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KISS ME KATE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Ann Miller, Tommy Rall, Keenan Wynn, James Whitmore
Director: George Sidney
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: color, full-screen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Featurette, music-only track, documentary short subject, cast & crew, behind-the-scenes notes
Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: April 22, 2003

"I'm a maid who would marry and will take with no qualm, any Tom Dick or Harry, any Harry Dick or Tom."

Film ****

Cole Porter, during the Depression era of the 1930's, was the toast of the town.  A talented composer and lyricist, he was responsible for hit after hit on New York City's Broadway stage.  His melodies were greatly admired for their wit and catchy, syncopated rhythms.  Furthermore, Porter acknowledged that his compositions were adult-oriented, with lyrics that introduced sexy innuendos and upper-class sophistication into songs of this period.  Some of his greatest stage successes of the1930's included Anything Goes, Leave it to Me, and Red Hot and Blue.  Even relative disappointments, like Jubilee, produced classic hits, such as "Begin the Beguine."  Hollywood would also bring him fame and fortune through such films as The Gay Divorcée (with the classic "Night and Day"), Born to Dance (with "I've Got You Under My Skin"), and Rosalie (featuring "Why Should I Care?").

Unfortunately, in late 1937, a tragedy drastically altered Porter's high society lifestyle.  A horse-riding accident smashed his legs and left him crippled and confined to a wheelchair for several years.  Although he eventually regained the ability to walk, he endured over thirty operations to save his legs and experienced near-constant pain for the remainder of his life.  Porter tried not to allow his own physical discomfort to interfere with his work, but there is no doubt that it did affect him emotionally and psychologically.  Accordingly, the quantity and quality of his output suffered during the war era.

But, Porter was simply too gifted to remain down in the dumps forever.  Ten years after his accident, Cole Porter re-claimed the spotlight once more with the smash Broadway hit Kiss Me Kate.  It was a saucy and utterly delectable backstage musical in which a dramatic play's on-stage plot is mirrored by the backstage theatrics of a quarreling couple.  In a twist of backstage life imitating art, the play in question was Shakespeare's comedy The Taming of the Shrew.  Kiss Me Kate eventually had an incredible run of over 1000 performances.  With this new triumph, Porter was once again the toast of the town.

In the 1950's, MGM opted to produce a film version of Kiss Me Kate.  In assembling its cast, MGM turned mostly to its own contract players.  The role of Fred Graham, the quarreling ex-husband, was won by Howard Keel.  Many young fans may be surprised to learn that Howard Keel not only sings but sings very well!  Believe it or not, long before his days as Clayton Farlow on TV's Dallas, he was a bona fide musical comedy star.  Among his many films are such notable musicals as Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Kiss Me Kate re-unites him with his Show Boat co-star, Kathryn Grayson, lured back to MGM for the role of Lilli Vanessi, the quarreling ex-wife.

Ann Miller rounds out the lead players in Kiss Me Kate.  A very energetic dancer, she was one of a top trio of female dancers gradually developed by MGM to fill the void created after their mega-star dancer, Eleanor Powell, retired from show business in the early 1940's.  The other two dancers were the glamorous and sexy Cyd Charisse and the talented Vera-Ellen, one of Fred Astaire's better, multi-film dance partners.  Ann Miller, however, has maintained the longest film career of this trio and even a few years back was occasionally accepting acting roles.  In Kiss Me Kate, while Keel and Grayson handle the bulk of the singing duties, Miller also proves she can belt out a tune, too!  However, it is in her dance numbers that Ann Miller is truly electrifying.  To be sure, she's come a long way since her groan-inducing ballet skits as a teenager in Frank Capra's ridiculous screwball comedy You Can't Take It with You!

As Kiss Me Kate begins, Fred Graham and Cole Porter are discussing their upcoming production, a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew.  Cole Porter is portrayed by an actor in these early scenes.  Perhaps the real Cole Porter did not feel he was a strong enough actor to convincingly portray himself on film?  Lilli soon arrives, and Fred and Cole embark on a sales pitch to entice her into agreeing to participate in the musical as the female lead.  Fred and Lilli even practice one of the lovelier tunes from the show - "So in Love."  There is a slight problem - in truth, Lilli intensely dislikes Fred, her former husband.  To complicate matters, Fred will not only be playing the male lead but will be directing the musical, too!  How can they possibly convince Lilli to join the production?  Enter, Lois Lane!

No, she's not a reporter.  Lois (Ann Miller) is a peppy, aspiring chorus girl.  She is also Fred's sweetie for the moment, or so he believes.  She has just in fact raced over from another performance to audition for the role of Bianca, the younger sister, in Porter's new musical.  Upon her arrival to Fred's apartment, she flashes a charming smile and innocently inquires of the observant men, "I hope you don't mind my legs," all the while nonchalantly displaying them.  If that isn't enough, she promptly brings in a jazz ensemble and launches into a red-hot rendition of "Too Darn Hot!"

