Wednesday, January 25, 2017

And, brother, she means any

KISS ME KATE

Close to, if not the finest example of its breed.

1953
Directed by George Sidney
Written by Dorothy Kingsley (based on the stageplay by Cole Porter, Samuel Spewack, and Bella Spewack)
With Kathryn Grayson (Lilli Vanessi/Katherine), Howard Keel (Fred Graham/Petruchio), Ann Miller (Lois Lane/Bianca), Tommy Rall (Bill Calhoun/Lucentio), Keenan Wynn (Lippy), James Whitmore (Slug), and Ron Randell (Cole Porter)

Spoiler alert: moderate


Kiss Me Kate—and the breathless absence of that grammatically-obligatory comma is far more charming than it should be—is something close to the very ideal of the Golden Age musical: brash, silly, colorful, delightful.  And, of course, it's one more 1950s film that comes terrifyingly close to breaking itself over the knee of its era's gender dynamics—right before doubling down on (one of) the things that makes it so great.  And that is its never-look-back commitment to unadulterated farce, so facially ridiculous (and mostly harmless) that you're never in much danger of taking its loose, metafictional adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew seriously enough for whatever feminist muscles you may possess to spasm in an angry reflex.  It helps that it's a lot less outrageous than its source material, too; and, in the end, Kate's Kate at least gets a choice in the matter of her destiny.

Obviously, you couldn't make Kate the same way today (though stage productions of Cole Porter's original play do, naturally, persist); and, if you were somehow allowed to make it the same way, you'd surely fix all the little teensy story problems that keep it from being absolutely perfect (and, would, if fixed, go all the way to making it completely harmless).  But you have to hand it to a movie like Kate nonetheless—it's a film that manages to make a pair ex-spouses beating the living shit out of each other, in full view of a thousand unwitting beholders, not just comparatively innocuous, but even reasonably well-motivated, and (crucially) legitimately funny.  That's the thing that Kate has in spades: an incredible sense of how to integrate laugh-out-loud comedy into a movie that, first, has to get you to earnestly wish that the violent romantic imbroglio at the center of it does eventually resolve into a love renewed, and, second, needs to fit in a bunch of awesome song-and-dance numbers that bolster both the romance and the comedy.  In the end, it's frankly miraculous how well it manages to hold together—especially when the best numbers have nothing to do with the leads at all.

But let's attend to those leads anyway, stage actors Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, recently divorced and each still angry at the other, Lilli so much so that she's projected that anger onto her whole profession, having quit the stage to go marry a Texan cattle baron rather than even be in the same industry as her ex-husband.  So, this night, we find Fred holding court with his dear friend and colleague—a fellow by the name of Cole Porter—as they discuss the casting for their newest venture, a modernized (or at least anachronized) production of Shakespeare's Shrew, Kiss Me Kate.  (But let us pause, for it would be obnoxious if I simply assumed you remembered what Shrew was about.  Briefly, it's the story of Katherine, the prototypically nasty woman, whose family wishes she would tone it down so she could get married, thereby allowing her younger, milder, hornier sister Bianca to marry as well; and this is where Petruchio, scumbag, enters the picture, essentially hired by one of Bianca's suitors to browbeat Katherine into matrimony and, eventually, gaslit obedience.)

It's a comedy, they say!  Still, if I'm embarrassingly honest with you, I am mainly familiar with it in the form of 10 Things I Hate About You.

Well, Fred, in his typical overreaching manner, has invited Lilli to their little convocation—over Cole's most reasonable objections—with the hope of convincing the former star to consent to be in their play, portraying the Shrew.  Somehow, being told she's perfect for the part does not immediately convince her.

