The Gods Grown Old: 1 – Howard Keel

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The hair and moustache are grey, the voice not as powerful as it once was and he has to contend with Brucie arseing about but the easy-going personality and a magnetic quality that only the very best stars possess still shines through. Singing a medley of songs from ‘Oklahoma‘, joining in with the fun atmosphere of the Might Atom’s show and giving it the full, rousing finale is the fabulous Howard Keel.

Howard Keel was the epitome of the tall, dark and handsome leading man. In the 1950s he played a series of dashing (normally moustachioed) but flawed men with an arrogant streak. They normally came good in the end, though, and his beautifully rich basso cantante voice fitted with his image as a gentle, romantic giant He was the go-to-guy for the musical western due to his impressive physique and ability to play the stubborn, self-confident macho man who was in love with the leading lady but was damned if he was going to admit it.

Having wowed Broadway and the West End as Curly in ‘Oklahoma‘, Keel, like all the very best talent Broadway had to offer, was picked up on contract by MGM. His first major motion picture was ‘Annie Get Your Gun‘ (1950) where he starred alongside the human whirlwind Betty Hutton. The two paired up for one of the cinema’s greatest duets – ‘Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better‘.

Next up was ‘Show Boat‘ (1951), and a first role for Keel opposite Kathryn Grayson. They were perfectly suited due to the light operatic quality of their voices. They starred with one another again in 1953 in the tremendous Cole Porter musical ‘Kiss Me, Kate‘ as warring exes whose love-hate relationship threatens the stage production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew‘ they are appearing in. (It’s a really excellent film, not as well-known as some of MGMs other output of that era, but up there with the best in my opinion).

Alongside these highly successful movies, Keel was also being cast in lower-budget straight westerns and second-rate musicals. He was even being loaned out to other studios. One such loan, however, gave Keel one of his most memorable roles as Wild Bill Hickok in ‘Calamity Jane‘ (1953). Doris Day was the star and the whole film (produced by Warner Brothers) was heavily ‘influenced’ by ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ but it gave Keel one particularly great song with which to show off his talents.

Back at MGM, Keel starred in a lively remake of ‘Rose Marie‘ (1954) and the fantasy musical ‘Kismet‘ (1955) both opposite the now virtually forgotten female star Ann Blyth. In between he made perhaps his best musical, ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers‘ (1954). As head of the titular family, Keel lights up the screen with some great songs. The other six brothers were played by dancers, charming Jane Powell is his wife and the mix is spot-on. Whether he is persuading his lovesick siblings to take the bull by the horns in matters of the heart or looking to do the same himself, he and that booming voice are perfect for the role.

The musical film genre was in poor health by the mid-1950s and Keel’s career faded fast and he returned to the stage. There was the occasional film and TV appearance and his career gained an unexpected boost with a role in the phenomenally popular 1980s US soap ‘Dallas. Keel’s musical career benefitted with a series of albums selling well and sold-out concert tours of the UK. Keel loved the UK and after his death in 2004 some of his ashes were scattered at Liverpool Airport. Here’s another clip of Keel performing in England in his later years. It’s the Queen Mother’s birthday and who better to perform some broadway classics?


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