There was only one Howard Keel. In Classic Hollywood’s glittering constellation of stars, there were plenty of tall, hunky leading men. There were singers too, with soft crooning voices (Bing Crosby and Dick Powell), and The Voice himself, Frank Sinatra. But there was only one hunky man with the rich baritone, and that was Howard Keel.
In the landscape of Hollywood musicals, the technicolor MGM musicals reigned supreme. Howard Keel appeared in some of the splashiest musicals of the 1950s, both at MGM and not, that operatic voice soaring in each song, that appeal of his always reliably virile. Surprisingly, he didn’t always sing in the movies.
In Callaway Went Thataway (1951), there are two Howard Keels, but neither of them sing. One of them is classic Keel; a jerk. My friend pointed out to me that he played unlikable characters a lot of the time. But you still love him anyway.
Deborah Patterson (Dorothy McGuire) and Mike Frye (Fred MacMurray) are two marketing execs for a TV network that airs reruns of a popular western show. Their bosses have been nagging them to locate the star, Smoky Callaway, who disappeared from the spotlight some time ago. Their prayers are answered when they find a Smoky lookalike; a cowboy named Stretch Barnes (Keel).
Stretch is an unassuming humble guy who just wants to live the simple life. His friends have been making fun of him because he and Smoky look so much alike. When Deb and Mike appear on his ranch, offering him the chance to impersonate a famous TV star, he refuses. He isn’t interested in stardom or even the money. But eventually he’s coaxed into it. The only trouble is that the real Smoky has been located. And he isn’t at all pleased with the imposter.
Smoky is a belligerent drunk. He’s spent a lot of time in Hollywood and has become an arrogant, uncouth, womanizing star. This dual role was a great one for Howard Keel, because he was able to portray two very different types quite effectively. It’s great to see him as both a bumbling sweetheart and a boozy cad.
Stretch gets so invested in the job and all those little kids who idolize him. He even sets up a charity so that his paycheck will instead go to the kids and not him. Just the kind of sweet cowboy every red blooded American girl dreams of. And Smoky…well, let’s just say he won’t be returning to the spotlight any time soon.
There’s a great scene where the two are fighting, and Mike Frye ends up between their fists quite accidentally. It makes me want to see Fred MacMurray in more comedies.
Although Keel proved himself more than capable in non musical roles, I do still wish he sang a little in this. Then he could have looked and sounded silly. (You can catch a brief glimpse of him as a singing cowboy in Texas Carnival, if that’s something you really need in your life).
Callaway Went Thataway is a pretty hokey film, and also a good natured send up of all those popular cowboy TV shows. And it’s worth it for double the Howard Keel.
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