Chaos reigns in the theatre with... Kiss Me, Kate (1953)
The Sound of Music. Singin’ in the Rain. The Wizard of Oz. Cabaret. When people talk about the best movie musicals, these are often the titles that you’ll hear. In my opinion, there is one glaring omission: 1953’s Kiss Me, Kate. The property first opened on Broadway in 1949 and wound up winning the first Tony Award for Best Musical. When it came time for the show to be made into a film, it found the perfect studio in MGM, which produced the finest, sleekest musicals in all of Hollywood. KMK is first-class all the way with direction by George Sidney, choreography by Hermes Pan (Fred Astaire’s frequent collaborator), a screenplay adapted by Dorothy Kingsley from Samuel and Bella Spewack’s Tony-winning script, and a cast that can’t be beat.
"So in Love," especially when the piano is covered in old photographs of her and Fred (which are actually old publicity stills of Keel and Grayson).
She agrees to play the part, but as we'll soon discover, every time something goes right in this film, it'll quickly go wrong. The nice scene is interrupted by one vivacious, fast-talking, half-naked brunette in the form of Ann Miller. Lois Lane -- not that one, Superman fans -- barges in, all ready to show "Sweetie," er, Fred, "Too
Darn Hot," her audition for Kiss Me, Kate. Being Ann Miller, the number is slinky and done with a wink to the camera, Miller stripping off gloves and jewelry and throwing them to her audience. It's purposely set up as the opposite of the buttoned-up, more classical approach Lilli thrives in, whose deadpan expression as she catches Lois's bracelet and hands it to Fred is hilarious.
Lilli isn't thrilled with how cozy Lois is with Fred, the film hinting that the chorus girl has slept with him in order to get the role of Bianca, Katherine's younger and more sought-after sister. It's all too much for Lilli, who quits the show five minutes after agreeing to it. Fred knows his ex-wife, though, and he offers Katherine to Lois while Lilli is still within earshot. Outraged, she takes back her part and the animosity between the women grows.
The money troubles don't end there, of course. Loving to gamble, he's racked up a considerable debt, but don't worry -- he signed Mr. Frederick Graham's name to the I.O.U. Miffed that Lois thinks she has to flirt to move up in the world and not understanding why she wants to leave behind seedy clubs for the Great White Way, Bill sees the I.O.U. as a way to exact a little revenge on Fred, who he blames for putting stars in Lois's eyes. They take their argument up to the roof, Lois venting her frustration with "Why Can't You Behave," her plea to Bill to stop gambling and get serious, maybe even consider c-c-c-commitment? It's a terrific number, one that solidified to me during my first viewing that KMK was going to become one of my favorites. Tommy Rall is unfairly forgotten today, probably because he didn't receive lead roles like he should have. He's a stunning dancer -- balletic, athletic, and oozing confidence. Watching him match taps with Ann Miller is a privilege we are all lucky to have.
"Wunderbar," a sprightly tune that has Lilli and Fred harmonizing and dancing without a care.
here's a low-quality one.
If you look closely at the actors' feet, you'll notice that Kathryn Grayson is the only one in high heels, being a very petite woman (I can sympathize). The fact that she was able to do that treadmill stuff in heels without breaking something is awe-inspiring. Despite looking confident, though, Grayson wasn't a very good
Once everyone but Fred leaves the stage, Kiss Me, Kate's story really begins as Petruchio (Fred) gives the audience background on the story's central people. The wealthy Baptista (an unrecognizable Kurt Kasznar) has two gorgeous daughters, Bianca and Katherine. Bianca is followed around by three suitors: Lucentio (Bill), Hortensio (Fosse), and Gremio (Van). Bianca is
Bianca's frustration leads to one of the most joyful musical moments I've ever seen: "Tom, Dick, or Harry." Lucentio, Gremio, and Hortensio highlight in song what would make them great husbands, but pretty soon they find their aggressive tactics returned tenfold by Bianca in a fun role reversal. Acting demure at first, she begins chasing them, her big Ann Miller eyes darting around in excitement at these handsome men
This being a Cole Porter song, it's easy to find sex stamped all over it. Do these guys really want to get married, or do they just want the wedding night? The delight in watching Bianca -- and Lois -- is that she desires sex just as much as men, and she's not ashamed of it despite the side-eye she gets from Lilli or the hypocritical reproaches she hears from Bill. This equality is reflected in Miller's dancing and her numbers. Any step the men can do, you can bet Miller can do, and all with a grin on her face. Watch the number here.
