‘Kiss Me Kate’ or — The Delight of Dicking About?
Watching ‘Kiss Me Kate’ (1953) for the first time last night I couldn’t figure out if the musical had too little propelling it forward (putting on a show brings two former lovers together, and that’s about it) or too much (meta-Cole Porter manifestations, love rectangles, gangsters, gambling debts, mistaken identities, wayward love letters, Texan ranchers, murdered mob bosses, FIFTEEN songs, sexually outrageous lyrics, a fear of baldness, a tonne of dick AND a full blown production of The Taming of the Shrew… in 3D!). I guess keeping things simple allows for the piling on of more elaborate madness, and that’s always a good thing in my books.
The story is your typical ‘people who were previously married falling in love again because they have matching insanities’ tale. In this respect it’s similar to films such as ‘The Awful Truth’ (1937) and ‘His Girl Friday’ (1940) where the fun is watching two people who proclaim to despise each other unable to escape their respective gravitational pulls. ‘Kiss Me Kate’ is set in the world of theatre where a troupe are putting on a musical version of Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and where life behind the stage merges with the one presented before an audience, which gives the entire musical a similar vibe to watching a crazy, live-action version of ‘The Muppet Show’.
Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson play the leads constantly quarrelling/flirting with each other whilst attempting to perform the Bard, and they both bring a huge amount of gusto to their parts. Although, for me, it was the supporting players that really shone with Ann Miller stealing the show with the sizzling number ‘Too Darn Hot’ allowing her to dance all over the furniture, as well as flashing her legs at every opportunity, plus the extraordinarily innuendo driven and incredibly catchy ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’, a slice of energetic, naughty and colourful syncopation that I’ve not been able to shift from my head all day, and I’m in no rush to evict soon for that matter.
And talking of energetic syncopation, ‘Kiss Me Kate’ contains an early performance, plus some brief choreography, by the legendary Bob Fosse helping give everything a distinctly modern touch for the time. Indeed, Fosse’s angular litheness makes for a fun contrast next to Keel’s grinning chunk of booming, libidinous granite.
Although my favourite number might be ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ performed with wonderful comedic panache by Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore as the “intimidating” thugs. The relationship hierarchy between the two is beautifully illustrated by their “inept” tap-dancing and appeals to high culture and is very funny. I could’ve watched them all day.
All the songs are sprite and catchy and bolstered by some powerful musical direction by André Previn that knows exactly where the land all the punctuation marks in the score.
Technically there’s a lot going on in this seemingly frivolous production. The set design is a fantastic riot of colour and layered depths and the director ensures that the audience watching the performance in the theatre is very much a character in itself. This allows this audience to be wherever the director and editor needs them to be and, in the process, acknowledge to us, the viewer, that we’re the real audience being indulged and catered for here. It’s a great way of sucking us in and making us feel we’re part of the craziness.
Likewise the costumes are all suitably and outrageously whacko with their designs and colour schemes demolishing the boundaries of chromatic good taste although it was William Tuttle’s striking make-up that really caught my attention (this film contains some of the best eye-shadow you’ll ever see).
‘Kiss Me Kate’ is like no other musical I’ve seen in that it almost seems to be making fun of itself with such gleeful abandon that the entire movie feels that it could collapse around itself at any point and we’ll still all be having a wonderful time, laughing and dancing amongst the brightly coloured rubble and ruins. In fact, the film almost seems to court and woo self-destruction as aggressively as Petruchio courts Kate. This sense of exciting recklessness could be possible because there is zero darkness to be found anywhere in this film, it all having been blasted away by the sheer force of life, sexuality and the delicious pleasure of deliciously fucking around. After all, I can’t think of any other musical that could not only get away with the lyrical line “Where is Rebecca? My Becky-weckyio?” but make it seem completely inspired as opposed to a linguistic travesty, which is what it actually should be.
‘Kiss Me Kate’ is a musical that doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest and I think there might be a very important life lesson lurking in that lack of pretention. After all, there’s something wonderfully refreshing, energising and liberating about watching a group of people knowing they’re being nothing more than a load of total dicks simply for our pleasure.