But then, Lilli isn't liable to be persuaded regardless of how Fred pitches his offer—and she seems less likely than ever, when Fred's new fucktoy Lois shows up, still decked out in her chorus girl outfit.  She's aware enough of the threat Lilli represents to move the proceedings directly into a hilariously, almost uncomfortably erotic tap revue, nominally in an effort to show Cole that her deleted number ("Too Darn Hot"—and that is some real truth in advertising) desperately needs to be put back into their play.  (And this is one nice meta-joke itself: "Hot," being essentially pointless in the stageplay—and, moreover, sung by a character who isn't even in the movie—would have been the first thing a screenwriter would've put on the chopping block.  But Porter, alongside Kate's screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley, find the cleverest possible way to put it right back in—that is, in the new, vastly superior context of Lois' character, not to mention Ann Miller's gams.)

Lois turns out to be the very lynchpin of Fred's sinister plot, however: for once he offers the leading role to Lois, Lilli can't help but agree to take on the part, no matter how much she despises him—hell, because of how much she despises him.  And so the play-within-the-movie proceeds; it turns out that Lois is not nearly as clueless as we might've thought—she's straight-up using Fred, in order to get her real beau, the gambling-addicted loser Bill, a part in Fred's play—but that might work out just fine, because once Fred and Lilli are pushed back together, they remember that it wasn't always awful to be around one another.

It's only too bad that the gesture that really melts Lilli's heart, a bouquet of roses, was actually intended to go to Lois, and Fred just goes along with the mistake out of inertia and cowardice; and it's too bad, also, that Bill signed a $20,000 IOU to a bookie in Fred's name; and it's really too bad that when Lilli finds out about Fred's little lie, halfway through the play's opening night, she prepares to storm off the production.  In fact, it's so bad, that when a pair of gangsters show up in Fred's dressing room during the intermission, aiming to collect on Bill's debt, Fred hatches an even more insidious scheme, suggesting that there's hardly much chance of anybody getting their money back if Lilli abandons the play and lets it flop—so the only way out for any of them is if they simply don't let her do that.

That's the movie's inflection point, about an hour in, and there's no denying that it loses a little bit of its enchantment in the transition—an enchantment that it hadn't managed to lose even when Lilli, furious and betrayed, puts so much vitriol into her performance as Katherine that she winds up beating the crap out of Fred right on stage, to the extent that he responds in kind, and wallops her backside to the applause and laughter of an opening night crowd.  (And, like I said up top, it actually is funny—especially the wind-up, which sees Fred embodying the very notion of the showman who must go on, attempting to stay in character despite Lilli's withering barrage of blows.  Meanwhile, even the modern viewer can appreciate the provocation of Lilli's attack, and the "it's all part of the show, folks!" cleverness of the denouement feels a little bit like Fred cutting a difficult Gordian knot.  Altogether, it reflects the absurd lengths everybody involved was willing to go in order to justify that denouement—a full minute of onscreen spanking.  And, amazingly, they just about manage to do it.)

Even if, by our nature, we have to get tediously technical here, and admit that it does fulfill all of the elements of most jurisdictions' definition of a fourth-degree sexual assault.  Ha-ha!  (Hey, at least the thing that happens on the poster happens in the movie.)

But when Fred co-opts that pair of leering gangsters, you're bound to get worried, even if you probably shouldn't be—the existence of the Production Code means that nothing outright awful is going to happen, and the film's general weightlessness means that even the thugs' menace is more amusing than legitimately threatening.  Indeed, James Whitmore, playing the fireplug-shaped gangster Slug, is practically droll in his sleaziness—and it's the most reassuring nudge to the audience's arm possible, that when he tries to "help" Lilli change costumes, his partner Lippy pulls him back, shaking his head, as if to say, "Hey, it ain't that kinda picture."  (Then again, Slug's best moment surely comes when he almost faints into his partner's lap, as a result of Lilli and Fred discussing her lame fiancé's cattle business, and whether or not she'll be happy spending the rest of her days thrusting red-hot branding irons into the virgin flesh of thousands of pitiful calves.)

But if there's plenty to consternate yourself with in these scenes, Kate picks itself back up, once these mobsters shove themselves into costumes and right out onto the stage, interfering with the play in progress, but proving themselves to be (minor) Shakespearean scholars in their own right.  That's when you remember: ah yes, farce.  Farce is Kate's invincible shield.

