Produced by Jack Cummings and directed by George Sidney, Cole Porter’s luminous stage hit, Kiss Me Kate arrived in 1953, given the big and glossy MGM treatment, costarring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel. Billed as ‘the first movie musical in 3D’, despite the fact Paramount had already released Those Redheads from Seattle almost two months before it, Kiss Me Kate is an urbane and erudite retread of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew; paralleling the Bard’s ribald stage bound romance between Kate and Petruchio with contemporary counterparts concocted by writers, Sam and Bella Spewack, carried over in Dorothy Kingsley’s screenplay. Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham are even more volatile in their behind-the-scenes love/hate relationship. Brushing up on their Shakespeare, the pair is reluctantly forced to work together after a particularly nasty divorce; Graham inadvertently beholding to a loan shark he knows nothing about, but who has sent his bumbler’s goon squad, Slug (James Whitmore) and Lippy (Keenan Wynn) to collect. In the meantime, Fred’s new love interest, the bubbly tap dancer, Lois Lane (Ann Miller) is torn between his affections and those she continues to harbor for slickster, Bill Calhoun (Tommy Rall). Bill’s a congenial enough fellow, if devil-may-care to a fault. But he is the one responsible for signing Graham’s name to a bunch of IOU’s. Predictably, everything turns out alright; Kiss Me Kate’s predictable plot never putting much of a strain on the outcome of this aristocratic mishmash. After all, it’s business as usual: boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy sings song and gets girl.
Its Shakespearean pedigree aside, Kiss Me Kate’s ace in the hole remains its piquant Cole Porter score. One of the wittiest tunesmiths, Porter’s immortal song book is a sophisticate’s daydream; Porter knowing too well the muddled intricacies of male/female intimacies and savoring both the tawdriness and hypocrisies in his tantalizing lyrics. Inevitably, some of these proved ‘too darn hot’ for the Hollywood censors; ‘adjusted’ to conform to their more sanitized view of sex. But enough of Porter’s tease remains intact to tickle the funny bone or any other appendage necessary to excite and ignite movie screen magic. Kiss Me Kate comes at a particularly fascinating juncture in the evolution of screen musicals. In the 1930’s Hollywood sought to compete with Broadway by hiring a good many of its Tin Pan Alley composers to write exclusively original material for the screen. By the early 1940’s Hollywood simply sought and bought up the rights to hit stage shows. For a while, the output of screen musicals toggled between those produced from borrowed stagecraft and those expressly conceived under the auspices of movie land ‘originality’. But, in the 1950’s, a radical shift was to occur.
Buffeted by changes on all sides, none conducive to the way business had been conducted a scant ten years earlier, the old-time moguls abandoned their uncertain bankability in creating homegrown confections, to instead concentrate on the cannibalization of Broadway’s sure fire presold titles for their own bread and butter. Kiss Me Kate was decidedly one of the more faithful adaptations to make it to the screen. An oddity plaguing most Broadway to Hollywood hybrids was that they underwent major revisions in both their plots and scores before making it to the big screen, often bearing little, or even no earthly resemblance to their roots. One can endless debate this executive logic ad nauseam. While it may be argued some of these movie adaptations decidedly benefited from such tinkering, the reality is quite a few proved wan ghost flowers of their former glories; periodically chastised by critics who, having seen both versions, were quick to judge the cinema’s reconstitutions as grossly inferior. Kiss Me Kate is decidedly the exception; a very solid A-list effort, retaining all but two of the stage play’s hit songs, but whose one misgiving remains the decision to photograph it in stereoscopic 3D; necessitating the usual quota of objects, limbs and other things being flung into the camera lens to create equilibrium-altering illusions in depth perception.
To this end, Cedric Gibbons and Urie McCleary’s production design is an ersatz 50’s time warp. Viewing Kiss Me Kate today, its ‘contemporary’ sets for the Shakespearean show within this show have awkwardly dated since. What seemed the height of chic good taste back in 1953 – even revolutionary for a brief wrinkle in time, decidedly catering to 3D – now appears quaintly static and unsettling to our postmodern aesthetic. Even the 1930’s uber-glamorous art deco realms of Astaire/Rogers’ escapisms haven’t aged this obviously. It isn’t simply these sets, with their angular pillars and forced perspectives derived from horizontal and vertical stripes painted on floors and walls, are a pretense meant to exaggerate the appeal of having Kiss Me Kate photographed in 3D, and do, in fact, look very impressive when viewed through those special glasses. Rather, the film is unnecessarily encumbered by the 3D process itself, made glaringly obvious by these sets. The ‘wow’ factor of the illusion overpowers the performances. This is genuinely a shame since some very fine performances are being given throughout this glistening and bristling musical mélange.
