Bright Lights Film Journal

Shakespeare Improved! Cole Porter Teaches the Old Bard New Tricks in Kiss Me Kate

“Why, you’d make a perfect shrew!”

A great musical that didn’t star either Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly? Well, it didn’t happen often, but in 1953 MGM managed to find the perfect formula. Combine

This 1953 masterpiece is now available on DVD in a first-rate restoration, and it’s joined on DVD by a live broadcast of the 1999 revival, providing musical comedy fans with an embarrassment of riches.

The musical Kiss Me Kate started out back in the thirties as a gleam in the eye of Arnold Saint-Subber, a young devotee of the theater who managed to finagle his way backstage to watch a production of The Taming of the Shrew that starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a husband and wife team who were once the classiest act on Broadway.3 He was fascinated to see that they argued just as much offstage as on, and it gave him the idea for a play that would mix modern theatrical egos with Shakespeare’s classic farce.

Saint-Subber took his idea to the writing team of Sam and Bella Spewack, who unfortunately were having marital clashes of their own,4 so that it wasn’t until after WWII that the whole thing came together. Cole Porter, apparently quite dubious of the whole project, somehow managed to turn out his greatest score. Hollywood, in an amazing reversal of form, decided that Porter’s score did not “improving,” and actually filmed the whole thing.

On the screen, Kiss Me Kate falls into three large chunks: a brilliant opening section, that overwhelms us with one superb production number after another; a sagging middle section, courtesy of Sam & Bella, with lots of painfully dated and painfully unoriginal Broadway “business” involving loveable gangsters5 and a naïve Texas millionaire; and a third section that builds steadily and manages, amazingly, to recover all the momentum that had been lost.

Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson are cast as Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, Lunt/Fontanne types, once married but now divorced. Fred wants to revive the old act for a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, with words and music by his good buddy Cole Porter (Ron Randall).6) Fred, who clearly has more than a taste for living dangerously, has also cast “Lois Lane”7 (Ann Miller), his latest “protégé,” in the play as well.

What we have is a very nice “classy ex-wife meets ‘common’ new girl friend” bit. Neither Keel nor Randall seem very comfortable in the role of farceurs, but Grayson’s gorgeous blonde elegance and Miller’s gorgeous long legs more than compensate. More importantly, we get two terrific numbers, one from Keel and Grayson and one from Miller.

“So in Love” is a duet for Fred and Lilli that hints dangerously at their tempestuous past — “so taunt me, and hurt me, deceive me, desert me” — letting Keel and Grayson show off their trained voices and priming us for their eventual reunion. After they’ve warmed the atmosphere, Miller shows up and sets the place on fire with a blazing version of “Too Darn Hot.”

In a previous review, I sneeringly referred to Ann as “usually a boring and predictable tap specialist.”8 Well, here’s where Ann makes a liar, not to say an idiot, out of me, because she’s a triple delight as actor, singer, and dancer in this film. Fifteen minutes later, on opening night, she’s up again with the charming “Why Can’t You Behave?”, directed at bad boy boyfriend Bill Calhoun (dancer Tommy Rall9 ). Then they’re followed by Fred and Lilli, reliving happier times with “Wunderbar” — Porter’s tongue-in-cheek salute to gemütlichkeit.10)

“Wunderbar” leaves Lillie feeling all tingly and nostalgic. Fred, on the other hand, is ready for fresh game, and he orders a bouquet of flowers to be sent to Lois, including a love note, which naturally gets diverted to Lilli.

Lilli’s all dressed up in her red tights, showing off an eminently smackable fanny,11 when the bouquet arrives, just prior to show time. Deeply touched, she tucks the note, unread, in her generous bosom,12 and hurries onstage.