Fred is delighted, of course.  Lilli, however, is obviously annoyed, and a near-catfight soon erupts when both women accuse the other of stealing music numbers and roles from one another.  As Lilli storms out, the two men brainstorm quickly and show Lois the script, suggesting that she is ideal for the female lead....very LOUDLY.  Naturally, Lilli over-hears and storms back in to re-claim her role.

Immediately, the delicious sexual tension and magnificent comic possibilities of Kiss Me Kate are established in these early scenes.  Audiences are assured that the show to follow will not only be very funny and witty, but will feature superlative dance numbers and some of Cole Porter's finest melodies.

The movie now jumps to opening night.  Alert viewers may have noticed by this point that the popular opening number, "Another Op'nin', Another Show," is missing!  I guess it was cut for purposes of pacing, but on the bright side, its melody can still be heard on the film's underscore.  We are soon introduced to Lois' secret boyfriend, Bill Calhoun (Tommy Rall), who also plays one of her suitors in the stage play.  Bill does not care much for Fred's attentions toward Lois.  Furthermore, he is a bit of a gambler and consequently signs an IOU for two thousand dollars in Fred Graham's name, mostly out of jealousy.  The plot thickens when two hilariously hopeless gangsters, played by Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore, come to collect from the unsuspecting Fred.  Instead, the two mugs are tricked by Fred's quick thinking and are eventually dragged on-stage, paraded around in costumes, and generally played for fools throughout the film.

When the curtains rise, the musical within the musical begins!  Though I've never actually read Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, but if it's as entertaining as its loose adaptation here, I will have to find a copy to read quickly!  A wealthy merchant of Padua has two daughters of marrying age.  The younger is Bianca (Lois), a fair maiden being stalwartly wooed by three suitors.  The older is Katherine (Lilli), a shrewish and shrill wildcat that the merchant has despaired of ever marrying off.  Enter, Petruchio (Fred), a dashing, adventurous  man who seeks the hand of a rich, available maiden to be his wife.  His attentions are swiftly focused upon Katherine, of whom he determines to woo, tame, and marry.  The merchant, in turn, promises a handsome dowry if he succeeds!  Katherine, however, has other plans, and clearly states her views with the song "I Hate Men."  Lilli assumes her role as the shrewish daughter Katherine with perhaps a little too much gusto and enthusiasm, gleefully taking every opportunity to rain punches and kicks onto poor Fred.  At one point, the exasperated Fred declares, "May I remind you, Miss Vanessi, that the name of this piece is The Taming of the Shrew, not He Who Gets Slapped!"

Is it irreverent?  You betcha!  And it's hilarious and sexy and glorious fun!  Plus, the Cole Porter tunes for the show are absolutely phenomenal.  While he has created many superb songs throughout his long career, Kiss Me Kate has the greatest ensemble of Cole Porter classics of any of his shows.  Many of Kathryn Grayson's duets with Howard Keel, such as "So in Love" and "Wunderbar," are quite excellent.  Grayson has an incredible voice, easily the match of 20th-Century Fox's Shirley Jones or MGM's own Jane Powell.  Another absolute show-stopper is "From this Moment On."  This song actually originates from another Porter musical but appears near the finale for the film version of Kiss Me Kate.  The enthusiastic singing and ensemble dancing in it makes this number the highlight of the film.  "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" also gives our two hopeless mobsters an opportunity to explore their own non-existent musical talents.  Just check out James Whitmore's facial expressions during this goofy number, which almost steals the show!

Viewers who have seen Kiss Me Kate on stage may notice that some songs have been altered or shortened in the film.  These changes will seem fairly trivial and pointless now to modern sensibilities, but times were different back in the 1950's.  Mostly, audiences can thank the Hays Office for these alterations, as this censor board tried to wallop Kiss Me Kate but good.  For instance, in "I Hate Men," the word maiden substitutes for virgin.  Also, most of the lyrics to "Too Darn Hot" have been drastically cooled down from the stage version.  Curiously, while this song is usually sung by a black jazz singer for the stage, here instead Ann Miller belts it out before undulating into a rapid-fire dance.  Let the stage purists complain, but Ann Miller still absolutely sizzles in this hot number!  A second Ann Miller number, "Always True to You in My Fashion," has likewise been toned down.  Perhaps the censors felt that Ann Miller was already enough to handle without Porter's suggestive lyrics?  There are many other small changes elsewhere, but suffice it to say that Cole Porter tunes must have given the Hays Office constant headaches every time a new movie version of one of his musicals popped up!