While purists have forever poo-pooed the fact Broadway’s Alfred Drake was not allowed to reprise his dual role in the movie, MGM’s resident baritone, Howard Keel, is an impressive substitute; imbued with a lustily playful spark, a richly satisfying vocal range and matinee idol looks to carry it off. When his Petruchio boastfully declares, “Come Kate and we’ll to bed, a pox upon the life that late I led!” it is with the absolute belief of a carouser’s instinct. As Fred Graham, Keel is perhaps more primping poser than roguish primate, too self-absorbed to understand the depths of Lilli’s passion or hell’s fury aimed squarely at him. Ah, me - what these several hundred years of civilization since Shakespeare’s time have done to the male animal! Yet, as Petruchio, Keel emerges fully formed; a guiled and nocturnal creature, come to wife it wealthily in old Padua. When Keel’s Fred undertakes to recreate the most memorable moment in Shakespeare’s comedy, bending Kate to his will, it is Lilli’s bottom his Petruchio relishes to severely spank, with joyous abandonment at maximizing the spectacle of her public humiliation. It is this complex duality Keel manages to convey convincingly and with a straight-face; managing the allure of beggary stud, who knows not of any boundaries already crossed.
Regrettably, Kathryn Grayson’s performance does not hold a candle to Patricia Morison; Broadway’s feisty Lilli/Kate. Grayson’s lithe soprano is fine. In fact, better than fine, particularly as she warbles ‘I Hate Men’ with gritted teeth and a seething contempt reaching all the way to the back of the theater. Yet Grayson, apart from playing the ‘shrew’, is far too shrill to salvage even a modicum of empathy. Lilli is self-absorbed, yet prepossessed, and wounded by her ex-husband’s philandering ways, insulating herself from further hurt by exuding a crusty exterior of mostly faux spite. The ‘faux’ is what sold Morison’s performance on stage and solidified the audience’s gratification after Lilli and Fred are reunited ‘so in love’ before the final curtain call. However, this reunion between Grayson and Keel is far less substantial, precisely because Grayson never allows her anger to subside for a moment throughout the film. Her Lilli genuinely despises Fred with every fiber in her being, and thus, there reconciliation ends less heartfelt and more strained détente, doomed to fail after the houselights have come up.
Tops in taps Ann Miller, in her meatiest role to date, is a delectable Lois Lane, heart sore over Bill Calhoun, but ebullient as the virginal Bianca. Miller is electric in her two ensemble numbers; ‘From This Moment On’ and ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’ – outstanding dance routines, accompanied in both by a superb trio; Tommy Rall, Bobby Van and Bob Fosse. Often underused as a specialty act in her early career, Miller’s star began its ascendance after a change of venue from RKO to MGM; the latter at studio raja, Louis B. Mayer’s request. It wasn’t Miller’s talent Mayer was after, although he did put Miller under contract; the young woman attending intimate dinner parties with her mother as chaperone until Mayer made his intensions quite clear with a proposal of marriage. Miller, who was involved in what she would classify as her own ‘sad marriage’ to Reese Llewellyn Milner, emphatically refused Mayer on the grounds he was ‘too old’ for her. Scorned, Mayer put Miller’s career in turnaround. She actually had to audition to land the part of Nadine Hale in Easter Parade (1948).
Miller never quite managed to escape from under the pall of this Hollywood nepotism. While Mayer was ousted from power in 1950, with the exception of Kiss Me Kate, Miller quietly shrank to playing the tertiary gal pal opposite second fiddle male cast, usually afforded one or two opportunities to show off her prominent gams before being relegated into the background. Kiss Me Kate is a rarity for Miller’s fans. She’s given a good many of the plum comedic scenes and a handful of Porter standards to belt out before breaking into her trademark taps. Her other great opportunities include a spirited roof top pas deux with Tommy Rall to Porter’s ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’ and ‘Why Can’t You Behave’. She even opens the picture with the sultry ‘Too Darn Hot’, shaking all her God-given assets in a flamboyant and form-hugging fuchsia pink one piece. While it is a little much to suggest Kiss Me Kate as Ann Miller’s movie, she does, in fact, dominate the narrative as its common thread; expertly used for comic relief and spellbinding musical sequences.