"I've Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua." (On a sidenote, how fabulous are these song titles?) He doesn't care what his future wife looks like or how she acts, so long as she's rich and able to support him. Hortensio and Gremio see him as the ideal match for Katherine, but Lucentio says that he couldn't ask his friend for such a sacrifice. Overhearing all this, Petruchio is intrigued and agrees to go through with the marriage. Without meeting or even seeing Kate, he negotiates her dowry with Baptista and they're quickly betrothed.
Disgusted, Kate takes to the stage to condemn the opposite sex in the scathing "I Hate Men," an ode to how cruel and two-faced men can be. A sample lyric: "If thou shouldst wed a businessman / be weary, oh, be weary / He'll tell you he's detained in town on business necessary / His business is the business with his pretty secretary / Oh, I hate men!" It seems over the top, especially since Grayson bangs down an ale mug once in a while to punctuate her sentences, her furious look enough to tuck a dog's tail between its legs after one glance. But all of that undermines the song's message, which is essentially gender inequality. Kate sees this going on every day and she refuses to be a casualty of it. For Pete's sake, she wasn't even included in her own betrothal! Objectifying women so we can glorify men is never alright, and Kate's had all she can take. Unfortunately, things aren't looking up for her yet. Petruchio comes to meet his fiancée, but she's not having it, instead staying on a high balcony and forcing Petruchio to sing "Were Thine That Special Face" in an effort to soften her up. It's a lovely number, with a simple spotlight on Keel as he proves that he really was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. Go ahead and try to fight me on that, but what you can't deny is that Keel looked damn good in a pair of tights.
Now here comes the tricky part, arguably the worst moment in the film... Lilli's slap becomes the final straw. Fred grabs her and, claiming that she asked for it, begins merrily spanking Lilli's behind as the audience laughs. I hate this because it undermines the strength of Grayson's character, making her the laughingstock for everyone. More importantly, though, it's violence against a woman dressed up as a joke -- I've never found it funny, nor do I enjoy that every single poster and advertisement for this movie uses this image, Keel's hand in the air and a gleeful look on his face while Grayson appears scandalized. Foreign posters actually sexualize Grayson by lifting her skirt up and leaving her undergarments exposed. I'm definitely uncomfortable with sharing these images, so if you're super curious, you'll have to search for them yourself.
Because she has the worst timing, Lois chooses this time to come in and thank Fred for not getting angry with Bill. Before she can mention that it was really her beau's I.O.U. and thus ruin his plan for Lilli, Fred kisses Lois to shut her up. Just one kiss doesn't stop her, though, leading to a series of longer and deeper kisses until unfortunately both Bill and Lilli walk in on it. Now Lilli's really ticked!
"Where is the Life that Late I Led?" Petruchio is beginning to doubt this whole marriage thing, especially since he's being denied a wedding night. So, what's a guy to do? Sing about his previous conquests, of course!
Prowling the set with a devilish grin, Keel sings to the
Then, when the song is over and Keel is taking a bow, he's suddenly back on the stage, with a shot from the wings showing no catwalk whatsoever. What the what? I won't try to explain it because I honestly have no answer, except that maybe Fred is so engrossed in his number that he imagines this setpiece...? I don't know,
By this point, Lilli's fiancé Tex has arrived. Not wanting to stir up trouble, Fred calls off Slug and Lippy and Lilli is free to go. While she's packing up her things, Tex waits downstairs and is noticed by Lois, who remembers him from a date they had not too long ago. Her uncontrollable flirting kicks into high gear, and Bill gets to witness it all. He goes out to the alley to get some air, and Lois follows, protesting all the way that she was just being friendly. According to Bill, that's the problem -- she's always being friendly. Lois doesn't see why it's a big deal because her relationship with Bill
"Always True to You in My Fashion" is a hilarious number, featuring Lois swearing that although she likes other men, they don't hold a candle to Bill. It gets quite racy, because again, it's Cole Porter. And Miller's liveliness makes it even worse (better?). She and Rall were a great team, too. Hermes Pan was the film's choreographer and he makes a little cameo as a sailor that catches Lois's eye during this song. You can watch the number here.
Lilli: "You don't need me. You've got an understudy."
Fred: "Nobody could take your place, Lilli, onstage or off."
Lilli: "You read those lines very well."
Fred: "If I do, it's because I mean them...with all my heart."
Lilli: "What script did you steal that from?"
Fred: "It was a good script, Lilli, about two people who fell in love and got married. It should have had a longer run."
Lilli: "Maybe it was bad casting."
Fred: "No, the leading lady was great. It was the leading man who just wasn't big enough for the role."