Fred, Lilli, Lois, and Bill all assemble in red tights to sing “A Troupe of Traveling Players Are We,” followed by “We Opened in Venice,” which allow Porter to shower the stage with theatrical in-jokes.13) As the four take their positions, there’s a funny bit that isn’t too well-developed: Miller strikes a sexy, hands-on-hips pose and Grayson nervously tries to follow suit. As the number continues, we see that the one thing Grayson and Keel can’t do is dance. They aren’t required to do anything more physical than walk elegantly on a treadmill in time to the music, but it’s harder than it looks.14

Once “The Taming of the Shrew” is actually underway, Miller is up again as Bianca, expressing her readiness for matrimony in “Any Tom, Dick, or Harry,” supported by Rall (“Lucentio”), Bobby Vann (“Gremio”) and a young Bob Fosse (“Hortensio”), as her suiters. Poor Bobby is the odd boy out here, an earth-bound song-and-dance feller with no defense against the aerial assaults launched by both Rall and Fosse, who gives us a glimmer of the spectacular form he’ll display in the “From This Moment On” closer, which launched his career as a choreographer.15

“Any Tom, Dick, or Harry” displays Porter at his naughtiest, as Miller proclaims her willingness to marry “any Tom, Dick, or Harry, any Tom, Harry, or Dick! I said a Dick! I said a Dick! I said a Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick!” Do you get it?16

After Ann has had her say, we get to the meat of “The Taming of the Shrew” — the battle of the sexes. It’s at this point that Keel comes into his own. As “Fred Graham” Keel always seems awkward and out of place, too big and too clumsy for real life. But put him on stage, where he can be larger than life, then he is larger than life. In his pirate boots, doublet, cape, slouch hat, and Van Dyke beard he’s a Petruchio’s Petruchio, so virile he looks ready to burst his tights. In “I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua,” he gives us a taste of his worldly wisdom: “If she scream like a teething brat, if she claw like a tiger cat, if she fight like a raging boar, I’ve oft borne a bore before!”

When he’s done, Grayson counters with “I Hate Men!” The harshness of the lyrics requires her to butch it up a bit much, always a hazard when playing Katherine, but here again Porter’s word play gives us a good ride: “I’ve often read alone in bed from A to Zed17 about them. And since love is blind then from the mind all womankind should rout them. Yet, sisters, you must tell me, too, what would we do without them? Still, I hate men!” After breaking a pot or two she retires to her balcony, where Petruchio woos her with “Were Thine That Special Face,” Porter showing remarkable facility with the pseudo-Elizabethan love song, a genre he apparently pulled out of his hat just for this play.

Lilli’s so overcome by Fred’s impassioned delivery that she can’t resist taking out his note to read it, discovering, naturally, that it’s addressed to Lois rather than her. As a result, she isn’t so easily subdued as the script requires, and Fred is provoked into spanking her as the curtain for the first act descends.18

After the first act, Lilli’s ready for retirement, and summons her intended, long-horned millionaire Tex Callaway, to take her away from the madness and make-believe. Fred (of course) has fallen back in love with her and enlists gangsters Lippy (Keenan Wynn) and Slug (James Whitmore) to keep Lilli in the show. (If she stays in the show, then Fred can pay off Bill Calhoun’s gambling debts, and Lois and Bill can get married.)

There’s plenty of scampering, but damn few laughs, while all this plays out. Lippy and Slug come out on stage to keep an eye on Lilli, disguised as Petruchio’s servants. Their lack of acting skill is supposed to be funny, but it isn’t. Keel, looking great in another pair of tights, has one more big number, “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?”, but that’s all the music we get until the second act curtain.

Offstage, Miller and Rall have another number, “Always True to You, Darling, In My Fashion,” after it emerges that she and Tex have shared a little quality time. But this tune is one too many. The theme is too cynical, and the rhyme scheme too tight, to allow for any real wit, and Miller and Rall mug furiously to put over a song that isn’t worth putting over.19)

Eventually, Bill’s gambling debts get resolved (by the sudden demise of Lippy and Slug’s employer). The two gents, who are, after all, rather decent fellows in their own way, have a nice little song-and-dance number, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” which would have worked better if Wynn and Whitmore could sing and/or dance.20

Lois and Bill are in the clear, but Lilli seems to have vanished. Fred goes out for the third act with desperation in his heart, expecting that he will have to finish the play with Lilli’s understudy. Fortunately for us, the dancers take the stage with “From This Moment On.” Bianca and Lucentio celebrate their marriage, leaving Hortensio and Gremio to be consoled by Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne. Haney and Fosse practically steal the whole picture with two minutes of blazing jazz choreographed by Fosse.21

When the smoke clears, poor Petruchio/Fred staggers out on stage. Where is his beloved? Where is Katherine? Who is Katherine? To his amazement, Lilli appears and recites Katherine’s final speech, the one about how wives should let their husbands walk all over them.