Fortunately, the censors do not catch everything.  The song "Tom, Dick, or Harry" is not only extremely witty but is also wickedly naughty (in a very sly way!) from a lyrical standpoint.  Ann Miller once again does the honors here, accompanied by Tommy Rall, Bobby Van, and Bob Fosse.

That's right!  Keen-eyed viewers may notice that one of Ann Miller's dance partners is indeed a very young Bob Fosse.  When Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire's long-time choreographer, was recruited to handle those very duties for Kiss Me Kate, he allowed Fosse to choreograph his own dance steps.  The incredible results may be witnessed in the sensational ensemble dance "From This Moment On."  If you cannot recognize Fosse at first, no worry, all you need to do is pay attention to the choreography, and you will know immediately which of these young lads is Fosse!  As a bonus, Hermes Pan himself also makes a cameo in the film as a sailor!  He's easy to spot because he even bears a passing resemblance to Fred Astaire!

In the end, all's well that ends well.  The Taming of the Shrew concludes happily when Petruchio finally wins Katherine's heart.  I'm surprised the censors allowed Petruchio's line "Why, there's a wench!  Come on, and kiss me Kate!" to stand, but I suppose if it's Shakespeare, then it's okay!  The backstage drama, of course, will mirror the on-stage comedy.  In that regard, we know that things will work out fine in the end for Fred and Lilli.  And for Lois and Bill, too!

As for Cole Porter?  He continued to write memorable songs and enjoyed further Broadway successes in Can-Can and Silk Stockings, both of which were also adapted for the screen as well.  Porter would eventually retire for good from show business in the late 1950's, and while this latter phase in his career saw a triumphant comeback with numerous hit shows and movies, it is Kiss Me Kate that will remain forevermore the highlight of his remarkable career.

Video *** 1/2

Ah, that wacky MGM publicity department!  The original release of Kiss Me Kate was in 3-D, believe it or not!  That would explain many of the unusual shots in the film, during which title sequences pop right out and objects and actors seem to come flying at the audiences.  It is a pity that Warner Brothers did not elect to include a 3-D version of the film, or at least excerpts, on the DVD as well.  The technology certainly exists to do this; I know because I have seen a decent 3-D DVD before.  However, I still had to wear those goofy glasses!

Nevertheless, the video quality of this regular print is quite pleasing.  It is presented in brilliant Technicolor in a full-screen format.  And no, this film was not photographed for a widescreen release.  That gimmick would not see common usage until a few years after this film's release.  The transfer is very solid, without blockiness or obvious artificial defects.  Plus, the source print is quite sharp and clean, too.  All in all, a fine-looking DVD!

Audio ***

The original release of Kiss Me Kate had MGM's stereophonic sound.  The DVD re-masters this soundtrack into a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix.  During dialogue scenes, the sound comes mainly from the front, but whenever the musical numbers begin, all five speakers really blossom!  It is another solid job by Warner Brothers.

Features **

To start with, the cast & crew section is pretty slim.  A behind-the-scenes section is also slim but does mention some interesting points about the production.  As a bonus, for fans of the Cole Porter score, there is a music-only track which can be assessed from the special features menu or from directly in the movie!  This is a swell idea which I think musical DVDs should employ more often.

Ann Miller appears in a 9-minute featurette about Kiss Me Kate.  She provides some comparisons between the movie version and the stage version.  Many of the surviving cast members also make appearances and recount some great anecdotes about the film's production.  Kathryn Grayson offers her opinion that Tommy Rall was the best dancer in the cast.  Most hilarious is the fact that James Whitmore and Keenan Wynn were driving choreographer Hermes Pan nuts because they goofed off entirely during their practice sessions.  Yet somehow, they managed to ad-lib something for the studio execs, who made a visit one day to check on the progress.  Hermes Pan had been certain he was going to be fired on the spot but instead ended up receiving hearty congratulations!

The largest feature is the 20-minute Mighty Manhattan, New York's Wonder City.  It is basically nothing more than a travelogue.  You'll see the sights and more sights of New York City, including familiar landmarks such as Central Park, the Empire State Building, and the Statue of Liberty.  I feel so excited, I'm getting goosebumps.  Honestly, I have absolutely no clue what this documentary has to do with Kiss Me Kate, except maybe for the fact that you can glimpse Ann Miller very briefly in the Waldorf-Astoria's famous Starlight Room.  That's a pretty flimsy reason for including this documentary as an extra, but you might as well enjoy it because it is still interesting to see what the city looked like over fifty years ago.

Summary:

Like Cole Porter tunes?  Say no more!  Kiss Me Kate is the musical for you!  The songs are phenomenal, the singing is extraordinary, and the dancing is out of sight!  Plus, where else can you catch the young Bob Fosse dancing up a storm to his unique brand of choreography?