Interestingly, after a main title sequence featuring three large triangles leaping off the screen with the words ‘Kiss Me Kate’ emblazoned across them, the gimmick of 3D is mostly retired from these proceedings. It’s probably just as well. The few remaining opportunities in which director, George Sidney attempts to illustrate the stereoscopic process are embarrassingly remedial; Miller’s ‘Too Darn Hot’ being the most ill-conceived example, Miller charging the camera, then retreating from it, flinging bracelets and handkerchiefs into the audience, the flying trinkets nonchalantly retrieved by Fred and Lilli in turn. Like all 3D movies from this vintage, Kiss Me Kate was more readily seen in its ‘flat’ 2D version where such staging techniques seem remiss and clumsy to say the least.
We are introduced to producer/star, Fred Graham and composer, Cole Porter (Ron Randell); the pair nervously awaiting the arrival of Fred’s ex, Lilli Vanessi, a prima donna with an axe to grind. Porter is enthusiastic about Lilli being cast in his musicalized version of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. Only he isn’t entirely certain darling Lil’ will be as willing to partake. You see, Fred and Lilli’s divorce was hardly amicable. And Fred has moved on with Bianca; a dumb-as-a-post, though bumped out in all the right places, tap dancer whom Fred has already promised the part of the fair Bianca. Lilli’s arrival is met with trepidation. She remains unconvinced the part of Katherine is for her, announcing it will interfere with her honeymoon plans. However, when Lilli overhears Fred and Porter hamming it up, presumably offering Lois the role instead, Lilli is overcome with jealousy and elects to star in Fred’s show.
In the meantime, Lois’ sometime boyfriend, playboy and gambler, Bill Calhoun has been cast as Lucentio. Between rehearsals, he indulges his predilection for shooting craps; an expensive venture when he winds up owing a local mafia chieftain, Mr. Hogan (whom we never meet) $2,000. Easy come/easy go, it seems, as Bill has signed Fred’s name to these chits. It’s no use. Lois cannot stay mad at Bill for very long. At the same time, Lilli begins to let down her guard where Fred is concerned. She must admit they were happily married - once. Agreeing to set aside her animosities while the show is in production, Lilli unexpectedly finds herself moved by Fred’s romantic gestures. Could she be ready to give him a second chance? It would seem likely, except Fred’s bouquet of flowers - meant for Lois - are accidentally delivered to Lilli’s dressing room instead – and, with a card tucked neatly inside! Stalling Lilli from reading the card becomes a full time job for Fred, who helplessly watches as she tucks it away in her bosom for safe keeping.
The show gets underway; Bianca, the youngest daughter of Batista (Kurt Kasznar), a wealthy merchant in old Padua, Verona, is desperate to marry one of her eligible suitors; Gremio (Bobby Van), Hortensio (Bob Fosse) or Lucentio. Regrettably, the line of succession must endure and thus, Batista’s eldest, Katherine is to marry first. But who will marry Kate – the shrew who smashes furniture and flatware with mad abandonment, chasing all eligible suitors and fortune hunters from the public square. Enter Petruchio, a lascivious womanizer, come to find a rich woman to woo, wed and bed. As with all others, Kate resists Petruchio’s advances. Alas, Lilli is moved by Fred’s melodic serenade and elects to read the card that came with his flowers while performing before a live audience. Outraged at discovering the flowers were meant for Lois instead, and determined to get revenge, Lilli begins to adlib her lines, attacking and kicking Fred on stage. He tolerates only so much, before putting Lil’ over his knee and giving her bottom a good solid spank.
Having bruised her pride, as well as her tuckus, Lilli resolves, rather unprofessionally, to walk out on the show during its intermission, her fiancé, Tex Calloway (Willard Parker) eagerly waiting in the wings. Alas, her timing could not be more off. For Mr. Hogan has sent his goon squad, Lippy and Slug to collect on Bill’s IOU. The only way Fred can pay off the debt is if the show goes on; and so an arduous tug-o-war begins with Lippy and Slug forcing Lilli to continue with the performance. To ensure she complies, Fred dresses the goons in Shakespearean attire to use as extras. Having learned of Fred’s philanthropy, Lois arrives in his dressing room between scenes to thank him. To keep the truth from getting out in front of Lippy and Slug, Fred passionately kisses her at every opportunity; both Bill and Lilli, unaware of ‘the act’, becoming incredibly frustrated after walking in on the pair.
