Kiss Me Kate (1953)
Kiss Me Kate premiered on Broadway in 1948 to immediate acclaim. Written by Samuel and Bella Spewack with a score by Cole Porter, Kiss Me Kate took Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” (1593) and turned it into a backstage musical. The plot follows recently divorced actors who star in a Broadway version of Shrew and let their personal drama spill onto the stage. The “play-within-a-play” concept is very cleverly done because the backstage conflicts between the ex-husband and wife mirror the onstage conflicts between Petruchio and Katherine. The actors can play out their arguments on stage and it all still fits the play!
In a fun twist, Kiss Me Kate was inspired by the real life battling between married actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt during a 1935 production of Shrew. Arnold St. Subber, who produced Kiss Me Kate, witnessed their arguments and it stuck with him.
Cole Porter’s score is terrific and witty, and the play was a huge hit on Broadway. It won the first ever Tony Award for Best Musical in 1949, as well as Best Score, Best Author, Best Costume Design, and Best Producer. MGM snapped up the film rights and rumors swirled about the casting of Red Skelton, Ann Blyth, and even Laurence Olivier. Eventually, Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson were named in the leading roles, with Ann Miller, Tommy Rall, Keenan Wynn, and James Whitmore rounding out the ensemble. MGM contract players Bobby Van and Bob Fosse, as well as dancer/choreographer Carol Haney, also won roles.
Kiss Me Kate was a reunion for many in the cast. Keel and Grayson had been paired in Show Boat (1951), which was also directed by George Sidney, and the two stars had then appeared in Lovely to Look At (1952), which included Ann Miller and Kurt Kasznar, too.
If this was just a “normal” MGM musical, it would still be noteworthy because of the great material and cast, but this movie is also famous because it was filmed in 3-D. Hollywood in the early 1950s was trying to regain the box office glory days of the 1940s, and resorted to technologies like CinemaScope, stereophonic sound, and 3-D to get people into theaters. Although MGM’s Head of Production, Dore Schary, didn’t think 3-D was going anywhere, others at the studio pushed the format, and Kiss Me Kate was chosen as a guinea pig.
But just in case it failed, the movie was also filmed “flat” in 2-D. This obviously complicated production, as director George Sidney explained in 1953, “My cameraman, Charlie Rosher, and I had to compose every shot three different ways at the same time. What would be good for one width [3-D was filmed in widescreen] would not be good for another. It was tricky, but we got around it by building more tops on sets, more floor and more sets in forced perspective to enhance the depth.”
The 3D filming means that characters often throw things, and themselves, at the screen. So look for flying dice, gloves, Tommy Rall, confetti, plates, and flowers. And also watch for direct-to-the-camera performances. I watched the 2-D version for this review, but a 3-D blu-ray is available if you’ve got the equipment, and apparently it’s worth watching.
But there is a complication: Lilli and Fred are recently divorced, and Fred is starring in and directing the show. Cole and Fred aren’t sure that Lilli, who is still furious with her ex-husband, will want any part in the production.
To remind Lilli of happier times, Fred covers the piano with photos of the couple from various shows, including Show Boat on the left (a real photo from the 1951 MGM film) and Annie Get Your Gun (a doctored photo from the 1950 movie that replaced Betty Hutton with Grayson). He also asks Cole to play the romantic duet from the show, “So In Love,” to start the evening on a positive note.
Cole plays while Fred and Lilli sing together. You can watch the scene here:
Lilli loves the song and is about to consent to star in the show when Lois Lane (Ann Miller) barges in wearing hot pink sequins. She’s come to audition for the role of Bianca, but Fred, or “Sweetie,” as she constantly calls him, has already promised her the part, so she’s not too worried.
Lois goes right into the energetic number “Too Darn Hot” and does her patented Ann Miller thing: fast taps, whirling spins, and big, bold presence. Hermes Pan choreographed the dance sequences in this film. You can watch “Too Darn Hot” here.
