Sunday, February 9, 2014
Kiss Me Kate (1953) DVD Review
Kiss Me Kate (1953) stars Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Tommy Rall, and Bob Fosse. The screenplay is by Dorothy Kingsley, and the film was directed by George Sidney. Kiss Me Kate is an odd adaptation of The Taming Of The Shrew, because it’s an adaptation about an adaptation. It does have the play within a play structure – or in this case, a play within a film. It also contains references to several other Shakespeare plays.
Oddly, it opens on a shot of the book of sheet music for Kiss Me Kate. And then Cole Porter (Ron Randall) shows up at Fred Graham’s door. He and Fred (Howard Keel) have invited Lilli (Kathryn Grayson) to Fred’s house to talk her into playing a part in Kiss Me Kate opposite Fred, who will also be directing the production. But Fred and Lilli used to be married, and Cole thinks that might keep her from accepting the job. But she does show up. And there are hints of a tempestuous quality to their relationship – she had thrown an ink well at him. Cole explains, “This is a sort of a musical version of The Taming Of The Shrew. Shakespeare, you know.” Fred tries to woo her by starting with “So In Love,” a duet, but whenever he steps toward her, she steps away. After the song, Lilli says, “But tell me something, do you really think I could play the shrew?” Fred responds, “You’d make a perfect shrew.” Lois Lane (Ann Miller) arrives early, and Fred says to Cole: “This is Miss Lane, the young lady I was telling you about. You know, for the part? Bianca.” Lois says, “The younger sister.” Lilli, upset, says, “Younger?” And there are hints of a relationship between Fred and Lois. Lilli says she won’t do the show, and lets drop that she’s getting married. Lois then excitedly says: “I can play Kate. I can do the part.” She steps up on the table and begins reciting from Julius Caesar: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ear.” Lilli then demands the part.
We then go to the final rehearsal the afternoon of opening night. They’re rehearsing the curtain calls, but Bill Calhoun (Tommy Rall), their Lucentio, is missing. And we learn of a relationship between Bill and Lois. Bill is upset because Lois seems no longer satisfied with the world of nightclubs. He says, “You thought they were great until you met this Hamlet,” indicating Fred.
Lilli orders some food before the performance, but Fred orders the food taken away (a nod to the scene in Shrew where Petruchio sends back the food before Katherina can eat it – though in this case he says that eating before a performance gives Lilli indigestion). There is a little joke about Fred having had married for Lilli for her money (as Petruchio says he intends to do in The Taming Of The Shrew). Fred says, “You mean that one room of yours over the Armenian bakery?” Lilli responds: “You should complain. You didn’t even have a room.” To which Fred says, “Why do you think I married you?” They kiss after reminiscing with a song. After he leaves, she says she won’t eat. “If he wants me to go hungry, I’ll go hungry.” Tamed already?
Then we go to the play within the film, so everything so far is like the Induction, in a way. A curtain opens on stage to reveal two men holding up a sign that reads “The Taming Of The Shrew.” The opening number has the cast as a troupe of traveling players, and so there is a sort of Induction again even within the play. And one line they sing is, “Shakespearean portrayers are we.” That song also mentions Venice, Verona, Mantua and Padua – all places mentioned in The Taming Of The Shrew. Fred as Petruchio tells the audience: “This is the tale of Baptista Minola, a merchant of old Padua who is firmly resolved not to bestow his younger daughter Bianca till he canst find a husband for the elder, Katherine, a shrew.” As he mentions each person, a spot light goes up on him or her. Baptista then says, “Oh, if I could only find a man who would thoroughly woo her, wed her and bed her and rid my house of her” (a slight variation on Gremio’s line from Shrew). Petruchio then introduces us to Gremio (Bobby Van), Hortensio (Bob Fosse) and Lucentio. Petruchio says: “Sweet Bianca, she sings as sweetly as a nightingale. She looks as clean and fresh as morning roses newly washed with dew.” It’s interesting that Petruchio says this about Bianca, because these are lines that Petruchio uses to describe Katherina in the speech where he tells the audience how he’ll woo her in The Taming Of The Shrew. Bianca speaks her line from Act I: “To my father’s pleasure humbly I subscribe. My books and music shall be my only company. On them to look and practice by myself” (a slight variation of Shrew’s “Sir, to your pleasure humbly I subscribe./My books and instruments shall be my company,/On them to look and practice by myself”). Petruchio then speaks a variation of Hortensio’s line: “But she is shrewd and forward beyond all measure” (yes, “forward” instead of “froward”). Katherine, at a balcony, tells the audience: “Bianca is my father’s treasure. She must have a husband, and for love of her, I must dance barefoot on her wedding day” (a variation of her lines from Act II Scene I – “She is your treasure, she must have a husband,/I must dance barefoot on her wedding-day,/And for your love to her lead apes in hell”). She then throws down a vase of flowers. Petruchio says, “Katherine, for shame, think on thy poor father.” Baptista says, “Oh, was ever father thus griev’d as I?” (“father” instead of “gentleman”). Petruchio says: “A happy wind blows me, Petruchio, to Padua from old Verona. For I am born to tame this Kate. Kate the curst. A title for a maid of all titles the worst.” That’s a combination of lines of Hortensio’s line to Petruchio in Act I, Petruchio’s lines to Katherina in Act II, and Grumio’s line from Act I. All of these lines are spoken outward to the audience.