And the number of good jokes peppered throughout Kate, spoken and sung, verbal and physical, is positively astounding (it's a little bit frotntloaded, but even the best romantic comedies are); and everybody, from Kathryn Grayson to Howard Keel on down, are essentially flawless in all their frenzied running around, and in all their bitterly hilarious recriminations against everybody else (and, often enough that the film never runs the risk of losing its humanity, themselves).  There's also that play-within-the-movie to consider: by the time it's been going for ten full minutes, you realize, "Holy crap, they're actually doing it."  And the internal Kiss Me Kate, itself, is a largely wonderful adaptation of Shakespeare's Shrew, twisted up with contemporary slang and references in a way that I'd probably despise, were it actually made in my lifetime, but which the distance of the 1950s makes so inordinately cute.

It is not the perfect story (though it's pretty close to the perfect farce), but the most obvious issues are the gaps—gaps you can easily fill in for yourself, but you'd prefer that the movie did on its own.  Mainly, there is a substantially better Kate that explicitly gives Fred a reason to want his ex-wife back in his life, besides her box office draw—though it's already plain that he falls back in love with her almost immediately.  And there's a wholly immaculate version of Kate that spends just a single minute more with Grayson, allowing her to really demonstrate Lilli's troubled internal contradictions—why, in this musical, she could even sing a song about them. (It would surely beat out Grayson's existing big solo number, "I Hate Men", a diegetic piece performed as Katherine.  It's funny, thanks to Grayson's zealously, er, shrewish performance; but, sadly, it's Kate's single weakest song.)  Still: even in the less-than-ideal version we already have, it takes essentially zero effort to understand the pure simplicity of Lilli's motivations.

But since we brought up the music, what about the music?  All told, pretty damn great: it's Cole Porter adapting himself, albeit mainly in the sense of scaling back the licentious nature of his original lyrics.  (Kingsley had to tone down aspects of the Spewacks' book, too, but that ages awfully well: the play had Lilli screaming "you bastard!" at him; the movie changes it to "you louse!"—and the sheer quaintness of that 50s-fake epithet, paired up with Grayson's trilling fury, are the very things that make that line so funny.)

And, you know what?  Dude's totally a louse.

Truthfully, there are really only two kinds of number in Kate: the ones that involve this film's secret thermonuclear weapon, Ann Miller, and the ones that don't.  And as good a singer as Miller is, it's hardly because Grayson and Keel are in any sense worse.  (Though they do, for whatever reason, get Porter's sleepier songs, like Petruchio's own little solo ballad, "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?")  But no: it's because Miller is the energy that this movie feeds upon.  Even though she's not anything like a protagonist—hell, even though she kind of barely matters to the story—she essentially plays all of Lois' scenes as if she were the heroine, and Kingsley's script and George Sidney's direction are more than happy to indulge her.

(It's one of the few overt things Sidney's direction does at all, in fact.  The man is perfectly good at capturing the sublime hyperkineticism of Hermes Pan's choreography—and, yes, that is his real name, more-or-less, and, yes, I did look it up—but there's a workmanlike quality to Kate.  Very little of its humor, or anything else, is the result of its director's choices.  Hell, there's an amusing smidgen of gay panic with the two hoods—"What's a sprite?" one asks, and the other answers, "It's like a fairy"—wherein Sidney slices the cutting room knife down on Whitmore's bug-eyed double-take, apparently unaware that the screenplay was even making a joke.  But don't put too much blame on Sidney, a Hollywood veteran by this point; he was probably too busy arranging for all the shit that gets hurled into the foreground to do anything else other than avoid injuring the crew, because Kate was MGM's big 3-D musical, made at the height of its first brief phase of popularity.  And it is the very epitome of what someone means when they talk about the stupid geek show of 1950s 3-D, occasionally descending into a weird, assaultive nightmarescape that never really hurts it, but freezes it completely in time, like a fly that was trapped in amber, and then thrown directly at a camera.)

