Mention Howard Keel, Gene Nelson or Gordon MacRae and you immediately think of the 1950s when movie musicals seemed to have reached a pinnacle (only to disappear from sight as the decade ended.)
Howard and Gordon, glorious singers, Gene a great dancer.View them in any of their top musicals and you see performers at the top of their form – Howard in KISS ME KATE or SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS: Gordon in OKLAHOMA or CAROUSEL: Gene in TEA FOR TWO or LULLABY OF BROADWAY.
But all three performers dipped their feet into the murky waters of strictly no singing,no dancing dramas.How did they do?
Gordon ,surprisingly ,although hired by Warners for musicals,made his screen debut in 1948 in THE BIG PUNCH. I should make allowances for his inexperience, but as a boxer who throws fights, he just didn’t impress me. In 1950 he made BACKFIRE as a recovering war veteran trying to help his buddy, Edmond O’Brien.
In both films, Gordon seemed to fade into the background,especially with a costar like O’Brien.
But,oh, how he came to life when he,opened his lungs and let rip with that glorious tenor voice in his big Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. His Billy Bigelow in CAROUSEL is so moving. And his rendition of “Birth of the Blues” in THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE” is spine tingling.
Two of Howard Keel’s non musical films were made in England- FLOODS OF FEAR in 1958 and DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS in 1962. I thought he was a convincing lead in both. I haven’t seen his 1950 film, DESPERATE SEARCH. I also remember him being funny in 1967’s THE WAR WAGON , as an Indian!
Gene Nelson also made a couple of low budget dramas in England, both in 1955 – TIMESLIP and DIAL 999. He was ok,nothing more.
In 1954, he made CRIME WAVE,playing an ex-con being pursued by the cops and his ex prison pals. I thought Gene was totally overshadowed by Hayden as the mean cop who won’t believe Gene has reformed.
And then I remember his relaxed style and smooth footwork with Doris Day or Virginia Mayo: or his comedy turn as Will Parker in Oklahoma,singing and dancing about “Kansas City”.
I was amazed to read how much acting and directing Gene did on TV in the 50s,60s and 70s.
My conclusion? In drama, the three actors were adequate. In musicals, they were dynamite!
By the way, it is ages since I last saw Day of the Triffids. My recollection is it ought to have been up there with INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS- but it wasn’t .