FILM MARATHON: Movie Musicals #3: Kiss Me Kate [1953]

“You louse!”

I’m a sucker for multi-layered films depicting simultaneous stories at once, juxtaposing onstage performances with the backstage antics of the actors involved. Kiss Me Kate, screenplay by Dorothy Kingsley and music by Cole Porter, shows the theatrical opening inter-workings of a stage musical, by the same name, styled on William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—or as I like to call it, 10 Things I Hate About You. But the beauty of George Sidney’s work behind the camera is that he allows every single aspect to be shown, from a quick casting session, rehearsal, the opening performance, and the insanity happening while the curtain is closed, as well as how those exchanges infer on the ‘live’ performances when open. With glimpses of the audience sprinkled in to keep us viewers cognizant of the film’s own artifice, the stage show feels like just that, giving the actors playing the actors playing the play’s characters the ability to revolve through the theatre wings, dancing at one moment to the paying audience and tip-toeing around the conniving prima donnas in dressing rooms and crude scaffolding masked by the backdrops and sets. And, of course, the shrew taming on stage is mirrored in the relationships occurring behind it.

Beginning quite ingeniously with Ron Randell as Cole Porter meeting at his play’s star and director’s house, Howard Keel’s Fred Graham, we are shown what could feasibly be a literal representation of how the musical’s debut was originated. The actress they are attempting to woo is not only the perfect match for the material, but also the ex-wife of Graham and a woman unafraid to show her loathing of him—Kathryn Grayson’s Lilli Vanessi. As happens during much of the film, Lilli slowly falls prey to the charming wiles of Fred, only to be awakened from her lapse of judgment by yet another show of his lack of morality and decency with the arrival of a young dancer, flaunting her body, in Lois Lane (Ann Miller). Using the inherent jealousy of these two starlets, Graham finangles it so both decide to become involved in the show, pitting his former and greatest love against the fresh new meat of show business. Much like the play within the play’s lead of Petruchio and his lust for the those in his little black book of former, fun-loving conquests, it is the challenge he finds himself pining for. No one can compare to Lilli’s looks, talents, and ability to completely disarm him. The question becomes whether he can win her back with all that’s about to ensue.

It isn’t enough that Fred finds himself devoting his admiration for both women right before curtain call, but there is also a gambling debt to be settled with the two gangsters who find themselves backstage, brutish and with a penchant for quoting The Bard (Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore); the looming new fiancé of Lilli’s named Tex Callaway (Willard Parker) who appears to have a secret or two in his bull horned automobile; an acting duo doing all that’s necessary to secure lucrative jobs even if it means whoring themselves out (Miller and Tommy Rall); and an audience eating every improvisation from the seeping in of real life turmoil, thinking it’s all part of the show. We get to sit back and revel in the intricacies of each relationship as they implode, mend, and blow-up once more. And just when events occur to make us forget the play being performed onstage is actually one that’s inside the performance we’re watching, we catch a reverse vantage point, putting the musical’s audience behind an actor, slapping us in the face with the recollection that the real tale of intrigue is occurring offstage.

Kiss Me Kate is full of everything you’d want in a movie musical from gorgeous sets—a great mixture of authentic rooms with the faux reality of sets looking like sets—superb choreography by Astaire cohort Hermes Pan (seen as a sailor later on), especially between Miller and Rall’s Bill Calhoun atop the theatre’s roof with trampolines; exacting cinematography full of straight-on framing for 3D purposes; and wonderful singing voices to go along with each actor’s impressive performance and impeccable comedic timing. Keel portrays his—the term is in fact quite appropriate—louse effectively; Grayson maneuvers between scorned flame to forgiving waif at the drop of a hat with palpable anger to bridge the two, inflicting pain on the man ruining her life; Miller is endearing despite her penchant to use any man she can to catch a break; and my favorites, Wynn’s Lippy and Whitmore’s Slug, steal each and every scene they find themselves in, lending laugh-out-loud physical humor and imbecilic verbal wit. Whitmore’s heavy is a dimwit easily led astray with fancy words, desperately wanting to cause pain, but also able to pass out in horror at a stirring story of cattle branding meant to scare Lilli. If you don’t laugh when these two mobsters land in the stageplay, well, something is wrong with you.

I truly can’t find fault in this comedy-filled musical. The two worlds depicted are meshed together and yet kept separate in a way that invigorates its audience to constantly focus on facial expressions and emotions finding a way to naturally travel between both. Characters become incensed with one another personally and while some may try their hardest to keep those feelings out of their performances—this is the first showing of what they all hope to be a very lucrative run—it soon proves to be futile. When you begin to loath those you work with, the damning sentiments can’t help but show through in a bit of overzealous acting, be it punches to the ribs, slaps to the face, or even a grand ol’ spanking in front of hundreds of onlookers unaware of the true meaning to all the violence—yes, it caught me off-guard but was proved to be true, the poster is in fact Keel winding up to strike Grayson’s tush. Something about all the interactions and the multitude of things that can and most certainly do go wrong during a theatre performance reminded me of the fun it was to perform in plays at my old Middle School. All involved here get the look and feel perfect, creating an entertaining experience with well-earned laughs and resounding success.

Kiss Me Kate 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] Brunette night-club entertainer Lois (Ann Miller) and beautiful blonde singer Lilli (Kathryn Grayson) are set to battle — about a man! ©1953 M.G.M.
[2] Garrulous Lois (Ann Miller) is about to reveal a damaging secret about stage star Fred Graham (Howard Keel), but that kiss seals her lips! ©1953 M.G.M.
[3] She’s his ex-wife, but singing star Fred Graham (Howard Keel) is still trying to give orders to his stage partner (Kathryn Grayson). ©1953 M.G.M.

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