Fun fact: I think this apartment set is the same one from Hit the Deck (1955), another MGM musical that also stars Ann Miller:
Another fun fact: the movie follows the play pretty closely, but there are a few changes. For example, “So In Love” and “Too Darn Hot” had different spots in the stage musical, but they’re moved to this “audition scene,” which was added to the film. And all of the songs except one are from the original 1948 score. The new one, “From This Moment On,” was plucked from Porter’s 1950 musical flop, “Out of This World.” Also, lyrics were changed at the request of the Production Code Administration. For example, “Too Darn Hot” referenced the Kinsey Report on sexual behavior, but the lyric was changed to “the latest report” in the movie.
Here is Miller with Cole Porter and Bob Fosse behind the scenes of this number:
At first, Lilli refuses to share the stage with her ex-husband’s brassy new lady friend, but she eventually agrees. Cut to the final rehearsal before opening night!
The tension between Lois, Lilli, and Fred has only gotten worse. Meanwhile, we meet Lois’ real love, Bill Calhoun (Tommy Rall), a terrific dancer but terrible gambler. He’s a bad boy, but Lois can’t give him up. She’s furious when he confesses that he signed an IOU for $2,000 in Fred Graham’s name, though. Their argument leads to the rooftop number “Why Can’t You Behave.”
Lois begs Bill to “behave” but he charms her with his rakish attitude and his dancing. And boy, can he dance! Rall was one of the greats. You may have seen him in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as Frank, or in My Sister Eileen (1955) as Chick Clark. He can spin like a top, jump like a jackrabbit, flip, leap, shuffle, and tap dance with the best of them. He skims the ground and makes gravity seems optional.
But he and Miller don’t dance that well together, in my opinion. They have different styles and they’re both best as soloists, so their numbers are mostly individual performances that occasionally come together for partner choreography. You can watch it here:
As Bill and Lois resolve their conflict through dance (and who among us hasn’t?) Lilli and Fred resolve theirs through song. It’s exactly one year since their divorce, and this anniversary makes them reminisce about the good old days when they were just married and deeply in love. They were poor and stuck in the chorus, but very happy. Swept up in memories, they sing the romantic duet “Wunderbar” from a Viennese comic opera they were in as newlyweds. It’s a silly song but it’s supposed to be, and they end it with a kiss–it seems that neither one has completely moved on. You can watch it here.
These rekindling feelings for Fred are awkward for Lilli, as she is engaged to a cattle baron named Tex. But Fred is determined to win her back, though his huge ego also makes him susceptible to Lois’ charms. Just look at that terrific “FG” monogrammed robe! I thought his deep purple smoking jacket from the first scene was spiffy, but it only had one “FG” on the pocket.
Just before the curtain rises, two key things happen. One, a gangster’s henchmen named Lippy (Keenan Wynn) and Slug (James Whitmore) show up to collect their $2,000 from Fred. Their boss ran the game where Bill signed the IOU in Fred’s name. Fred brushes them off at first. After all, he didn’t sign it, so he doesn’t take them seriously.
Besides, he has other matters to attend to: the second key thing is a botched delivery of a bouquet. He ordered flowers for Lois, but his valet took them to Lilli instead. This wouldn’t be too terrible, except the note is addressed to Lois. Fred tries to retrieve the note before Lilli sees it, but she tucks it, unread, into her décolletage to keep it “close to her heart.” (Her fiancé is all but forgotten at this point.)
Anyway, the show begins! “We Open in Venice” with the four leads: Lilli, Fred, Lois, and Bill.
Poor Kathryn struggles to keep up with the choreography. It’s not really her fault: she’s a singer, and she’s dancing with two virtuosos, Rall and Miller, along with Keel, who can move pretty well. Her efforts on the conveyer belt (such a popular device in movies from the 1950s!) are clumsy at best.