And then the play truly begins, with the characters interacting with one another rather than speaking to the audience, beginning with Bianca crying and then wooed by her three suitors. None of them is old, as Gremio is in Shrew. After a musical number, we hear the theatre audience applaud, so we haven’t traveled completely within the play. We then go to Petruchio’s entrance and speech about why he’s arrived in town. Except in this version it is Lucentio, not Hortensio, that is his friend. But Lucentio still says that he arrived in town to study, as in Shrew. But because of that, Petruchio speaks some of Tranio’s lines: “I am glad that you thus combine your resolve to suck the sweets of sweet philosophy. The mathematics and botany. Fall to them as you find your stomach serves. No profit grows where is no pleasure taken. In brief, sir, study.” (Tranio’s lines in Shrew are: “Glad that you thus continue your resolve/To suck the sweets of sweet philosophy…The mathematics and the metaphysics/Fall to them as you find your stomach serves you./No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en./In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”) Petruchio then begins to sing “I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily In Padua.” After this song, the crowd onstage cheers, but the theatre audience does not. So it seems we are now within the world of the play.
Hortensio and Gremio try to get Lucentio to speak to Petruchio about marrying Katherine. So Lucentio continues to speak Hortensio’s lines: “And shrewd and forward, so beyond all measure/That, were my state for poorer than it is,/I would not wed her for a mine of gold.” (He says “poorer” rather than “worser.”) Petruchio says: “Peace, Lucentio. Thou know’st not gold’s effect.” A loud shout from above then leads Petruchio to do the “Think you a little din” speech.
We then go to Act II Scene i. Bianca is not bound, but is running from Katherine. Baptista says again, “Was ever father thus griev’d as I” (instead of “gentleman”). Baptista exits and Katherine sings “I Hate Men.” Toward the end of the song, we get a reverse shot, so we see the theatre audience, which applauds. It’s odd because we hear no reactions to the humor of the play. For example, there is no laughter at Baptista’s line, “I have a daughter, sir, called Katherine.” So it seems we’re to believe the audience only likes certain musical numbers and not the humor of Shakespeare’s play. What I mean to say is that it is a stupid audience. In this version, Petruchio doesn’t readily accept the twenty thousand crowns. He counters, “Thirty,” which changes his character, making him truly more about the money. Baptista agrees to thirty. Petruchio says, “Go, get thee to a notary” (a joke on the line from Hamlet).
