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Movie Musical Monday, April 23rd: “Kiss Me Kate”

April 23, 2012

Good morning, and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

Today is our second installment of the three-week long celebration of National Poetry Month and Shakespeare’s Birthday.  And in fact: TODAY IS SHAKESPEARE’S BIRTHDAY!  HOOOOOORRRRAAAAAAYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!  (Throws confetti in air, blows paper whistle, expresses general frivolity and mirth.)

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Okay, okay: time to come clean.  We don’t actually know if Shakespeare was born on April 23rd–though we do know that he died on April 23rd 1616, fifty-two years after he had been baptized in Stratford-Upon-Avon on April 26th.  Given the common contemporary practice of baptizing children three (or so) days after they were born, it’s popular belief that he was born on the 23rd.  And if that’s true, then it means he was born and died on the same calendar date.  And that’s kind of nifty.

But how will you celebrate this (not-quite-a) holiday?  Take tea with friends?  Read a sonnet aloud?  If you’re at a loss of what to do to commemorate this–the Bard’s Day–feel free to join us as we look at another movie musical based on a Shakespearean play, MGM’s 1953 production of Kiss Me Kate.  

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Watching this musical again for the first time in a long time, I was struck by just how good it is.  Truly, this is one of the great musical comedies.  An interesting premise, served well by a funny and engaging book, plus a beautiful score and brilliant lyrics by the great Cole Porter–you are really hard pressed to be better off.

Kiss Me, Kate had originally been produced on Broadway in 1948, and came at a time where Cole Porter really needed a hit.  The shows he had written during the ’40s were not received with the same acclaim as his work from the two previous decades–indeed, they just weren’t as good.  After two successive flops in 1944 and 1946, people pretty much thought the man was done.  And then: Theatrical Brilliance.

The film version of the musical holds the distinction of being the one-and-only MGM musical shot in 3-D.  Yes, it’s true.  When you watch the clips below, try to look for shots or actions that may be even more impressive–IN 3-D!  Unfortunately, by the time the film was released, the 3-D fad was starting to wane (for at least another fifty-five years or so), so the studio released a 2-D version of the film as well to satiate those less adventurous cinema go-ers.

The last bit of praise I will offer before diving in to this musical is the casting of my (and your) lover, Howard Keel–

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opposite Kathryn Grayson:

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These two just have real chemistry.  You totally believe that they’ve been in each other’s lives for years, shared both personal and professional relationships, and that they know each other better than anyone else.  The intimacy-from-experience between Lilli and Fred is in the script, but these two actors–who had worked together twice before in 1952’s Lovely to Look At, and of course in the immortal Showboat in 1951–make that quality all the more present, the movie is better for it.

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(Just look at them.  Aren’t they just darling?)

Remember that picture.  You will see it again.


Fred Graham is about to star in and direct a new musical by Cole Porter, adapted from William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, called Kiss Me Kate (oh yes we are very meta).  We know (and he knows) that he will be brilliant.  The problem: the only woman for the part of his female lead is his shrew-ish ex-wife Lilli Vanessi, and she doesn’t take too kindly to anything that’s to do with Fred.  Fred somehow convinces Lilli to hear Cole (played by the unlimping-and-therefore-historically-inaccurate Ron Randell) play from the score at the apartment he currently lives in that they used to share.  Fred tells Cole to start with a love song, because Lilli is a sucker for a sympathetic lyric.  When she arrives, they begin to unfold their little plot.

(Watch the picture frames on the piano in this clip: you will see a shot that shows Fred and Lilli in Annie Get Your Gun, another movie musical Howard Keel starred in, as well as that Showboat picture from before.  Oh.  So.  Meta.)

