KISS ME KATE is quite easily one of the two most famous musical 'adaptations' of Shakespeare for the stage and screen (the other being WEST SIDE STORY). Focusing on a theatre company putting up a musical version of 'The Taming of The Shrew', the film traces the main relationship between director/leading man Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and his ex-wife/leading lady Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) as they respectively portray the Shakespearean roles of Petruchio and Katherine (the Shrew to be tamed, of course!). Throw in a deliciously naughty second lead actress Lois Lane (Ann Miller) and her gambling-addict beau Bill Calhoun (Tommy Rall), as well as a couple of gangsters (played brilliantly by Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore) mistakenly chasing after Fred 'sweetie' for Bill's latest debt, and opening night proves to be quite a big event, both onstage and off. Can the feuding Fred and Lilli, still in love with each other despite Fred's ego and Lilli's fiance, get their act together before the curtain goes down on the play?
I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this film... yes, even having already seen the London stage version of the musical earlier this year. There are, of course, personal reasons that bias me towards the film and to perhaps set out watching it with every intention of liking it (which surely helps!). First of all, I have no qualms in admitting I'm probably the biggest Ann Miller fan there is, and there's no doubting also that KISS ME KATE is possibly the best showcase of her talents and beauty there is. Secondly, I've been listening to the film soundtrack on constant repeat for months now, influenced by an interest kindled by the musical and discovering Miller. It helps that I can sing along to most of the songs and know the lyrics--no struggling to figure out what Grayson is singing in her operatic voice, and no attempting to acclimatise to new tunes. I already know the Cole Porter music, from lyrics to tune to score, and love it. So yes, perhaps I *was* predisposed to loving this film--how could I *not*, particularly with Miller dancing and singing my favourite songs in the film?
Still, I firmly believe that there's a lot more to recommend KISS ME KATE than the ravings of a fangirl. Cole Porter really outdoes himself here with a toe-tappingly catchy score: even songs like 'I've Come To Wive It Wealthily In Padua' and 'We Open In Venice' have the same sparkling lyrics, the same ability to catch the ear as the better-known 'Wunderbar' and 'From This Moment On'. Then there's the jazz-influenced 'Too Darn Hot' and the sweet ballad 'Why Can't You Behave?'. I honestly believe that Porter's score for KISS ME KATE is better than the one he wrote for HIGH SOCIETY, because he makes fine use of reprisals and bridges. Take for example Rall singing a short reprisal of Miller's 'Why Can't You Behave?' back to her before she replies with a wonderful segue into 'Always True To You In My Fashion'--the reprisal marks the couple and the relationship and works wonderfully well.
Of course, it helps also that the cast for KISS ME KATE is really most impressive. Keel, with his big big voice and untrained natural talent, fills the screen (and his tights!) with his masculine presence. He struts, swaggers, and yet shows his vulnerable side believably enough to make us *like* his character, ego or no ego. Grayson, so much weaker against Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in ANCHORS AWEIGH a decade earlier, really comes into her own here--she's excellent as Lilli, swooning at the right moments, strident during the rest, and actually bites out 'I Hate Men' with conviction... you certainly wouldn't imagine it possible of the actress who gave us the rather simpering Aunt Susie in the aforementioned Kelly/Sinatra film! I'm also partial to Tommy Rall, whose soaring athletic ability just crackles off the screen. It's such a thrill to see Miller get matched with someone who can dance circles around most everyone else alongside her. They make the cutest couple in their two numbers together, with the energetic, exuberant dance to 'Why Can't You Behave?' definitely making one of my favourite film dance routines of all time.
This film is, of course, Miller's shining moment--a shame, considering she's still only second lead and yet really steals the film with her dancing and singing. I can understand why other reviewers don't like that the song 'Too Darn Hot' became a solo for her, but what works on the stage, quite frankly, won't have made it in the film. (Even in the musical I thought the song a rather inauspicious and irrelevant start to the second act.) Miller's 'Too Darn Hot' fandance tap is precisely what the title suggests, and the charm she always radiates in all her small roles sizzles through her sexy fringed costume and black lace fan as she dances all over the furniture. One of my favourite songs is also the *unbelievably* catchy 'Tom, Dick & Harry', and the version in the film is great fun.
The directing by George Sidney is solid, making the best of the choreography. Any apparently odd choices would have to be explained by the fact that the film was originally filmed in 3-D--imagine Miller's gloves and necklace flying into your lap, or the objects on the tavern table crashing off the screen when Grayson sweeps them off (while despising men, of course!). I really wish I could have the chance to see this film the way it was meant to be seen, in 3-D. Unfortunately, there's no way to get that effect on VHS and probably not DVD either.
Even so, KISS ME KATE is bright, splashy, flashy and colourful. It's breathtakingly happy eye-candy and drags only at a few moments when non-Shakespearean dialogue gets in the way. Considering the cleverness of its concept (it's a film about the staging of a musical version of the Shakespearean play), the film has little to no artistic pretension--in this way, it's a quintessential MGM musical... set, geared, intended to *entertain*. And entertain it does. With the vocal talents of Keel and Grayson, the incredible tapping of Miller and the soaring of Rall, all accompanied by an irresistible Porter score, let's hope this one makes it to DVD; it's definitely a keeper!