Petruchio then begins to woo Katherine with a song. There is again a reverse shot, showing the theatre audience behind Petruchio. Also pulling us out of the play is the moment when Lilli, as Katherine, touches the card she’d tucked into her costume backstage. Fred, as Petruchio, gives a brief shake of the head to keep her from reading it. After the song, she does read it, and sees Lois’ name on it rather than her own, leading her to make an angry screeching sound. That in turn leads back to the play and Baptista to say, “It was not to her liking.” Petruchio says: “But that is nothing. For I tell you, father/I am as peremptory as she proud-minded/And where two ranging fires meet together,/They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.” He does a little of the speech in which he expresses his strategy in wooing, but he says the line to Baptista rather than to the audience: “If she bids me pack, I’ll give her thanks.” Katherine hears this, and from her balcony yells, “I bid thee pack,” clearly not a line intended, for Baptista asks quietly, “What’s the matter, Fred?” And when Katherine descends, Baptista says Petruchio’s line, “Speak, Petruchio, speak.” Katherine tears the card up and throws it in Petruchio’s face as he attempts the wooing scene. This is when the play within the film and the film itself mix, giving the wooing scene an extra level, and the smack more significance. Petruchio tells her, “We’re on stage now, Lilli,” then goes into “Good morrow, Kate, for that’s your name, I hear.” And there is much anger in Katherine’s response. The “asses” line is left in, but the “tongue in your tail” line is cut. Petruchio says, “I swear I’ll cuff you if you strike again.” He then leans in, adding, “I’ll give you the paddling of your life, and on stage.” On “Kiss me, Kate,” Katherine smacks him. In the shot, we see the audience, and here for the first time they react, laughing. Petruchio then puts Katherine over his knee and spanks her several times.
The curtain closes, and we continue with the action backstage. Fred says, “May I remind you, Miss Vanessi, the name of this piece is The Taming Of The Shrew, not He Who Gets Slapped.” (So it’s not called Kiss Me Kate, as indicated in the opening shot?) Fred mentions his achievements. “My Hamlet in Dublin.” Lilli counters, “You got paid in potatoes – mashed.” Fred says: “I couldn’t teach you manners as a wife. But by heavens I’ll teach you manners as an actress.” Lilli says, “Not in this production, you won’t.” She then smacks him again. So even as Petruchio works to tame Katherine, Fred works to tame Lilli.
The curtain opens on a tableau, which comes to life for the wedding. Petruchio enters in goofy clothes and wielding a whip. But there are no lines commenting on his clothes. The business about Petruchio being late is cut. Baptista points out two new actors (the men to whom Calhoun owns money). Petruchio goes right to “Obey the bride, you that attend her/Go to the feast, and revel and domineer,” but without Katherine having spoken a word, which doesn’t make sense. When Katherine starts to run off, Petruchio catches her with his whip.
When Petruchio and Katherine arrive at Petruchio’s house, we have a wide shot of the stage which includes the theatre audience. Petruchio tries to get the two goons off the stage with some improvisation. One of them responds, “To flee or not to flee, that is the question,” obviously a play on Hamlet’s famous line. He then says, “Going away is such a sweet sorrow,” a reference to Romeo And Juliet. The theatre audience laughs at some of the silliness resulting from their presence. Petruchio’s “Thus have I politicly begun my reign” speech is delivered to himself, until the last few lines, which are delivered straight to camera.
We then go backstage for a while. After the goons’ boss is shot dead, the goons get ready to leave, one of them saying to Fred, “Yeah, like I said before, Mr. Graham, going away is such sweet sorrow.” Later, to cheer Fred up, he says, “Just remember what the immortal bard once said: ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’” (a reference to As You Like It). And that leads to the song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” That song includes references to other works, such as Othello, Antony And Cleopatra, All’s Well That Ends Well, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing and Coriolanus (“Kick her right in the Coriolanus”).
We then return to the stage for the final scene. There is an interesting variation on the bet. There is actually no wager, but Petruchio enters alone when he should have Katherine with him. Baptista quietly asks, “Where is she?” Petruchio responds, “By now, she should be flying over Newark” (Lilli said she was leaving the production). Baptista then says to a servant, “Go you to mistress Katherine and tell her I command her to come to me.” So it is Baptista, not Petruchio, who says that line. Then Petruchio says: “I know she will not come. The fouler fortune mine, and there an end.” Lilli then returns as Katherine, saying, “What is your will, sir, that you send for me?” But she says it to Petruchio, not Baptista, who is the one who sent for her in this version. Petruchio then commands her to utter her final speech. And she speaks a shortened version. They sing the short “Kiss Me Kate” song, and the film ends there, with no epilogue, just as the play is without one.
Time: 110 minutes
(The DVD has some special features, including Cole Porter In Hollywood: Too Darn Hot, a ten-minute feature hosted by Ann Miller, who talks about the film. There are interviews with Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Tommy Rall and James Whitmore. The DVD also includes Mighty Manhattan, New York's Wonder City, a twenty-minute documentary on the city from 1949.)