After watching these two fight like crazy for the past 90 minutes, this quietly tender moment packs a bigger punch than their histrionics ever could. Lilli and Fred have always been real and honest with one another -- brutally so sometimes -- yet this time their words aren't out of spite. Instead, it comes from the full understanding of what they lost and what that completely means. KMK gets deep, guys. Sadly, it doesn't seem to be enough to make Lilli stay.
"Brush Up Your Shakespeare," a tune that was risque in the original stage version, but had to be watered down for the film. Seeing Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore sing and dance is quite comical, as it's intended to be. According to Whitmore, he and Wynn used their rehearsal time to goof off instead, frustrating Hermes Pan to no end. When it came time for them to show producer Arthur Freed and director George Sidney what they had been working on, Pan watched in embarrassment as the guys stumbled through the routine. Amazingly, Freed and Sidney thought it worked and only wanted a little more polish.
For "From This Moment On," Hermes Pan encouraged the featured dancers to come up with their own moves, allowing each couple to have a solo that reflects their style. Miller and Rall are all balletic twirls and leaps; Van and Coyne do a cute tap interlude... and then Fosse and Haney enter. The music becomes jazzy and the lighting dims. While the choreography for the other couples is exuberant, Fosse created choreography that seems to tell a story. It feels provocative and sensual and utterly thrilling. You can watch "From This Moment On" in its entirety here.
Shockingly, MGM wasn't sold on the idea of Keel's casting and he had to be tested. "They thought I couldn't handle Kiss Me, Kate," the actor would remember. To prove he could be Fred Graham, Keel worked on Shakespeare with Louis Calhern, "a fine Shakespeare actor." He then went to the makeup and costume departments, joking that once he was in character "the ham came out." After his test, producer
Like Keel, Grayson wasn't MGM's first choice. The studio actually tried to lure Deanna Durbin out of retirement to play Lilli, but when that didn't work, they turned to Grayson, who proved to be a successful partner for Keel in two previous films, Show Boat (1951) and Lovely to Look At (1952). Although I think Durbin would have been wonderful in KMK, I must admit that Grayson does a fine job and Lilli is my favorite performance of hers. KMK wound up being her last movie at MGM and her second-to-last feature
film. After the decline of the movie musical, Grayson
found a career in theatre and in opera for several decades.
While Fosse and Haney were practicing their solo on an empty soundstage, Ann Miller came upon them and was amazed. "When I saw the routine, I thought 'That's the best I've ever seen,'" she recalled. "It was a kind of eccentric dancing that nobody had ever seen before." She got Pan and George Sidney and they watched the rehearsal in secret. Everyone was bowled over. Once the magnificent routine wowed audiences, Broadway came knocking and in 1954, Fosse choreographed his first musical, The Pajama Game. The show provided him with his first of an eventual five Tony Awards for Best Choreography (the only person to do so), but more importantly, it gave Fosse a whole new career. When he returned to MGM in 1955 to make My Sister Eileen, he not only played Janet Leigh's love interest, he also choreographed the film -- and partnered with Tommy Rall again for an incredible dance routine!
The Pajama Game, by the way, did wonders for Carol Haney, too, winning her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Like Fosse, she became a Broadway choreographer, creating the dances for Flower Drum Song, She Loves Me, and Funny Girl before dying from pneumonia at the age of 39.
Porter was very hands-on with the production of KMK, even though he was in bad health and came to the set accompanied by a nurse. (He was in a terrible horseback riding accident in 1937 that almost took both of his legs and that he never fully recovered from.) He oversaw the costumes, which were done by genius Walter Plunkett. (Seriously. All of these costumes are beautiful.) Porter also kept his eye on Dorothy Kingsley's screenplay adaptation.
KMK has the distinct pleasure of being one of the few movies in the 1950s that were intended to be in 3-D. Although I've only ever seen it in 2-D, it's obvious which moments were meant to pop out at audiences. A character will throw something at the screen or an actor will look at the camera directly during a song. It sounds distracting, but most of the time it isn't -- these moments actually make sense in the film's world, such as when Bill is playing around during "Why Can't You Behave?" and he goes flying towards the audience. Despite all of the trouble everyone went to to make KMK a 3-D spectacular, only half of the 3-D prints were ever sent out because the craze was almost over by the time the movie was released. If you're ever curious as to what KMK would look like in its original format, however, and you have the right equipment, you can buy the 3-D print on Bluray here. Honestly, the best thing about the film's 3-D history may just be these publicity photos:
here, and please stay tuned for my next two entries!