In the original play, this speech was more than a bit of a downer — classic “bad Shakespeare.” Bill had decidedly mixed feelings about women, and in his lesser moments he retreated to his “Stoic” — that is, repressed — mode, denying all emotion in favor of a rational and lifeless “virtue.”22 But Grayson makes Katherine’s surrender so gentle, and Keel makes Petruchio’s joy at her return so genuine, that we get a real happy ending after all! Hey, it’s not the first time actors have saved an author’s ass!

A Brand New Shrew!

The 1999 revival of Kiss Me Kate, a huge success on Broadway, broadcast by PBS live from London is now available on DVD as well.23 The production features Brent Barrett as Fred Graham/Petruchio, Rachel York as Lilli Vanessi/Kate, Nancy Anderson as Lois Lane/Bianca, and Michael Berresse as Bill Calhoun/Lucentio, along with Nick Winston as Gremio and Barry McNeill as Hortensio.

Kiss Me Kate 1999 starts out in a manner dear (presumably) to the hearts of those who love live theater — an empty stage, which is first populated by a pair of janitors mopping the floor and singing “Another Opening, Another Show,” one of the few numbers cut for the screen version. The cast slowly assembles, letting us see (supposedly) what they are like in “real life.” Look at her, hanging out in that dress! I guess she thinks she’s something! And here come the dancers! They’re so arrogant, always stretching and showing off! And look at her! She must be the leading lady, she’s so full of herself! And there’s the leading man, in his ascot, of course! What an ass! They’re all so stuck up! But never mind, it doesn’t matter, the show is starting! It’s magic time!

Well, magic time it ain’t. In a disastrous miscalculation, the producers carefully put back all the lame, dated gags and Manhattan provincialisms that dotted the original production. The actors, stuck with unsalable lines, have no choice but to oversell them, and thus are doubly damned.24) Fortunately, fortunately, Shakespeare comes to the rescue, as he has so often done in the past (Where would western civilization be without him?). The rest of the performance, though it may lack such absolute high points as Miller’s “Too Darn Hot” and Fosse and Haney’s “From This Moment On,” is quite on a par with the film version, with plenty of serious singin’ ‘n’ dancin’.25 If you’re a sucker for the Porter/Shakespeare combo, and you’ve got the bucks, spring for both.26