Anyway, whether she's our heroine or not, Miller's Lois is still the centerpiece in every last one of Kate's marquee songs.  "Too Darn Hot," we've covered, though it bears repeating just how egregiously sexy it is.  It's practically a striptease in Technicolor, and while it's never in technical violation of the Code, it's certainly a hell of a violation of its spirit, and the most aggressive part of it must be Pan's decision to put a two-pane mirror behind Miller, apparently just in case Sidney's coverage missed your personal favorite part of Miller's anatomy.  Oh, sure: you can complain all you want about the front office compelling Kingsley to change Porter's nod to the Kinsey Report from a direct reference to a winking allusion, but you know, a reference to a scientific paper was never so likely to give half the viewing audience an actual erection.

Plus, she's a killer tapper.  I can think about two things at once, okay?

It's weird enough that that was what had to be cut, anyway, considering her other best number, "Tom, Dick, or Harry," is—well, let's just say it's not exactly subtle about what its singer wants, namely "any Tom, Harry, or Dick."  (Geddit?)  Lippy and Slug's cheeky paean to the Bard, "Brush Up On Your Shakespeare," is another example of pushing the censors: "If she says your behavior is heinous/Kick her right in the Coriolanus!"  (A lot of people love that number; I like the performance, but it's so juvenile.  It's about the only thing in the movie that isn't that funny.)  "Tom, Dick, or Harry," though—while not exactly sophisticated—is at least about something, as is Miller's final scene-stealing showstopper, Lois' second duet with Tommy Rall's Bill, "Always True To You In My Fashion."  And that's one of the single oddest things I've ever seen in a 50s movie: you can no doubt guess the basic thrust of the song from its title, and, essentially, it's the opposite of slut shaming—slut pride.  I guess the closest comparison might be Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, though I think we're still supposed to find Marilyn Monroe unappealingly crass.  But Kate, whatever other accusations you can throw its way, clearly adores Lois, and for all her promiscuity and manipulation, there's not really a malicious bone in her whole machiavellian body.

Let us not forget, however, the one bit of awesomeness that comes like a bolt out of the clear blue skyThat's Kate's answer to "An American In Paris"—for it seems like every post-American In Paris musical had some kind of answer to Kelly and Caron's psychedelic ballet, some better, like Singin' in the Rain's "Broadway Melody," and some much worse, like The Band Wagon's noir-inflected, hilariously-misjudged "Girl Hunt."  (It's hard to make technically-proficient dancing actively bad, but Band Wagon proves that you sure can make it boring and stupid.) Kate's, however, is perhaps the best of them all:  "From This Moment On," a wordless dance choreographed and performed by a young Bob Fosse (he of Cabaret and All That Jazz) alongside Carol Haney et al, and it's as sexy (in its more subdued and tasteful way) as "Too Darn Hot," and yet, from my understanding of its reputation, a whole lot more revolutionary.


It, like many of the numbers, occurs inside the play-within-the-film (it takes on the subject of Bianca's suitors, and their hot second-choice brides), and it's not just stunningly athletic, it serves as the aesthetic climax of the play-within-the-film, which has been outlandishly, wondrously garish, justifying the lush Technicolor with its blistering array of bold pastels.  (Indeed, Padua and its inhabitants look so much like an alien civilization on Star Trek that you're half-surprised that Petruchio isn't forced to match wits with an evil computer.)

But that's Kiss Me Kate altogether: maybe kind of a mess, on paper, but it never feels less than coherent in the execution.  It's amazing, frankly, that a movie where every last character but the two leads is nothing more than a pop-up entertainment machine still manages to hide that fact so well.  But it does it with the oldest trick in the book: by hiding it right there, in plain sight.  I speak without any of the authority I'd need to make the claim—but if there is a better musical to be found in all the 1950s, I'd love to have you name it.

Score:  10/10

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