Here they are in their skinny Santa suits between takes:
The scene shifts to Padua and we get into The Taming of the Shrew plot. A man named Baptista (Kurt Kasznar) has two daughters, Katherine and Bianca. Katharine is the shrew, and Bianca is a sweet gal who can’t wait to get married. But Baptista won’t let his youngest daughter marry until his oldest has found a husband. And since no one dares approach mean Katherine, Bianca’s chances look dim.
Fred gives us this background before the scene shifts to Bianca and her three suitors for the comical number “Tom, Dick, or Harry.” Bianca sings, “I’m a maid mad to marry and will take double quick, any Tom, Dick, or Harry, any Tom, Harry, or Dick!” as she chases the men around the stage. A refrain of “I’ll take a Dick” pops up, too, and they really emphasize the “any Tom, Harry, or DICK!” line. It had to be a joke even in 1953, right? Come on! Even if it wasn’t, it’s hilarious today!
The dancing is excellent. After all, the suitors are played by Rall, Bobby Van, and Bob Fosse. And it’s really fun to go from Shakespearean language to Cole Porter’s lyrics and Broadway dancing. This juxtaposition makes the entire play a delight. You can watch the dance here.
After this number, Fred/Petruchio rides into town in tights, a devilish wig, and a piratical earring. Petruchio has come to “wive it wealthily in Padua,” as he explains to the three suitors in a song. They suggest he court Katherine. He seems a sturdy fellow, and if he succeeds in marrying her, then Bianca can finally wed one of them!
Then it’s Katherine’s turn, and she slays them all with her wonderful solo, “I Hate Men.” She makes some good points. She also takes advantage of the 3-D and throws a bunch of stuff at the camera.
You can watch it here:
But Baptista doesn’t care what Katharine wants, and quickly negotiates a generous dowry and inheritance with Petruchio in exchange for taking the shrew off his hands.
Now that Petruchio has Baptista’s blessing, he starts wooing Katherine. But she has no interest. And Lilli has no interest in playing along with Fred once she reads the note from her bouquet and realizes it was meant for Lois.
Lilli is so furious that she disregards her cues and lines and attacks Fred onstage. Fortunately, these “shrewish” actions fit the onstage plot perfectly. But her slaps to Fred’s face, and his eventual spanking were definitely not in the script…
The curtain closes on the first act and Lilli declares that she is quitting the show. She returns to her dressing room to ice her rear end and call Tex to come pick her up. Fred needs a plan to keep her there, because it will be a disaster if Lilli leaves in the middle of the show. So when Lippy and Slug reappear in his dressing room, he “confesses” that he did write the IOU, but that he can’t afford to pay it unless the show runs until the end of the week. And that won’t happen because Lilli has quit.
Lippy and Slug take the hint. They force Lilli to stay in the show in order to get the money for their boss. Fred is delighted, of course, but Lilli is terrified and very angry. She tries to slip out of the theater, but the gangsters won’t let her escape. So it’s on to Act Two!
The gangsters even dress up in costume and appear on stage to ensure Lilli performs her part. They start with the wedding scene, and Lippy and Slug play Katherine’s “pages” who carry her train.
Keel’s wedding outfit is something else! The costumes were designed by Walter Plunkett, long time MGM designer who specialized in period pieces.
Things get crazy onstage and off. Lippy and Slug shadow Lilli in all of her scenes, Tex shows up to rescue his fiancee, and Petruchio tries to “tame the shrew” at his estate. But we don’t see much of the Shrew plot because the backstage drama takes over.
We do get Petruchio’s lament to married life on a long runway stage that juts into the audience. He brings out his little black book and opines that he can’t see the women he used to enjoy anymore now that he’s a married man. Keel is delightful in this role–it’s fun to see him be over-the-top and rascally.
Meanwhile, the Bill/Lois drama continues when Bill catches her reminiscing with Tex about their brief affair–yes, even Tex has a weakness for Lois! Bill realizes that Lois romances every man she meets, and he’s sick of it. So we get a “Why Can’t You Behave” reprise that goes into “Always True to You In My Fashion.” Lois explains in a funny song that of course she flirts with wealthy men if they give her fur coats and jewels, but she never really strays. Kind of. It’s a fun one.