  1. Sidney, not terribly well known, directed a number of late 40s/early 50s musical blockbusters, like Annie Get Your Gun and Show Boat. His œuvre included both Little Rascals shorts and the famous 1955 Howard Keel/Esther Williams disaster Jupiter’s Darling, still the only underwater musical ever based on Hannibal’s invasion of Rome. []
  2. Yes, there are a few nits to pick, to wit: “Kiss Me, Kate” is more of a curtain closer than a song; “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” should be just a tad bit wittier; “I’m Always True to You, Darlin’, in My Fashion” could be a lot less cynical; and “Where Is the Life that Late I Led?”, while it has a terrific chorus, is also burdened with heavy-handed wit (and heavy-handed rhymes) in its multitudinous verses. []
  3. As the epitome of good taste and refinement, the Lunts attracted the unlimited contempt of perennial outsider Holden Caulfield: “She [Sallie Hayes — “old Sallie, queen of the phonies”] liked shows that were supposed to be very sophisticated and dry and all, with the Lunts and all.” []
  4. Theatrical couples are theatrical. Who knew? []
  5. Damon Runyon, once one of the most famous writers in America, invented the cute gangster, and it made him rich. The musical Guys and Dolls is based on his work. Now, though Runyon is forgotten, the cute gangster lives on, Pulp Fiction being a most egregious example. []
  6. It’s anybody’s guess why the producers came up with this lame “breaking the proscenium” gag. At the time of the filming, Randall was about thirty years younger and a hundred times straighter than Cole Porter. Randall cannot be called a talented actor, but he was a game one, fashioning a forty-year career that included a stint as the host of the British version of “What’s My Line,” as well as the lead in Omoo-Omoo the Shark God, pegged by many as the worst film ever based on a Melville novel. (Among other things, “Omoo,” as Melville tells it, means “traveler,” not “shark god.” []
  7. “Superman” had been around for a decade when Kiss Me Kate premiered on December 30, 1948, so I guess this represents some sort of in-joke. []
  8. In my remarks on Lovely to Look At, the remake of Roberta. In my defense, I gave Ann a good review for her performance in Lovely to Look At as well. []
  9. Rall, a trained ballet dancer, threw a lot of acrobatics into his act, probably so folks wouldn’t think he was a sissy. But swinging on ropes, bouncing on trampolines, etc., have an aesthetic content of roughly 0. []
  10. The setup to this — “Remember that funny little room where we stayed” — is pretty goddamn gemütlichkeit itself. (And for those of you who lack my mastery of the German tongue, gemütlichkeit refers to all things quaint, cute, and cozy — the strudel mit schlag of life. []
  11. Both Grayson and Keel could sing and look good in tights! How rare is that! []
  12. Grayson really was trebly blessed. []
  13. Among other things, the cast sings “No Theatre Guild attractions are we”. Back in the thirties, the Theatre Guild stood for hard-hitting, real-life dramas about real-life issues and real-life people — everything that Porter hated. (Naturally, they were a bunch of commies. []
  14. “I was always a beat off,” Grayson remarks ruefully in the “Making of Kiss Me Kate” video. Remarkably, Grayson, Keel, Miller, and Rall were all alive to tell the tale fifty years after the film was made. []
  15. Bobby suffers even more in “From This Moment On,” because he’s gotten just a bit chunky for wearing tights (always a hazardous occupation). []
  16. We get it, Cole, ya fricking homo! Why don’t you just beat us over the head with a fricking penis? []
  17. Brit English for “Z”. []
  18. Women got spanked a lot in the fifties, particularly in John Wayne films. []
  19. Sample lyrics: “If a custom-tailored vet asks me out for something wet and the vet starts in to pet I’ll not say nay! But I’m always true ….” (After all this ranting, I must confess I recently heard a version of this song by Blossom Dearie that was quite nice. Sometimes it helps to undersell. []
  20. Wynn tries. Whitmore, as he indicates on the “Making of …” video, considered singing and dancing to be seriously non-guy stuff, and refused to rehearse, essentially daring the studio to fire him. Instead, they caved. []
  21. Sadly, a variety of physical and emotional ills resulted in Haney’s early death, just as her career was taking off. She left behind only one other musical number, the superb “Steam Heat,” from the otherwise worse than mediocre Pajama Game. []
  22. We get this in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure as well as The Taming of the Shrew. []
  23. Two earlier TV versions, a 1958 broadcast with Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison, who created the roles on Broadway, and a 1968 version with Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence, are not currently available on home video, but online reviews suggest that second-hand tapes may exist. []
  24. The worst decision of all was to convert Lois Lane/Bianca, played by Ann Miller in the movie as a spunky, working-class chick, into a squeaky-voiced bimbo, whose “common” accent and lousy grammar, even more than her loose morals, make her the butt of every joke. The “dumb blonde” is perhaps the most tedious of all Broadway clichés, more or less invented so that audiences could ogle an actress’ breasts and cluck their tongues at the same time. (The fact that Lois/Bianca is a redhead in the 1999 version is a non-significant variable. []
  25. Naturally, the production is also salted with numerous bits of tediously raunchy “business,” to show how sophisticated we are these days. []
  26. And if you are a sucker for Kiss Me Kate, you’ll probably want to spring for the CD release of the original soundtrack album, recorded way back in 1949, with Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison as the leads. The CD comes with an “in-depth booklet, unseen photos, and more!” []