So it looks like Lilli is wrapped up enough in sentiment when BOOM: Lois Lane (Ann Miller) shows up and starts tap dancing in a costume Louis B. Mayer must have had commissioned and causes a scene that harkens back to a bull in a china shop:

(It is this author’s firm belief that Ann Miller was a great dancer, a true hoofer, but not a great actress, and definitely not a great singer.  It is also the author’s firm belief that her relationship with LB is what kept her voice from being replaced in this and other films–since this was (and still is) a huge thing in the event of the movie musical.  This may be unfounded, but that’s okay.  It’s just a thought.)

Lois Lane (no connection to the Superman character) is Fred’s current fling, and after a minor tiff it looks like Lilli will walk out and Lois will get to play opposite Fred as Katherine.  But, like all actors, Lilli’s desire for a plumb role makes her swallow her pride and put up with the idea of working with a man who she now hates.  She consents to the project, satisfying Cole and Fred, and relegating Lois to her originally slated role of Bianca.

We jump forward to opening day of the show, and it turns out Lois has been using Fred not only for her part in the show, but also to secure a part for her real boyfriend Bill Calhoun.  Bill’s a no good cad (but we all love those, remember?) who’s just lost $2,000 gambling and signed an IOU in the name of our very own director and star Fred Graham.  Lois berates him by singing a song lowered from its original key, and then dancing a fun duet at 1:32 (just go ahead and fast forward, because the singing before the dance is a real pass). But she still loves him. (Cads, you know.  They got it goin’ on.)

Before curtain, Lilli and Fred reminisce about old times.  Lilli reminds Fred that it’s the anniversary of their divorce, and gives him the champagne cork from their wedding breakfast–which is like a really weird gift for this kind of occasion, right?  It’s the kind of gift that screams, “LET’S GET BACK TOGETHER,” but she’s marrying someone else now.  Then the two of them remember a song from a show they were in years ago, and the shared history creeps up on them:

Fred goes back to his dressing room to be greeted by two thugs, Lippy and Slug–played by Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore, the later of which probably broke your heart as Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption–who were sent to collect on the IOU signed in his name.  He’s able to get rid of them–for now.  Then flowers from Fred are delivered to Lilli’s dressing room, which also happen to be the exact same kind that were in her wedding bouquet.  She responds with those sympathetic lyrics she’d heard that the top of the film:

There’s a card in the flowers as well, but Lilli hasn’t read it yet.  Her maid finds it and she tells Fred she’ll keep it right next to her heart during the show, and then puts it down her top.  Fred, being unable to retrieve the card, has to start the show and wait for the inevitable, which unfortunately comes while on stage. But they are able to get through a couple of numbers before that. (NOTE: The shortest of Bianca’s three suitors is Bob Fosse.)

Things escalate between Fred and Lilli ad hoc on stage after she realizes the flowers weren’t for her.  But the show must go on, with the characters from the B story line:

After this, the rest of the musical is basically spent trying to keep the show going by stopping Lilli from leaving the show in the middle of the performance and holding the gangsters at bay.  I don’t want to say anymore, because I really do love this movie musical, and if you haven’t seen it you should.  I will leave you with these last two numbers: the first is thugs’ advice to Fred, and really showcases the intelligence of Porter’s lyrics like no other song in the movie.

The second and last number is really a marker of things to come.  Choreographer Hermes Pan told each of the dancers playing the suitors (Tommy Rall, Bobby Van, and Bob Fosse) that they could each choreograph a section of the finale.  Each dancer does so in turn, first Rall with Miller, followed by Van–who dances with Gene Kelly’s future wife Jeanne Coyne–and then Fosse with Carol Haney.  Both Rall and Van are thrilling dancers, working within a framework that was current at the time of this film.  But then Fosse enters, and something just erupts on the screen, and people were seeing something totally new.  How amazing to witness that moment.


Another hard musical to pull songs from, since so much of it is so well known.  Luckily we have a song that was inserted into the film, but is not in the actual stage musical itself to fall back on.

  1. “From This Moment On”–Great uptempo Porter, good for a man or a woman.  What more could you ask for? (Just don’t get it confused with the Shania Twain song.)

With that, we bid you adieu, and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

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