You can watch it here:
Then we return to the IOU drama: Lippy and Slug call their boss just in time to hear him get shot by a rival. They’re practical men, so they change out of their costumes and inform Fred that the debt is cancelled. Then they perform the very amusing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” number before leaving.
You can watch it here.
Now that Lilli is free to go, she gives Fred a tender goodbye and then drives off with Tex. Fred is heartbroken, but the show must go on! He calls for Lilli’s understudy and returns to the play.
Onstage, Bianca marries her favorite suitor (Rall), and the two runners-up get brides, too. Then it’s dancing time! The three couples do an exuberant dance to “From This Moment On,” which was the only song not from the original stage show of Kiss Me Kate. MGM added the song in order to showcase the three dancing couples. And it worked! In fact, “From This Moment On” was such a successful addition that the song was added to the score for the 1999 Kiss Me Kate revival on Broadway.
Miller’s gold lamé dress wisely loses some inches between the wedding scene and the dance, enabling her to really go crazy, and Rall does some insane leaps. It’s a must see.
Then Bobby Van and Jean Coyne perform a brief, cheerful dance before Bob Fosse and Carol Haney (a former assistant choreographer with Gene Kelly) take the stage.
Their section is slower, more sultry, and definitely special. Fosse was an up and coming choreographer with a very distinct style. As I mentioned, Hermes Pan choreographed the film, but he allowed Fosse to design this sequence with Haney himself.
Another choreographer, Jerry Robbins, saw the movie and liked Fosse’s unique style, so he suggested that The Pajama Game producers hire Fosse for their 1954 Broadway production. Fosse choreographed the show and got Carol Haney an audition for a small role.
The producers loved her and expanded her part into the role of Gladys, the secretary. The show was a hit: Haney won the Tony for Best Featured Actress, Fosse won for Best Choreography, and the show won Best Musical! Fosse said later: “My big break–and the turning point of my career–came when the studio let me choreograph a little dance for myself and Carol Haney in the film Kiss Me Kate. It only lasted forty-eight seconds, but it changed my life.”
Fun fact: there is yet another Hollywood connection to The Pajama Game. Haney hurt her ankle during the show’s run and her understudy, a young lady named Shirley MacLaine, stepped in for several months. Producer Hal B. Wallis saw MacLaine in the role and got Paramount to sign her. The rest is history!
Fun fact: “From This Moment On” became a hit from this movie. Oddly enough, it was the arranger’s second effort at the song: Andre Previn first produced an arrangement for Woody Herman and his band, but Porter apparently hated that version. Previn and his colleague Saul Chaplin worked out a new arrangement for this movie, and were nominated for Best Score.
Another fun fact: in two years, Rall and Fosse reunited for My Sister Eileen (1955) starring Janet Leigh and Betty Garrett. It features one of my favorite dance scenes of all time when Rall and Fosse dance duel over Leigh.
After the dance, Petruchio takes the stage for the final scene. But where is Katherine? He whispers to the wings to find the understudy, but then hears Lilli’s voice. She came back! She performs the famous monologue, but it becomes Katherine bowing to Petruchio and Lilli expressing her love for Fred and asking him for another chance.
It works! They kiss in all of their scarlet and gold finery. The curtain closes but the pair zoom out towards the audience in what would have been a cool 3-D effect. But Katherine loses her veil between the stage and the zooming.
This movie was in production from early May to early July, 1953 and premiered that November. Saul Chaplin and Andre Previn received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Scoring for a Musical, but they lost to Alfred Newman for Call Me Madam. Another big MGM musical, The Band Wagon, received a nomination in this category, as did Calamity Jane, which also starred Howard Keel.
Kiss Me Kate received good reviews. Variety wrote that “Cast work is uniformly top-notch, the performers endowing the film with a variety of skills that bring out the best of both book and music. Howard Keel is a dynamic male lead…[and] Kathryn Grayson is fiery and thoroughly engaging.” Rall, Miller, Wynn and Whitmore receive praise, and Variety singles out choreographer Hermes Pan and the arrangers, Previn and Chaplin, for their work in this “sweetheart of a musical.”
