Howard Keel accused of being ‘terrible’ to Betty Hutton on set of Fifties hit

Howard Keel is interviewed by Bruce Forsyth in 1993

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Howard stars in ‘Calamity Jane’ on BBC Two this afternoon at 1:50pm. Set in the lonely town of Deadwood, cowgirl Calamity Jane falls for cavalry lieutenant Danny Gilmartin after she rescues him from a group of Native Americans. However, when the sharpshooter — played by Doris Day — then brings back a famous Chicago singer for the Deadwood saloon, Danny falls for the newcomer.

Jane is heartbroken, all but ignoring her jovial friend Wild Bill Hickok, played by Howard.

The US born actor, known for his rich bass-baritone voice, starred in a number of MGM musicals in the Fifties, while his career enjoyed an Indian summer three decades later when Howard became the star of ‘Dallas’.

Howard moved from London’s West End to Hollywood in 1949 and a year later made his musical film debut in ‘Annie Get Your Gun’, co-starring Betty. 

The film saw Howard portray Annie’s romantic interest, Wild West maskman Frank Butler.

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It became a hit and established both Betty and Howard as stars of the decade.

However, on set, there were problems. 

Howard broke an ankle during rehearsals which meant that Judy Garland, who was initially cast as the film’s lead, had to carry the shoot. 

But Judy was under intense emotional strain from her private life, and was at odds with the film’s director Busby Berkeley, who she had previously worked with in ‘Babes in Arms’ and ‘For Me and My Gal’.

She is said to have started to arrive late on the set, and at times did not show up at all.

After several weeks she was fired, and her replacement, Betty, claimed she had been poorly treated on set.

Speaking to Turner Classic Movies in 2000 she recalled: “The cast were awful to me. 

“They wanted Judy in the part. Howard Keel, they were just terrible to me.

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“Anne was the heartbreak of my life. 

“I wanted that picture so badly, and had the worst experience.”

However, Howard remembered things differently, insisting in his memoirs that Betty was difficult to work with. 

He said that Betty “upstaged everyone in every scene.” 

Howard added: “George Sidney [who replaced Busby Berkeley as director] held her down as much as he could [but] she was a fistful.”

Later in the book he said that his Calamity Jane co-star Doris “would have been a much better Annie”.

Despite the behind the scenes upheavals, the film was one of the most lively Hollywood musicals of the period. 

Betty’s performance was lauded while ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ turned out to be one of the biggest money makers of the Fifties, as well as Metro’s most commercially successful releases.

Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business was written by Howard Keel and published by Barricade books in 2005. You can find it here. 

Watch ‘Calamity Jane’ on BBC Two this afternoon at 1:50pm.

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