Sunday, November 23, 2008

Kiss Me Kate

A friend and I are doing the song, Brush up your Shakespeare, from Kiss Me Kate, at a fun concert in December, and I thought I'd better check up on how it's performed in the movie, to get some ideas. I found a copy of the DVD on and checked out the song. The two actors, Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore aren't your usual song and dance men, and it shows. Admittedly they're supposed to be slightly off-centre gangsters out to get the money back from an IOU, but a perusal of the entire movie shows that someone, whether it was the director or the actors, decided that their parts should be played in such a way that they both looked spaced out all the time. They're distinctly unfunny, which is surprising, because both of them were excellent actors. Here they just look embarrassed about the whole thing, particularly Whitmore.
I suspect the direction is at fault in a good deal of the movie. George Sidney directed dozens of film musicals, many of them successfully, but something's lacking in Kiss Me Kate. Maybe it's the source material (a stage show) that's been hacked around for the movie (checking out the layout of the original stage version this seems likely). Whatever it is, it only occasionally lights up. Ann Miller does a frenetic tap dance in the opening sequence, but has to do it in a room in an apartment where there's very little space. She winds up dancing on the furniture just to give herself some variety. Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson sing their opening duet as a squabble rather than a love duet, while Cole Porter - played by Ron Randall - appears in this scene and then is never heard from again.
Perhaps the problem was that the film was made in 3-D and opportunities to throw things at the camera were taken so often that other things suffer. Grayson sings all fourteen verses of I Hate Men (fourteen, or maybe twenty), and does the same thing with it each time - until she throws the metal tankard she's been thumping on the table at the camera. Wunderbar is performed in a cramped dressing room in a theatre that apparently has a stage the size of a stadium - sometimes. And people talking backstage all shout at the top of their voices, as though the audience couldn't possibly hear them.
The camera dolly has a distinct wobble on it, andthere are several shots in which the camera moves are quite juddery. Then there are the costumes for the 'play' they're doing. Someone decided that all the men should be dressed in clothes that reveal pretty much everything. Walter Plunkett, who was one of Hollywood's top designers, didn't usually make such a botch-up as this; was it all part of something not quite going right during production? Who knows.
So what did I like about the movie? The dancing is just superb. Miller's table-top tapping is top-notch, but the best dancing takes place in two major scenes, and both of them have Tommy Rall in them. In the first, he and Miller perform: Why Can't You Behave? Rall doesn't sing in this one, but he does some whizz-bang acrobatic dancing. (Miller isn't too bad, either!). In the second scene, just before the finale, Rall and Miller, Bob Fosse, Bobby Van, Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne perform an extended piece to From This Moment On (sung in the stage show by totally different characters). Between the acrobatic dancing of the men, and wonderful energy of the women, this is a show-stopper and a half. Everything about this scene is right (except again for that blasted camera dolly) and it deserves to be in the top ten of Hollywood musical dance sequences.
Kiss Me Kate isn't unenjoyable; just a bit flawed. The great advantage of the DVD version is that you can leave out the bits you don't like...

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