Kiss Me Kate (1953)

*. Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is unique in having an opening Induction that presents the main story as a play-within-a-play. This was something a little more developed than just a chorus or prologue, like you get in Henry V, but Olivier’s Henry V may have provided some inspiration for this production, taking us behind-the-scenes at first and only gradually opening up into the play proper as we leave the theatre behind.
*. There’s nothing like the play’s Induction in this film version of the Cole Porter musical of the same name, but what we have operates in a similar way, beginning with a backstage story about a pair of divorced and now dueling stars — Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) — getting ready to put on a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. “Cole Porter” even shows up as a character. It’s all very meta.
*. The rest of it does what a film musical has to do. The songs are first-rate, with “I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily In Padua,” “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?” and “Always True To You In My Fashion” standing out for me. The last mentioned also gets away with what I thought were some pretty bawdy lyrics. The “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” number performed by a pair of gangsters (Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore) felt flat to me. Neither Wynn nor Whitmore were dancers and by their own admission they didn’t even bother practicing. Which is fine if they were just going for rough charm, but even that takes effort.
*. Keel looks raffish with his Don Juan stage beard. The ladies are musical ladies of the 1950s, and not very memorable. The dancing is terrific. The actual musical-within-the-musical is great, but the back story with the gangsters and Fred and Lilli getting back together flagged for me. Of course it’s frantic and silly, and gets resolved in the end only with a bunch of improbabilities thrown at the screen like the items used to show off the (lame) 3-D effects, but it only underlines how idiotic the whole thing is as anything other than an excuse for the big numbers.
*. Few film genres date as quickly as musicals. Tastes in music change with the seasons, and the whole idea of casts breaking into song and dance every five minutes is a tough sell, as witness the celebrated recent box office bombings of Cats and West Side Story, both of which were established properties. I think if you’re going to enjoy these movies you have to go back to the source and take them for what they were. And if you’re still singing the songs a week later, that’s a win.

11 thoughts on “Kiss Me Kate (1953)

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