The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Dreamgirls

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Kiss Me Kate

November 5, 1953   MGM   110 minutes

Here’s a classic cocktail: Mix one part Private Lives with one part Shakespeare and one part Cole Porter; add a pinch of Runyon, and stir in lotsa dancing. Voila! Kiss Me Kate—a show that makes sense only because it’s a musical. Actors often direct themselves in plays and movies, but have you ever known one to star in and direct a musical? Well, Fred Graham (Howard Keel) does in KMK, and given the dearth of any other creative talent in sight, you might think he also wrote the show, designed the scenery and produced it, to boot. Yet somehow this has become a classic story of life in the “theatah,” without going into any fussy detail—or reality. Which may be why it works. Or as Harold Prince told Charles Strouse when the latter was adapting All About Eve, “No one is interested in the emotional problems of actors.” So how about a backstage jousting match instead? With Cole Porter tunes. Good ones, like he used to write. 

By the late 40s Porter’s reputation had sunk with a series of uninspired shows, and he was determined to show his talent equal to the standard R&H had put forth. And who’s to say that American folklore couldn’t be woven from the cloth of Shubert Alley as well as the plains of Oklahoma? Cole Porter, that’s who. At least that was producer Saint Subber’s conviction, for it was he (armed only with guts, youth and determination) who pushed and prodded Porter to top himself. Saint told me himself he came to think up KMK while his 20 year old boyfriend, Montgomery Clift was appearing on Bway with the Lunts in Taming of the Shrew. Bella Spewack (who wrote the book with her estranged husband, Sam) claims the idea came from the example of R&Hart’s Shakespearean funhouse, The Boys from Syracuse. Ideas are often born concurrently but I’ve no doubt Saint’s was more directly inspired. Some 35 years later I was his novice office boy of 22, sitting in spellbound terror while he barked tales of ancient Bway splendor in his imperious manner, and erratic, sometimes stuttering voice—which was either from partial deafness, the effects of a stroke, or simply a dreadful affectation. Remarkably, I am now exactly the age he was when I came into his orbit. Truth to tell, he wasn’t in great shape then; still he lived another two decades, moved to San Francisco, took lots of LSD and listened to Pink Floyd. But I digress…

As a Bway acolyte, I arrived on the scene just after the decline and collapse of the Golden Age, as well as the windup of the Saint Subber office—he had just washed his hands of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a year before its belly-flop on Bwaywhich meant no meetings with Lenny Bernstein or Alan Lerner for me. But I came equipped with a history of personal favorites, unfortunately none of which were Saint’s 3 big musicals: Kiss Me Kate, Porter’s Out of this World, or Arlen’s House of Flowers. Alas, I would come to appreciate them all more in years later.

I confess my first exposure to KMK, both on stage and screen in the early 70s, left me unimpressed. My college put on a production in 1972, and in that radically shifting cultural era, it seemed dreadfully irrelevant, old-fashioned, irredeemably lost to a past we were never going to go back to. Who knew? I didn’t think much of the movie either until about 20 years later, when I came upon it again, and found it a revelation. Or at least a lot more entertaining than I had previously thought. By then I had grown much fonder of the score (John McGlinn’s complete recording helped in that regard), and I was ready to appreciate the movie as a product of its time. A time that grows more fascinating in its youth and innocence as I grow older.

Above all else KMK resurrected Cole Porter for a new generation, and he rarely stumbled again. He was now a national treasure, and like Irving Berlin, subject to self-referential treatment. MGM’s film opens on a shot of the leather-bound score branded: “Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate.” The first scene brings “Cole” on as a character without any semblance to the actual Porter (as if Van Johnson were portraying Groucho Marx), and then poorly acted by a crew-cut Australian, Ron Randell. Dorothy Kingsley’s screenplay differs from the Spewack’s book, beginning as a sort of audition of “Kiss Me Kate” to lure Fred’s ex-wife Lili into the show. It’s not a bad gambit, setting up the Manhattan penthouse world we associate with Porter. But “Cole” is never seen or mentioned again after this scene. On Bway the show was set in Baltimore during its tryout premiere. Here we go directly to opening night on Bway, which leaves any number of messy questions unanswered: What happened to Porter? Why is Lili’s anger so raw toward Fred if presumably they’ve been performing together now for weeks? How did Lois Lane (Ann Miller) finagle her boyfriend into the show? (And what’s with her name? Was it simply coincidence or a deliberate nod to Superman’s heroine? If so, I can’t see what the point, or intention, is. )

