Why This Is a Great Show
Kiss Me Kate (1953)
Good gracious, I forgot how much I like this movie. The songs! The dancing! The random projectiles thrown at the audience! Kiss Me Kate is great, silly, three-dimensional fun from beginning to end.
Musicals of this period are tricky to revisit -- even when they aren't based on the least appealing of Shakespeare's plays for a human female, The Taming of the Shrew. You never know when some rapey* or racist** theme you completely overlooked in your youth will catch you right between the eyes. For instance, I took my son to see Oklahoma! on the big screen recently, and he wanted to know why no one went looking for Laurie when she didn't show up at the barn-raising after getting in the buggy with creepy old Jed.*** "It's a musical, honey. Nothing makes sense in musicals."
But to be honest, it was the specter of Kathryn Grayson, a woman whose talent I recognize, but do not appreciate, and not the fear of tarnishing a happy memory that kept me from seeing this picture for so long. I was wrong to be thus deterred. For one thing, Grayson is truly good in the part of Lilli Vanessi, pampered soprano. For another, the story works: narcissist leading man, Fred Graham (Howard Keel), is producing and directing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew and wants his ex-wife AND his girlfriend, Lois Lane (Ann Miller) to star in it. Lois is really in love with Bill (Tommy Rall), a great dancer but the kind of boyfriend who borrows money and runs up gambling debts.
Fred and Lilli are still harboring romantic feelings for one another, even though Fred is with Lois (not knowing Lois is with Bill) and Lilli is about to marry a guy named Tex. Bill, p.s., has signed Fred's name to a hefty IOU, payable to a gangster whose henchmen, Lippy (Keenan Wynn) and Slug (James Whitmore), have come round to collect on.
Right before curtain goes up, Lilli mistakenly receives flowers from Fred that were meant for Lois and she believes there may be some spark left between them. She does not read the card, however, until just before the end of the first act. Realizing they were for Lois, Lilli lashes out at Fred -- on stage, in character -- and threatens to quit during intermission -- backstage, as herself. Fred must get Lilli back in line...but how?
For those of you who don't know the knee-slapper that is Shakespeare's original play, the shrew that must be tamed is Katherine, elder daughter of a Paduan merchant called Baptista. By all accounts, Kate is a mean-tempered scold, while her younger sister, Bianca, is sweet as pie and has a number of suitors lined up to marry her as soon as Baptista gets Katherine off his hands. Enter Petruchio, whatever the male equivalent of a gold digger is, who agrees to marry Kate for a small fortune then proceeds to gaslight his new wife into submission through playful starvation and Skinnerian mind games. By the end of the play, Kate winds up walking around Padua babbling about how women should be obedient to their husbands no matter what and Bianca marries a guy named Lucentio.
Meanwhile, back in 1953, Lilli is Kate, who is hostile to Fred/Petruchio until won over by her true feelings; Lois is Bianca, who has many suitors and a roving eye, until she finally picks Bill/Lucentio. All's well that ends well, you might say, with words and lyrics by Cole Porter.
Now add spectacular music, fantastic choreography, and this, the best dance number of the decade, featuring Bob Fosse and Carol Haney, the greatest dancer you hardly ever saw on camera.
I've never seen Kiss Me Kate on stage, despite its perennial revivals and local productions. Honest to god, I could have seen it any number of times during the past two months at the Shakespeare Theatre Company until last weekend in a venue that literally shares a wall with the building I work in. But no, and you know why? Ann Miller wasn't going to be in it, that's why.
Ann Miller is an enthusiastic, underrated bucket of joy to behold. She can act better than posterity has given her credit for, can tap dance like there's no tomorrow, and she can Sell It, because she Owns It, and "Selling It" usually annoys the pants off me (I'm talking to you, Betty Hutton). Ann Miller had to do a kind of tap dance strip tease in 3-D for this picture and she knocked it out of the park.
Please do see this musical if it should come your way on any size screen. I'm sorry to say that Kiss Me Kate isn't available streaming for some reason, but you can get it on DVD. It's worth it.
* Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, for instance. Wow.
** South Pacific, for another.
*** Good goddamned question.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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