Friday, May 11, 2007
Kiss Me, Kate (1953)
Well, I am disgracefully late for my contribution to the Shakespeare Blog-a-Thon sponsored by Peter Nelhaus of Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee. Please check out the links:
The Shamus investigates Branagh's Henry V
Flickhead - The Bard vs. The Shatner
Odienator discusses actors who should not do Shakespeare
Edward Copeland covers the book The Shakespeare Riots
Daniel Eisenberg on Olivier's Henry V
Noel Vera on Chimes at Midnight
Several reasons for this tardiness, including a full schedule and a six-month-old who just doesn't seem to have the proper appreciation for cinema as an art. But the Siren thinks the real problem was the subject she chose.
Now understand, I love Kiss Me Kate. Its score is a thing of beauty, ever witty and gorgeous, rewarding me each time I listen to it. And George Sidney's film of it is wonderful too, despite the Bowdlerization of a lot of the original lyrics. (And yet, they kept a gleeful and fully choreographed chorus of "Tom, Dick or Harry" that has Ann Miller and the boys kicking up their heels and singing, "a dick a dick, a dick a dick ..." Censors. Is surgical brain-cell removal a requirement of the job, or what?)
Anyway, so what's the problem? Shakespeare. That's what. The Taming of the Shrew.
The two most famous couples in screen history, Pickford-Fairbanks and Taylor-Burton, both chose this decidedly unpleasant and (go ahead, tell me I'm wrong, I won't believe you) minor Shakespeare as a co-starring vehicle. After the 1967 Zeffirelli version, which the Siren has seen only in part, the Burtons survived another seven years as husband and wife. That's not counting their bizarre remarriage, which the Siren has never had the energy to analyze. Pickford and Fairbanks were on the train to Reno, so to speak, when they made their 1929 version. The Siren did see that one, eons ago, but it isn't particularly memorable and has an odd combination of silent style and sound dialogue. (I don't remember the legendary credit, "With Additional Dialogue by Sam Taylor," and at least one source claims it isn't there.) Mary and Doug seem so played out that they don't even appear to enjoy throwing things at one another.
It's tempting to psychoanalyze these two couples and their choice of material, but it was probably no more than that Taming is a comedy with two strong, memorable leads who get just about equal screen time. Some of the poetry is lovely, although it is far, far from his most beautiful play in that respect, and has a great deal of prose dialogue anyway. But it's basically a long celebration of spousal abuse. Maybe you believe that Shakespeare was actually sending up contemporary attitudes--I don't. I think we are really supposed to believe in the "taming." And while the Siren is pretty darned good at laying aside her modern political sensibilities when watching old stuff, she can't get past that. There's nowhere to go, nothing else to watch. The other characters are barely present. It's Petruchio and Kate, all the way.
Kiss Me Kate is a lot easier to stomach. The backstage "taming" goes back and forth, with Fred Graham (Howard Keel) initially having the upper hand, then Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) gets control, then Fred, then Lilli again. And in the end, when Lilli comes back onstage, it's a free choice. She could get on that train with her dimwitted Texas beau if she wanted--but instead she returns not only to Fred, but to their shared careers. In Shakespeare's world, however shrewish Kate may be, she has to submit. She has no other option and no way out.
So, without further ado, the Siren leaves The Taming of the Shrew in the dust, and goes on to pick out some additional details she loves in Kiss Me Kate. In no particular order:
1. Some of the best lyrics Cole Porter ever wrote, even if they did over-sanitize them for the censors. (I do miss my favorite "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" line from the Broadway version: "If she says your behavior is heinous/Kick her right in the Coriolanus!" Yes, I realize that bit is not PC either, but it's one hell of a rhyme.)
2. Ann Miller's tap-dancing, always a treat, is spectacular--in "Too Darn Hot" she makes you forget the missing verses.
3. Bob Fosse and Carol Haney, dancing to his choreography in "From This Moment On" (a song that was not in the show). There are no words for the coolness of that minute and a half. The whole movie screeches to a halt, as you think, where did that come from? My god, who are those dancers? How do I get to see more of them? You feel like you just watched something revolutionary, and indeed you did.
4. Kathryn Grayson's eyeshadow during the stage sequences. Don't try this at home. (Alas, I could not find a good picture. But think Divine, if Divine were a pretty soprano.)
5. Howard Keel's eyeliner.
6. Cole Porter, magically straightened out. I have seen footage of Porter and have recordings of him singing, and Ron Randell is so far from real life they might as well have cast John Wayne. Or Cary Grant, who did play Cole Porter in the biopic Night and Day. (Legend has it that Porter suggested casting Grant as a joke, only to have the studio take him seriously. Which is why the Siren frequently jokes that she wants Monica Belluci to star in her future biopic.)
The movie was originally released in 3-D. The Siren didn't know that the first couple of times she saw Kiss Me Kate, and she spent a great deal of time trying to figure out bizarre shots like Miller smacking her scarf at the camera, or Grayson throwing a goblet at it. Maybe someday I will have a chance to see this one in its full 3-D glory.
P.S. There is plenty of nice Web writing about Kiss Me Kate as a musical. The Siren especially likes Alan Vanneman's piece, from Bright Lights Film Journal.