Rather astoundingly the film eschews the show’s famous opening number, “Another Op’nin’ Another Show,” which is sort of like doing Annie Get Your Gun without “There’s No Business Like…” Yet the film has so much music (nearly the full Bway score), the song is  hardly  missed--tho  it  is  partly  heard  in some dance music. The movie also keeps our focus tightly on the central characters, to the exclusion of virtually everyone else—relegating a busy theater to the background. On Bway a large chorus was given plenty to do, but on film even scenes from Shrew scarcely include more than the principals. The movie boldly starts off with a ballad, and the best one at that; one of the very best in fact that Porter, or anyone, ever wrote: “So in Love.” [The best version ever, in my humble opinion, is by k.d. lang on the otherwise uneven Porter tribute album, “Red, Hot + Blue.” If you haven’t heard it you are in for a revelation. It’s simply breathtaking.] Fortunately it’s Keel who starts it off, before Grayson adds her trained-poodle trills.  She’s a blonde here (or an orange-redhead as Kate), and constantly smug and snippy. It’s the best acting she’s done. I actually enjoyed her rehearsing curtain calls in a snit.
Howard Keel is perfectly fine and certainly appropriate, if almost clichéd, casting. If he doesn’t particularly shine, look no further than who he’s playing against. As before, Grayson is the weak link here. Her Padua princess has little of the guttural fury needed to put over “I Hate Men.” It’s a mercy Kate’s final song, “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” was cut back to a few lines from the Bard. She can’t even squeal well, her pathetic attempts sound like air escaping a balloon. Keel was pretty much at the  zenith of  his career—concurrently on screen with Doris Day in Calamity Jane, and soon to topline Seven Brides for Seven Bros. another MGM musical that managed to nab a Best Picture nomination (something neither Meet Me in St. Louis or Singin’ in the Rain were able to do.) Grayson only had one more film in her: Vagabond King which in 1956 was as dated as she was.

I haven’t seen that many Ann Miller movies, but given the quality of material she’s working with here, I think it’s safe to say she’s never been better. Right from her entrance, which quickly turns into an audition of “Too Darn Hot,” in her fringed, peach-toned chorine-suit, she taps up a storm. Which is fabulous enough but then director George Sidney (once again) does a wonderful thing: as she moves across the room to a bongo beat, the camera draws in above her waist, zooming on her face as she fans herself, staring directly into camera, all the while tapping (we hear) furiously away—It’s nothing short of mesmerizing. And she doesn’t stint on a big finish either. She’s back quite soon (with screen beau Tommy Rall on a Manhattan rooftop) asking “Why Can’t You Behave?” Have you noticed how musicals love dance numbers on rooftops? This particular midtown rooftop is unbearably evocative, and thoroughly transporting. The skyline beyond the parapet beams in elegiac glory these last days of concrete canyons, just before glass skyscrapers overtake the world. The light is a cool gun-metal grey—yet it’s blue. Smoke and steam waft from a city’s industry. It’s built on a soundstage in Culver City, but nevertheless screams: This is New York! In all its glory: This is 1953!

But enuf about the rooftop, how’s the dance? It’s amazing! Who is this fella, Tommy Rall? He’s quite a looker—OK, so he had me at hello--but when he starts dancing, this cat doesn’t fool around. In this first number with Miller he demonstrates enuf athleticism to compete with the testosterone and bravado-driven kids today on So You Think You Can Dance. He’s given to entering scenes from the air; here he slides down a pole on the roof top (from where?); later he grabs a rope (from the clouds?) to swing out over the streets. As a child  Rall  had  extensive  dance  training, including tap and ballet. As a juvenile he was a member of the Jivin’ Jacks & Jills-a jitterbugging troupe in Universal film shorts. Only 24 years old in KMK he has a few good dance parts ahead, especially in 7 Brides (again with Keel) and later some featured roles on Bway, most notably as an Irish revolutionary in Marc Blitzstein’s Juno and an Israeli stud in Jerry Herman’s Milk & Honey. Still later he became, amazingly, a successful operatic tenor. 80 years old today, he’s still around and living proof that, sadly, not all cream rises to the top. We like this guy, Rall—and look forward to seeing him on screen again.

