Crippled by television and desperate to get butts back into seats, 1953 was the year of 3D movies. For that entire year, nearly every big-budget production tried their hand at throwing things in the audiences’ face in the hopes of enticing them to buy a ticket. (Outside of 3D, the 1950s also saw experimentation with wider aspect ratios and extended “roadshow” pictures.) Broadway producers Sam and Bella Spewack’s Kiss Me Kate, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, doesn’t immediately conjure up images of being a 3D-laden musical, but that’s the joy of this bizarre little movie. Kiss Me Kate is filled with memorable songs, fun performances, and the weirdest storyline not even The Bard could have conjured up!
Divorced Broadway actors Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) are forced into performing Kiss Me Kate, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Playing alongside them are Fred’s Copacabana paramour, Lois (Ann Miller) and her crap-playing boyfriend, Bill (Tommy Rall). Not only is the night tense due to Fred and Lilli’s squabbling, but two eloquent gangsters declare the show must go on…or else Fred is dead!
Director George Sidney was a musical maestro, helming the likes of Anchors Aweigh (1945), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), and the Ann-Margret starring one-two punch of Bye, Bye Birdie (1963) and Viva Las Vegas (1964). Sidney puts just as much visual flair into the on-stage musical numbers as the off-stage moments, which there aren’t many of. A brief expositional scene establishes the warring Fred and Lilli; Lois shows up as the living embodiment of conflict, all pink spangles and leg thrusting, and then we’re quickly on-stage performing the eponymous play for the rest of the runtime. It’s remarkable this movie never feels like it’s two hours because of how quickly everything moves.
Attempting to boil down the plot is difficult because outside of the cast’s mounting of the production of Kiss Me Kate, things happen with the most tenuous of connections. For all Fred’s fear that Lilli won’t commit to the play, it takes all of three minutes to have her decide she’s in. After that, the love triangle between her, Fred, and Lois plays out before seguing into the introduction of Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore’s eloquent gangster characters – playing the jesters in the film as well as within the play – throw us into the third act. There’s a flow to how events play out, but if you don’t believe one individual piece, the plot ends up being a Rubick’s Cube.
It’s these moments of anachronism which keep Kiss Me Kate different from other A or B musicals. The movie subverts expectations at every chance; the gangsters are just as well versed in Shakespeare, but sound like James Cagney; Lilli, a professional Broadway actress, reads a love note on-stage and pitchs a fit at her leading man; the completely unnecessary, but entirely awesome, musical number choreographed by a baby-faced Bob Fosse all of create a movie wholly unique despite rehashing one of Shakespeare’s most overdone works.
Kiss Me Kate’s strangest element is it feels both of the Hollywood era and outside it, particularly in the innuendos of its Cole Porter musical score. Porter actually finds himself inside the movie, played by Ron Randell, and he delivers snappy, saucy earworms you won’t forget. Compared to other musicals, nearly every song in Kiss Me Kate is catchy and fun to sing. No time is wasted before Ann Miller sings the legendary “Too Darn Hot,” tap-dancing as an audition for the part of Bianca. Grayson’s facial expressions, playing the scorned wife watching her husband’s arm candy gyrate, and Keel’s intrigue are hilarious in and of themselves, but it’s all about Miller dancing on tables, chairs, and throwing gloves and jewelry at the audience. Miller also gets the equally salacious song, “Every Tom, Dick, or Harry” that will leave you blushing and wondering how it got past the censors. Even minor songs like “Why Can’t You Behave,” and “We Open in Venice” have their own inability to get stuck inside your head.
Kathryn Grayson is nothing but fun as the overzealous Lilli. Her legendary performance of “I Hate Men” comes complete with destroying everything in her path, and her upturned nose and general coolness makes her the perfect Katherine. After watching Howard Keel in other musicals I was enchanted by his performance as he plays a cad, both on-stage and off. His moments of levity revolve around others breaking character during the performance as he attempts to keep everything on an even….keel (I couldn’t resist!). But, the standout is Ann Miller as Lois Lane (no, not that one!). Lois is the typical movie showgirl who can’t be in a serious play without lifting her skirt up. She’s naive when it comes to her boyfriend Bill, but worldly when she has to play Fred for all he’s worth without devolving to villainy.
Warner’s new Blu-ray includes both the 3D and 2D versions. I was fortunate to watch the 3D version at the TCM Classic Film Festival and if you have a 3D TV, watch it in the third dimension! The things hurled at you are fluid and fun, and they work just as well on the 2D version. Outside of that, the colors are vivid and the detail is amazing. This was a loving restoration by Warner and it shows.
Kiss Me Kate is vibrantly zany. The cast delights and the music is legendary. This was a blind viewing at the TCM Film Festival and upon returning I had to purchase it, it’s that fun.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.