Lilli is forced to carry on with the show. The second act is light on music, Keel’s Petruchio energetically belting out his lamentable declaration of the life that late he led. Tex pleads with Lilli to leave the show as she had originally planned. But Fred puts a stop to this hasty departure by befriending Tex who, in tandem, is recognized by Lois as an ‘old flame’; one of many she’s entertained while Bill was off rolling dice. After receiving an obscure telephone call alerting them to Mr. Hogan’s untimely assassination by a rival mafia hit squad, Slug and Lippy assure Fred that his gambling debt has been wiped clean. Since there is no longer a price on his head, Fred now realizes he can no longer detain Lilli from walking out on both him and the show.
On stage, Bianca is married to Lucentio as Gremio and Hortensio begrudgingly look on. The men find two other girls (Carol Haine and Jeanne Coyne) to pursue, and together with Bianca and Lucentio, they perform the majestic ‘From This Moment On’. Fred is forlorn, assuming Lilly’s understudy will next appear in her stead to finish the performance. He is pleasantly surprised when a contrite and abiding Lilli reenters; reciting Katherine’s speech with great sincerity. Stirred to resolve the triumphant finale of Shakespeare’s immortal tale, Fred and Lilli gather the cast before the final curtain call; the whole affair ending in atypical merriment and mirth a la a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical.
Kiss Me Kate is tune-filled and colorful; populated by artisans working in front of and behind the camera who clearly understand the tenuous balance of comedy and song. Moreover, the film is blessed with Cole Porter’s magnificent score – arguably his best. That the whole affair comes across a wee too ‘highbrow’ for most is a pity, especially so because Porter is striving to elevate the overall tenor of the Hollywood musical beyond its fashionably generic ‘boy meets girl’ mentality. Kiss Me Kate is decidedly all this and a dash extra; the parallels between what ‘then’ contemporary theater might be and the immortal words of Shakespeare played less as ‘strange bedfellows’ on the stage than when projected onto a movie screen. Possibly, the overall disjuncture is amplified by the presence of 3D; the obviousness with which George Sidney stages some of the musical sequences in particular, meant to take full advantage of this stereoscopic illusion, somehow too heavy-handed to the point of losing all perspective on where the impetus of the scene should be. In these instances, it remains a genuine tossup which is more distracting; being periodically taken out of the story by the 3D hokum while wearing polarizing glasses or quaintly reminded of where these depth-perceptive moments ought to have been while viewing the film in its conventional ‘flat’ format, the way most movie goers saw the film back in 1953, and, how it has appeared on home video ever since.
Next month, Warner Home Video has promised us both 3D and 2D versions of Kiss Me Kate on Blu-ray. Until then, we have their gorgeous-looking DVD to recommend – partially. Minted during DVD’s infancy, and without the benefit of comparison between its 3D and 2D counterparts (forgivable since until recently there has never been a way to accurately reproduce the stereoscopic effect for home video displays), what is inconceivable is Warner’s logic to release Kiss Me Kate in standard format. Rewind: the film was ‘officially’ screened in 3D and framed in a matted 1.75:1 aspect ratio. However, there is documented proof to suggest quite a few theaters showing the 2D print did, in fact, open up this matte and project the film in a standard Academy ratio of 1.33:1. We’ll run with the logic Warner elected to present the movie the way most probably remember it; certainly the way it has been shown on TV ever since. The aforementioned Blu-ray promises us a refreshed 1.75:1 image. We’ll see.
Kiss Me Kate on DVD sports a fairly impressive color palette; not surprising, perhaps, since although it was photographed in Ansco Color, the prints made up from this negative were done by Technicolor – always the benchmark for excellence in color film technologies. The image is remarkably crisp and delivers a level of color saturation pretty hard to top – for a DVD at least. You’ll love what’s here if you can get past the improper framing of the image. Blood reds, royal blues, powderpuff pinks and saffron yellows – all of them eye-popping and brilliant. Flesh tones also appear natural – if leaning toward the warm end of the spectrum. Contrast is equally solid and there’s a light smattering of grain looking very film-like. The audio is remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital. Aside: it should be thrilling to hear these lush Conrad Salinger orchestrations and melodic Porter score in tru-HD DTS when the Blu-ray arrives. Warner has padded out the extras with an isolated score track, a few short subjects and a truncated featurette hosted by Ann Miller. It’s a rush job at best, heavily scripted and doesn’t really allow Miller to talk about her involvement at liberty. Result – boring! Bottom line: if you don’t own a Blu-ray player you’ll want to snatch this one up. It is also available as part of a 4-pack under the TCM banner ‘Greatest Musicals’. My recommendation – let’s all wait with baited breath for the Blu-ray soon to follow. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)