Only 3 songs into the movie and it’s already a dance spectacular. Hermes Pan’s routines are anything but—as you’d expect from Astaire’s chosen choreographer. But Bianca’s 3 suitors in Shrew are especially well chosen. Aside from Rall, there’s Bobby Van and Bob Fosse; each one talented enuf for principal roles. Their first number, “Tom, Dick or Harry” is pure unadulterated delight, and repeatedly watchable—the trio showing off their unique styles, while Miller in a luscious full skirt with black-striped lining (does anyone ruffle her skirts as well as Miller?) chases them around the Italian Renaissance inspired set, horizontal stripes on stage running off to a Tuscan infinity. It’s exquisite. But the ‘audience’ response is carelessly tepid—far more generous later for Keel or Grayson, inversely undeserved. One clever and unexpected addition to the score is a song George Abbott forced Porter to drop out of town in his next show, Out of this World.; “From This Moment On.” Abbott’s decision notwithstanding, the song later became a Porter standard. But who knew it fit so well as an 11 o’clock number for “Kiss Me Kate,” bringing back Bianca and her suitors, the two rejected ones now with their own partners. Each couple gets their solo turn, Rall again air-bound, literally flying in from high bars in the wings (he has a similar entrance in “Tom, Dick or Harry”—his legs scissoring from on high into the frame) to strut with Miller. There’s plenty of men in tights in this movie, including Keel—but alas, with more tucking than a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Bobby Van, whose billing outshines the others, gets strangely short-shrift on screen, and looks comparatively weaker. Rall’s virile athleticism is contrasted by Fosse’s compact modernism. Unbelievably boyish but already uniquely talented, Pan let Fosse choreograph his own solos, and paired with a long-haired Carol Haney he stages what no doubt became an audition reel for Pajama Game--you can see the framework for “Steam Heat” that would make them both overnight Bway discoveries six months later. It’s amazing how the Fosse style is all there already: the finger snaps, the shoulder shrugs, the floor slides, the jazz hands. He executes a startling back flip from a stationary stance—just to show us he can. No question about it; the supporting cast are the real stars of the film. Watch how Miller & Rall put the leads to shame merely marching in step thru “We Open in Venice.”

I hadn’t realized before how much KMK paved the way for Guys & Dolls. The two Gotham gangsters who stalk the plot like dramaturgical glue are there to collect a “depth” (sic) of honor to one of America’s most respected floating crap games.” It’s pure Runyon-speak. As played by Keenan Wynn & James Whitmore they are pitch perfect. Whitmore is especially delicious in their single number, the vaudeville duet “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” and their soft shoe is as endearingly amateur as their knowledge of Shakespeare improbable. The song is here re-located to the stage alley, and sung only to an audience of Keel. Of course it was a bit absurd in its Bway context: caught on stage during  Shrew, the duo improvise the number on the spot!—and the orchestra joins right in! (Never mind. . . somehow it works. The ’99 Bway revival had the two hilariously evolve into high-toned dandies between encores.)

Aren’t shows-within-shows usually careless and sloppy, if not ludicrous and untenable? As if they’re not meant to be taken seriously. As a musical adaptation of Taming of the Shrew, “Kiss Me Kate” makes a convincing argument for legitimacy. But the backstage framework gives it an extra dimension. A half-hour into the movie, the “show” begins, and the parade of songs dazzle with their fittingness and language. We’re shown a good portion of Shakespeare’s tale and much of the score is devoted to it, but even with a sly Porteresque slant, the songs fit beautifully. Saint Subber claimed he plucked titles from passages in the play: “I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua”; “Were Thine That Special Face?”; “I Am Ashamed That Women Ae So Simple.” Brushing up on Shakespeare was a lucrative strategy indeed.

