By Brandie Ashe
When it comes to adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, you definitely have your hits and your misses. Sometimes, the straight, by-the-play performances are really well done (1993′s Much Ado About Nothing; both Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version AND Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version of Hamlet, despite Olivier’s revisions of the original text); in some cases, they are decidedly not (1999′s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which suffers from piss-poor casting; the horrendous 1996 Baz Luhrmann version of Romeo+Juliet, a spectacle that makes me fear for the director’s upcoming bastardization adaptation of The Great Gatsby). And some of the loose adaptations are really fun–I am particularly fond of 1956’s Forbidden Planet (which shares many similarities with The Tempest, my personal favorite of the Bard’s works); the 1961 musical West Side Story (a lovely take on the star-crossed lovers theme from Romeo and Juliet); and 1991′s My Own Private Idaho (which is based, in part, on Henry IV, Part I). And I will readily admit that I shall always have a soft spot in my heart for 1999′s 10 Things I Hate About You (hey, that really movie spoke to me as a teenager, okay?).
As with 10 Things, the enchanting musical Kiss Me Kate (1953) takes its cue from The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare’s more enjoyable comedies. The film is based on the Cole Porter musical of the same name, and its structure is quite Shakespearean—it has the same “play-within-in-play” setup that is one of the hallmarks of Hamlet.
Fred (Howard Keel) and Lilli (Kathryn Grayson) are bickering actors who were once married, though their union ended acrimoniously. Still, each remains in love with the other, though neither is willing to actually admit it. When Cole Porter (Ron Randell) devises a new musical production of The Taming of the Shrew (which is called, in a moment of meta-fantastic glory, Kiss Me Kate), Fred and Lilli are reunited onstage together to play the lead roles of Petruchio and Katherine. Lilli, who is engaged to another man, is nonetheless jealous of Lois Lane (Ann Miller), the sexy dancer who will be playing her character’s sister, Bianca. Lane, in the meantime, is dallying with notorious gambler Bill Calhoun (Tommy Rall), who is playing the role of Lucentio. Bill has lost a few thousand dollars and has signed an IOU in Fred’s name; as the show gets underway, two gangsters, Lippy (Keenan Wynn) and Slug (James Whitmore), arrive to collect on “Fred’s” debt. In the meantime, Lilli, fed up with what she sees as Fred’s philandering (due to a series of misunderstandings), decides to leave the production in the middle of the show. Things backstage—and on—dissolve into utter chaos, but somehow, the show must go on.
The movie version of the stage hit (which, incidentally, was the very first winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical) was sanitized quite a bit in its journey to the big screen. Most notably, some of the dialogue (including any usage of the word “bastard”) and the lyrics of many of Porter’s tunes had to be altered or—in the case of much of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”— deleted (God forbid film audiences hear Lippy and Slug sing the lines, “When your baby is pleading for pleasure/Let her sample your Measure for Measure”). The songs are also rearranged in the film; “Too Darn Hot” becomes a solo for Lois and is moved to the start of the film; “So in Love” becomes a duet between Fred and Lilli (in the musical, each sings this one solo, Lilli in Act One and Fred in Act Two); “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is moved from an onstage improvisation by the gangsters to an impromptu backstage number sung only to Fred in the film.
The only song on the film’s soundtrack that did not come from the musical is the love song “From This Moment On,” which Porter originally wrote for his 1950 show Out of This World. That musical floundered when it hit the stage, but Porter plucked “Moment” from the soundtrack and used it in the film version of Kate three years later. When the stage production was revived on Broadway in 1999 (it, too, went on to win a Tony, for Best Revival), the song was worked into the second act of the show.
The film greatly benefits from a talented and enthusiastic cast. Kiss Me Kate marks the second pairing of Keel and Grayson; the pair had starred in Show Boat two years earlier (also for director George Sidney). The two actors play well against one another, demonstrating an easy chemistry that underscores the attraction that still remains between the estranged husband and wife. Keel is delightfully bombastic as Fred, and Grayson plays the “shrew” with an underlying vulnerability that makes Lilli an endearing, albeit appropriately bitchy, character (perhaps that’s why I like Lilli so much …?). Miller, who to me has always been somewhat underrated, is wonderful as Lois, and tap-dances up a veritable storm in “Too Darn Hot,” resulting in one of the best numbers of the film. This, more than any other film Miller made during her Hollywood career, is the best showcase for her talents, and she definitely delivers the scene-stealing performance of a lifetime. Rall, sometimes overshadowed by Keel’s overwhelmingly masculine presence (yes, even in those tights), is nonetheless a charming scoundrel in the role of Bill. Wynn and Whitmore, as the befuddled, almost lovable gang heavies, are an utterly hilarious combination. And look for choreographer extraordinaire Bob Fosse in a brief, but brilliant, dancing cameo during the performance of “From This Moment On” near the end of the film.
Speaking of the dance routines, most of them (with the exception of Fosse’s self-created number) were choreographed by Hermes Pan, so noted for his multiple collaborations with Fred Astaire, particularly in the latter’s films with Ginger Rogers. The dance numbers, paired with Porter’s lively and well-written tunes, are spectacular—though viewers may be confused as to why the actors fling objects and even, on occasion, their bodies, toward the screen (as in Lilli’s song “I Hate Men,” where she throws a variety of things at the audience, or “Too Darn Hot,” when Lois tosses her necklace and gloves in our direction). This is because Kate was originally intended to be shown in 3-D, but as the film was scheduled to be released, the 3-D craze had begun to die down. MGM decided to release Kate in a standard “flat” version, and as far as I’m aware (correct me if I’m wrong), the 3-D version has never been widely released.
Kiss Me Kate is a Technicolor candy-coated delight from start to finish. The music, the dancing, the humor, the performances, the staging … everything about this film just seems to sparkle. Though the sometimes sexist themes can be a bit maddening—the scene in which Fred spanks Lilli onstage is particularly bothersome to me (though I must admit, it works in context)—this adaptation of the material allows Lilli to actually win a few battles, and she is, in the end, much more an equal to Fred than Kate is ever permitted to be with Petruchio in Shakespeare’s play. You know it won’t be easy for these two characters from here on out, but the film leaves you with the sense that both of them have reached a certain level of self-awareness (which is, truthfully, all anyone can really ask for). If their ending won’t be prototypically idyllic, Fred and Lilli have, at the very least, earned a “happily ever after” that is uniquely their own.
How Kiss Me Kate made the ‘Elite 70’:
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 28 choice
Greg Ferrara’s No. 39 choice
Judy Geater’s No. 43 choice
Pat Perry’s No. 46 choice