate (1953) was, like Texas Carnival and Lovely to Look At, a Jack Cummings production.

Adapted by Dorothy Kingsley from Sam and Bella Spewack’s book for Cole Porter’s 1948 Tony Award-winning musical smash hit of the same name – actually, Kiss Me, Kate (with a comma) – the story revolves around a divorced musical-theater couple who, while rehearsing Porter’s (fictional) musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, spend more time bickering than singing.

Making it all even more meta, the Spewacks’ book was inspired not only by William Shakespeare’s play but also by its 1935 Broadway production, which starred the – then-bickering – husband-and-wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Besides, the tale shared key elements with MGM’s own Sweethearts, a 1938 stage-musical-within-a-movie-musical centered on doting-turned-squabbling lovebirds Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

For the Hollywood translation of that meta pile-up, Howard Keel, once again taking over a role originated by Oklahoma’s Alfred Drake, would be reunited for the third time with Kathryn Grayson (Patricia Morison on Broadway).

Curiously, in his memoirs, Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business, Keel claims to have been “the last choice” to play the explosively grandiose male half of the warbling/warring couple. If true, that was at least partly because, according to Hedda Hopper, Jack Cummings had been “the most adamant of all” against casting his Texas Carnival and Lovely to Look At leading man. Keel is supposed to have won Cummings over after testing for the part.

Well-received box office disappointment

Irrespective of its self-reflective plot and casting issues, Kiss Me Kate has a special place in film history – alongside the Paramount-distributed Those Redheads from Seattle and RKO’s The French Line – as one of the precious few mid-20th-century Hollywood musicals shot in 3D.

The added production cost – filming had to be conducted from different angles, as they were also shooting a flat version – proved to be a bad investment for MGM, as the 3D fad was on a downswing. Most Kiss Me Kate screenings, in fact, were in the regular format.

Whether in 3D or 2D, the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther enthused:

“William Shakespeare, Sam and Bella Spewack, Cole Porter and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, not to mention Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and two or three dozen other folks, may share the honors among them for one of the year’s more magnificent musical films, Kiss Me Kate… For this gay Technicolored film rendering of the big splashy musical show, which kept Shakespeare’s name on the theatre-boards of New York for a longer run than it had ever had before, is a beautifully staged, adroitly acted and really superbly sung affair – better, indeed, if one may say so, than the same frolic was on the stage.”

Notwithstanding the warm critical reception and the name cast’s energetic performances – Grayson and Keel are clearly having a grand time, while Ann Miller stops the show with the song-and-dance number “Too Darn Hot” – Kiss Me Kate failed to become MGM’s hoped-for hit. After earning the studio a disappointing $3.11 million in worldwide rentals ($2.01 million in the U.S. and Canada), the $1.98 million-budget musical comedy ended up $544,000 in the red.[1]

Unsurprisingly, Kiss Me Kate turned out to be the last pairing of Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson. It was also the latter’s final MGM film.

Howard Keel Calamity Jane Doris Day: Wild Bill Hickok not-at-all look-alikeHoward Keel in Calamity Jane with Doris Day: the MGM actor-singer’s sole movie musical away from the Culver City lot. One of the best-known Howard Keel musicals is a … Doris Day musical – to boot, one not made at MGM: Calamity Jane. In this David Butler-directed musical Western, the blonde, blue-eyed, white-teethed Warner Bros. star has the title role while Keel plays her guy pal and eventual romantic interest, Wild Bill Hickok. Keel, of course, looked nothing like Hickok (in the picture above he looks instead like silent era leading man turned talkie era B Western star George O’Brien), but why should that matter in a lively – and facts-averse – musical comedy? In her autobiography, Doris Day: My Own Story, Day would recall enjoying “a great working relationship” with her Calamity Jane co-star, who, at one point in the film, is seen in drag as a (six-foot-three) squaw.

MGM Musicals: 1950s flops no longer ‘glaring exceptions’

By 1953, MGM musicals, generally costly productions, were no longer all-but-foolproof box office draws. As a consequence, sizable commercial flops like Lovely to Look At and Kiss Me Kate could no longer be perceived as “glaring exceptions.”

The studio’s 1952–1953 in-the-red list also included The Belle of New York ($1.57 million loss) and The Band Wagon ($1.18 million), both with Fred Astaire; I Love Melvin ($290,000) and the low-budget The Affairs of Dobie Gillis ($131,000), both with Debbie Reynolds; and Everything I Have Is Yours ($459,000), starring Gower and Marge Champion, who MGM must have realized would never become their in-house Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Even Stanley Donen’s 1952 Gene Kelly showcase, Singin’ in the Rain, one of the best-remembered classic Hollywood musicals, was only half as profitable ($666,000 in the black) as the previous year’s An American in Paris ($1.3 million) – even though the latter had been the pricier production ($2.5 vs. $2.7 million).