God only knows why MGM decided to jump on the 3D bandwagon with a musical, but KMK has the unique distinction of being the only Bway musical released in that format. With the rise of television, Hlwd turned to new technologies, and ‘53 had a bounty of 3D releases, as well as the introduction of Cinemascope and Stereophonic Sound to lure the customers in. The first wave of 3D films ended by the end of the decade, and it took another fifty years—and major technological innovation—for a serious resurgence to occur. You have to wonder why MGM thought KMK was suitable for such treatment, other than the shock of the unexpected. The 3D effects are sprinkled thru-out, like bits of candy, but are blatantly obvious in flatscreen veiwing as well. We get scarves and jewelry thrown at us; Keel cracks a whip; Rall swings on a rope; Grayson hurls a brass goblet, ostensibly into her theater audience. It’s rather silly. You have to wonder about that audience, they’re treated rather cavalierly. In a most egregious accommodation, a lengthy ramp--previously unseen—suddenly thrusts into the auditorium like an huge runway, down which marches Keel to sing “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” There’s even a partial castle-like structure on the end of it. Finishing the song, he returns to the main stage, and as the camera looks back over the audience, we see the ramp has already vanished. It isn’t clear whether this bit of magic was purely for 3D effect, but it is every bit as ridiculous as it was unnecessary. Then, as now, 3D films required special projection equipment, making for limited theater availability. So outside of a few major cities, KMK was seem in standard flat format, including  ironically, New York—where MGM willingly sacrificed their 3D gambit to play Radio City Music Hall, which was too large a screen to utilize existing technology.

The film opened on November 5th and was a lesser success than the Bway hits released earlier that year—not quite making the top 30 of 1953. Perhaps it was a bit high-toned for the average moviegoer, or just evidence of a growing disinterest in operetta-ish pairings like Keel & Grayson. On the other hand, critics decried the vulgarization of the now venerated stage production--one of the greatest of 40s musicals in the still unfolding Golden Age. The film respects Porter’s score to a degree Hlwd never did before (only 4 out of 17 numbers were cut; “Another Op’nin”, “I Am Ashamed  Women Are  So  Simple,” the wonderful tarantella: “I Sing of Love,” (which could’ve been another lovely dance for Ann & the boys); and, thankfully, the embarrassing “Bianca,” whose lyric jokes about “Sanka,” and papa needing to “spank-a” were in fact intentionally ludicrous as Porter wrote the song under protest, fully expecting it to be cut—it wasn’t) But the movie still feels slightly cheesy—a shaved-down Hlwd musical, not a prestige item like An American in Paris, or even for that matter, last November’s Hans Christian Andersen. Critics dismissed it summarily. And yet…over time I think the movie (with the noted exceptions) stands as a glorious example of its time, and remains a far less objectionable adaptation of a beloved Bway musical than many other examples.

But the original Bway creators weren’t about to let Hlwd have the last word. Thru-out the 50s & 60s Kiss Me Kate was constantly performed, cementing its reputation in the Bway canon. It was periodically revived by the Los Angeles/San Francisco Civic Light Opera Company, and a staple in stock and amateur groups. Especially instrumental in breaking longstanding European indifference to American musicals, KMK became the first performed at the famed Vienna Volksoper (in 1956), and sprouted long-running productions all over the Continent—many in local translations. The revered original Bway cast, who had made the first Original Cast Album in LP format, returned ten years later to make the first in stereo. Tho never considered for the film, Alfred Drake & Patricia Morison were forever acclaimed as the definitive stars of the show, and in 1958 were given their shot on television in a 90-minute Hallmark Hall of Fame. Morison (a great beauty who was previously underused in Hlwd—as a rival to Dorothy Lamour) did another broadcast in England, inaugurating BBC2 in 1964, opposite Howard Keel. Still another TV version, broadcast by ABC in March 1968 starred husband & wife, Robert Goulet & Carol Lawrence., with Jessica Walter (!) as Lois Lane. Changing times relegated the show to has-been status until a sterling Bway revival in 1999 restored its former glory.  Porter’s score will keep the show alive for as long the genre survives.

Next Up: Top Banana

Report Card:    Kiss Me Kate
Overall Film:    B+
Bway Fidelity:  B
Songs from Bway:  13
Songs Cut from Bway:  4
New Songs:  1: “From This Moment On”
Standout Numbers:“Why Can’t You Behave?”
              “Tom, Dick or Harry,” “Too Darn Hot”
               “From This Moment On”
Worst Omission:“Another Op’nin Another Show”
Casting:      Exceptional in featured roles
Cast from Bway:  None
Standout Cast: Tommy Rall, Ann Miller,
                              Bob Fosse, James Whitmore
Sorethumb Cast:  Kathryn Grayson
Direction:     Unobtrusive
Choreography:   Outstanding & well executed
Ballet:  None
Scenic Design: Backstage: drab/Onstage: vivid
Costumes:  Good thru-out, but best in show
Standout Sets:  Midtown theatre rooftop
                              Taming of the Shrew sets
Titles:   Dali-esque landscape
Oscar Nomination: 1: musical scoring
                              (Andre Previsn & Saul Chaplin)

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