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.


Ginger Mayerson said...

My favorite Ann Miller thing about Kiss Me Kate, after "Too Darn Hot," is "True to you in my fashion." That woman, what a goddess.

The Siren said...

I love her during the whole opening scene. It's a dead-common variant on the dumb showgirl, but she walks off with that scene. She and Grayson play very well together. "There's NOTHING WRONG with my legs!"

Peter Nellhaus said...

Sorry you didn't made it to the blog-a-thon, but when it comes to your writings, better late than never.

As for Cole Porter, physically Kevin Klein wasn't much closer than Grant. The scene of Klein as Porter watching Grant as Porter was a bit mind-boggling.

The Siren said...

aw, thanks Peter. I enjoyed all the posts very much. I shouldn't have been so stubborn and just gone with my first impulse, the Reinhardt Midsummer Night's Dream. Which I love. (Kenneth Anger was a beautiful little boy!)

Uncle Gustav said...

Siren, thanks for remembering the great Bob Fosse/Carol Haney number. There's more of Haney at her peak in The Pajama Game, notably "Steam Heat".

Richard Gibson said...

I saw this on the big screen in 3D, it was pretty good experience even though I'd completely forgotten about the plot.

Bob Westal said...

When I was about 9 or 10, I found a 78 rpm B'way Cast recording of "Kiss Me Kate" in a stack of my parents old records and it became one of my favorite albums.

When I saw "Kiss Me Kate" the movie the first time (in 3-D, I'm pretty spoiled) many years later, I was taken aback by the changes even as a pretty censorship savvy kid, particularly to my favorite song in the show, "Too Darn Hot." The most interesting is the substitution of "the latest report" for "the Kinsey report." It'd be fun to imagine historians from the year 5000 trying to figure if the word "kinsey" was an obscenity or a double-entendre.

The other interesting change is that, in the show, the song was sung by a man, an African-American valet, and that's probably good for several pages of racial-sexual textual analysis right there.

(I just listened to a recording I have of Sammy Davis singing that song, and it retains some of the same bowdlerization -- but it does have the Kinsey reference, at least.)

Bob Westal said...

Oh, and Fosse gets to do a lot more dancing (and turns out to be a pretty likable actor) in the very underrated/underseen "My Sister Eileen"

Noel Vera said...

Ach, Siren, no mention of my contribution to the Shakespeare blogathon? Break, heart, I prithee...

The Siren said...

Flickhead - It isn't often that you see a musical number stop a movie cold, but Haney & Fosse accomplish it. Another example, in another Shakespeare-themed movie: Cool, in West Side Story. I am an admirer of Pauline Kael, and I guess I understand her problems with that movie, but how she could miss the greatness of that number?

Richard & Bob: 3-D is an odd choice for a musical but I am always eager to see a movie as it was intended to be shown. Cole Porter was constantly getting his best rhymes shredded by Hollywood, but the dancing often conveys what's missing in the lyrics. Except for Brush Up Your Shakespeare, where the actors are just mugging their way through it.

Noel: 'Twas the merest oversight, I do swear it! I will add your link, good fellow.

Noel Vera said...

Good lady, m'most profuse thanks!

Julia said...

The DVD we have has the Coriolanus line. And yes, it was remarkable in 3D

Kevin Wolf said...

I've never been able to warm up to this movie, except in bits and pieces. "Too Darn Hot," for instance.

Kathryn Grayson does absolutely nothing for me, which of course is another problem.

But I'm a musical fool and, back when I had cable if TCM showed this, I'd watch it anyway.

maurinsky said...

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.

Hells yes, I will never forget the first time I saw this movie, I was probably 9 or 10 years old, and that brief snippet of dance from Fosse and Haney killed me - brilliant and sexy as hell.

Oh, and Fosse gets to do a lot more dancing (and turns out to be a pretty likable actor) in the very underrated/underseen "My Sister Eileen"

I particularly love the dance battle between Fosse and Tommy Rall (Bill Calhoun in Kiss Me, Kate).

BTW, this is the first time I've read this blog, but definitely not the last!

The Siren said...

julia, are you sure? Well, it wouldn't surprise me. For years I have been convinced it wasn't there, but it would not be the first time my memory deceived me. This was one of the few pieces I wrote without re-watching the movie, since I had seen it so often.

Kevin, Grayson is an acquired taste, along the saccharine lines of June Allyson. But while Allyson makes me spring for the remote every time, Grayson always goes down easy. I have no deep critical thoughts as to why this should be so, but it may be this movie, where Grayson gets to be good and bitchy, sustains me while I am watching her duet with Mario Lanza.

Maurinsky, welcome and I hope you do return. For years I gave My Sister Eileen short shrift because I preferred Wonderful Town, but sounds like I need to revisit it.

maurinsky said...

For years I gave My Sister Eileen short shrift because I preferred Wonderful Town, but sounds like I need to revisit it.

It's not a great musical, honestly - the end sort of degenerates into chaos - fun chaos, but chaos. For me, the highlight of the movie is definitely the Fosse/Rall dance number. It's worth watching just for that.

There is another dance in the movie with Janet Leigh, Betty Garrett, Tommy Rall and Bob Fosse and it doesn't work quite as well, IMO, but I think that's because Fosse's choreography is so focused on small movements and it was filmed like it was a big grand dance number. That was a directing mistake.

Hazel said...

Personally, the two things I love about Kiss Me Kate are Howard Keel in tights and Kathryn Grayson's vigorous version of "I Hate Men": "He may have hair upon his chest but, sister, so has Lassie!".

The Siren said...

Grayson has real zest in this movie. It was a nice change from her usual sweet-fragrant-flower roles. She really seemed to enjoy letting loose as Lilli.

And Keel was a handsome guy, definitely.

surly hack said...

I was lucky enough to see a 3-D re-release, and it is even more fun with the in-your-face dimensionality.

A local theatre once showed Dial M For Murder in its original two-projector 3-D glory, and it is fascinating to see Hitchcock subtly use the process on that stagy production, saving the gotcha 3-D effect for the big moment when Grace Kelly reaches back for the scissors.

The Siren said...

Surly, you are really going through the old stuff now, LOL! God I would LOVE to see Dial M in 3-D because I think the acting plays quite well, but visually it's mostly pretty boring, one of the few Hitchcocks you can say that about. I would like to see how much the 3-D alters that.