Howard Keel: Career crossroads as MGM musicals falter

In 1954, about half a dozen years after his arrival in Hollywood, Howard Keel was in dire need of a hit. No less than four of his past six releases had been money-losers; besides Lovely to Look At and Kiss Me Kate, the aforementioned low-budget non-musicals Desperate Search and Fast Company had also flopped.

John Farrow’s serious-minded 1953 Western Ride Vaquero! – in which Keel, as Ava Gardner’s rancher husband, delivers what is likely the most well-rounded portrayal of his career – and, that same year, David Butler’s musical Western Calamity Jane, made while on loan to Warner Bros., had been Keel’s only two sturdy performers.

Even then, with caveats: the former title focuses on the extra-marital sparks between Gardner and Robert Taylor; the latter has as its focal point the titular is-she-or-isn’t-she tomboy played by Doris Day.

The wrong musical at the wrong time

Unfortunately for Howard Keel, Rose Marie (1954), an adaptation of Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1924 operetta[2] with music by Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart, was the wrong vehicle to help restore his Hollywood standing.

Keel himself had been none too pleased with the role of Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Mike Malone. “I told my agent, ‘I’m not doing Rose Marie. I read the script, and the Mounty part is a jerk,’” he would recall in Only Make Believe, adding that Metro’s 1936 Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy version of the tale[2] was “Academy Award material compared to this script.” His mind was changed once alterations were made to the screenplay.

‘The first great musical in CinemaScope’

Partly shot at California’s Mammoth Lakes (dubbing for the Canadian Rockies) and in Alberta’s Jasper Park (possibly only second-unit photography), and featuring an array of new tunes (by Friml, Paul Francis Webster, George Stoll, and Herbert Baker) plus an Indian “totem dance” choreographed by veteran Busby Berkeley, Mervyn LeRoy’s[3] expensive but uninspired MGM swan song, billed by the studio as “the first great musical in CinemaScope,” ended its run $284,000 in the red (admittedly, in spite of a solid $5.27 million in worldwide rentals).[1]

Adding insult to injury, Keel’s upstanding Mountie loses the girl (top-billed Ann Blyth) to surly-looking fur-trapper Fernando Lamas, who also happens to be the one joining the tomboyish heroine in the “Indian Love Call” duet.

See below the 1954 Rose Marie trailer with Ann Blyth, Howard Keel, Fernando Lamas, Marjorie Main, Bert Lahr, and Joan Taylor in one of MGM’s costliest ($2.98 million) musicals of that era.

Money-losing singing star

After starring in three consecutive money-losing MGM musicals – and not even getting the girl in one of them – what could possibly take place to help steady Howard Keel’s ever wobblier career?

Well, a musical produced and directed by the talent responsible for the late 1953 bomb Give a Girl a Break – respectively, Jack Cummings (also of the flops Lovely to Look At and Kiss Me Kate) and Stanley Donen (of Singin’ in the Rain fame, and Love Is Better Than Ever and Fearless Fagan infamy) – and co-starring MGM ingenue Jane Powell, the lead in another 1953 dud, Small Town Girl, might just turn out to be the professional boost Howard Keel so desperately needed.

“MGM Musicals Box Office Fail: Could Howard Keel Career Be Rescued After Three Consecutive Flops?” follow-up post: “Howard Keel: Height of Career with Sleeper Blockbuster ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’.”

Howard Keel’s MGM musicals: Box office info

[1] Kiss Me Kate and Rose Marie* budget (which don’t include marketing or distribution expenses) and box office† figures, and those of other Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer titles mentioned in the text above, were collected by way of 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.

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

* Of note, even taking (estimated) marketing and distribution expenditures into account, it’s unclear why Rose Marie lost money, as it’s supposed to have cost $2.98 million and, as referenced in the text above, earned MGM $5.27 million in worldwide rentals.

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

‘Rose Marie’: Two MGM musicals & one silent + producer mishmash

[2] W.S. Van Dyke directed the hugely successful – and radically altered – 1936 Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy version of Rose Marie, which also featured James Stewart in a variation of the role played by Fernando Lamas in the 1954 film.

Also at MGM, a 1928 silent version, Rose-Marie (with a hyphen, like the stage operetta), was headlined by Joan Crawford, James Murray, and House Peters. Lucien Hubbard directed.

[3] Rose Marie 1954 was released without a producer’s credit. As found on the AFI Catalog, involved in the production at some time or other were Mervyn LeRoy, Jack Cummings, and veterans Arthur Hornblow Jr. (High Wide and Handsome, Million Dollar Mermaid) and Lawrence Weingarten (The Broadway Melody, Balalaika).

Howard Keel quote about Esther Williams found in Ken Mandelbaum’s review of Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business.

Doris Day quote about her Calamity Jane co-star via this Day-devoted website.

Image of Esther Williams and Howard Keel in one of his first MGM musicals, Texas Carnival: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel Kiss Me Kate image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Doris Day and Howard Keel Calamity Jane image: Warner Bros.

“MGM Musicals Box Office Fail: Could Howard Keel Career Be Rescued After Three Consecutive Flops?” last updated in June 2019.

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