Bosley Crowther at The New York Times praised the film in his review, too, calling it
one of the year’s more magnificent musical films…For this gay Technicolored film rendering of the big splashy musical show, which kept Shakespeare’s name on the theatre-boards of New York for a longer run than it had ever had before, is a beautifully staged, adroitly acted and really superbly sung affair—better, indeed, if one may say so, than the same frolic was on the stage.
He complimented the stars, writing that “the voices and the playing of Miss Grayson and Mr. Keel as the acting team…are juicy and uninhibited, the costumes and settings are fine and the performers who accompany the principals are in joyous and compatible gear.” Crowther finished his uncharacteristically positive review with an exhortation to his readers: “Under George Sidney’s direction, the whole thing moves with zest and grace. Don’t wait to be invited. Accept the offer of the title posthaste.”
Harrison’s Reports, a trade paper, echoed Variety and Crowther. The review praised the “expert direction, the zestful performances of the players and the wonderful Cole Porter songs…” The paper complimented the actors, writing that “Miss Grayson is excellent in a characterization that calls for her to be high-spirited and temperamental, and Keel, too, is tops in his part…Ann Miller’s dancing is, as always, spectacular and fascinating.”
The review concludes with a bright forecast for the film’s box office potential along with a strange caveat: “…the picture should prove to be a top box-office attraction everywhere, except, perhaps, in rural areas, where the audience may not appreciate the satirical treatment of Shakespeare’s play.”
As I mentioned, MGM filmed this movie in 3-D and in 2-D, and to hedge their bets, the studio released both versions and allowed theaters to choose which one they wanted. Although the 3-D version was more popular at first, many theaters opted for 2-D. For example, Radio City Music Hall realized that if they showed the 3-D print, they lost about 300 seats on either side of the screen because of the special viewing angle, so they went with the flat version.
Even if seating wasn’t an issue, Harrison’s Reports suggested theaters book the 2-D version because “3-D adds nothing to the picture’s entertainment values. As a matter of fact, it detracts from one’s enjoyment of the proceedings because of the loss of light and of the discomfort of wearing polaroid glasses.” Variety agreed, claiming that “Kate has all the dimensions it needs in 2-D. The pictorial effects achieved with the 3-D lensing mean little in added entertainment.”
Although the 3-D version made slightly more money at first, by 1954 viewers weren’t as excited about the novelty, and many theaters cancelled their 3-D showings in favor of 2-D ones. This film was MGM’s last attempt at 3-D. The fad faded away in the mid-1950s, though it comes back frequently, as we have seen.
Kiss Me Kate certainly wasn’t the last of MGM’s big movie musicals, but the end was in sight. It was Kathryn Grayson’s last movie at MGM, and her penultimate feature film. She wouldn’t appear in another until 1956’s The Vagabond King at Paramount, which also makes Kiss Me Kate her last hit. She went on to a long career in opera and on stage and performed into the 1990s.
Howard Keel still had Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) on the horizon, as well as the less successful Jupiter’s Darling (1955) with Esther Williams and Kismet (1955) with Ann Blyth and Vic Damone. After that film, he left MGM but worked steadily on stage, in movies, concert tours, and on TV in Dallas.
Ann Miller appeared in four more movies at MGM, notably Hit the Deck (1955) and The Opposite Sex (1956). Like Keel and Grayson, she left MGM but enjoyed a successful career on stage and TV.
Kiss Me Kate had a long career ahead of it, too. Five years after the movie premiered, NBC’s Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcast a television version starring Patricia Morrison and Alfred Drake, the stars of the 1948 Broadway show. And in 1968, ABC presented another TV version with the husband and wife team Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence. The play has been revived a few times on Broadway and the West End, and in 2019 a revival is heading back to Broadway!