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DVD SAVANT

Kiss Me Kate


Kiss Me Kate
Warner Home Entertainment
1953 / color / 1:37 flat (inadvertent slight pan-scan) / 109 min. / Street Date April 22, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Keenan Wynn, Bobby Van, Tommy Rall, James Whitmore, Kurt Kasznar, Bob Fosse, Ron Randell, Carol Haney, Jeanne Coyne
Cinematography Charles Rosher
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons, Urie McCleary
Film Editor Ralph E. Winters
Original Music Cole Porter, Saul Chaplin
Written by Dorothy Kingsley from the play by Samuel & Bella Spewack
Produced by Jack Cummings
Directed by George Sidney

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Note, April 2004: When first released on DVD Kiss Me Kate had a serious framing problem that Warners has since corrected.

Kiss Me Kate may not match the hi-falutin' Art of An American in Paris but it's got the MGM musical unit's second-string talent showing themselves at their very best. Kathryn Grayson is irksome to the purists but she's a fine comedienne here, and often-clunky Howard Keel is magnificent as theatrical blowhard Fred Graham, the Ham of Hams. Add to that fourteen zingy Cole Porter songs and some terrific dancing (old fashioned tap and some new Bob Fosse moves) and it's a show to remember.

Synopsis:

A Broadway production of The Taming of the Shrew is fractured by the re-teaming of the now divorced showbiz couple Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) and Fred Graham (Howard Keel). Not only are they distracted by new alliances including nervy tap dancer Lois Lane (Ann Miller), but Fred is being dogged by a pair of gangsters seeking repayment for a debt (James Whitmore & Keenan Wynn).

Made the same year as the classic The Band Wagon, Kiss Me Kate has the same fake-but-fun showbiz gusto. Even when the story stops for operetta-style songs, Grayson and Keel put them over so well that a schmaltzy ballad like Wunderbar sounds like solid gold. What holds everything together is the non-stop humor, from the careful snubs Ann Miller aims at Grayson to Keel's inexhaustible vanity. Keel is no Rex Harrison, but Harrison couldn't play the bombastic, cowardly Fred Graham this well. He'd be too controlled.

The story is basic but the script is better than the Astaire picture, with much more clever dialogue, and playful Cole Porter lyrics that sneak in sly puns: "kick 'em right in the Coriolanus."

The show has a number of standards but the real kickers are the dancing numbers, specifically Ann Miller's Too Darn Hot and Why Can't you Behave?, and the film's progressive highlight, From This Moment On. Bob Fosse had previously been in some okay MGM musical numbers but this is the one that put him on the map. When he slides under his partner Carol Haney and they do a slack-posed set of moves, a bit of history was made. It's breathtaking dancing of a new kind, separate from the established Kelly & Astaire schools.  1

By second-string MGM talent, I mean Grayson and Keel in the sense that each made a number of routine musicals that can be tough to get through, the lesser Esther Williams epics and suchsame. But in this show you'd think they were the industry's top stars. This is mostly an opportunity for folk like Fosse, Ann Miller, Tommy Rall and Bobby Van, youthful talents who were usually tossed off in novelty numbers or lost in the crush of bigger Hollywood names.

The beginning of the more modern musical can be seen in the casting of the two very non-musical stars Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore in comedy roles. They're there mainly because Dore Schary needed to keep the contract players working. As it is their ersatz song and dance number is pretty amusing, perhaps because they're a break from the real musical talent around them; audiences think they're great.

Along with Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, Kiss Me Kate is the best of the 1950s 3D films. The camera prowls and Ann Miller does seem to leap off the screen. Savant saw it in real polaroid 3D in 1979 and it was great, even in the slightly off-hue Ansco Color. Those spinning diamonds in the titles were amazing, by the way, and director George Sidney only let people do the obvious Three-Stooges camera assaults when appropriate. (viewer hint: when watching any movie, close one eye. Then the flat screen is as dimensional as everything else - and everything looks slightly 3-D! ... or I'm nuts.)


MGM's DVD of Kiss Me Kate is a bright new transfer with a wonderful remixed track and a separate music-only track for those who want to hear Saul Chaplin's interstitial music. Savant was confused by the framing. It looks way over-cropped on the left side.

Note (April 2004): this off-center framing appears to have been corrected in a subsequent Kiss Me Kate re-pressing. The image is now more balanced left to right.


The DVD extras are pleasant. There's a short but informative new featurette hosted by Ann Miller that gives a general overview of the show. It points out a number of things I certainly missed, like Hermes Pan's quick cameo as a sailor. Another short subject is a travelogue on New York City, which is welcome for nostalgia's sake post-9/11, even though its only Kate connection is a single shot where Ann Miller descends a hotel staircase.

The saucy original poster art on the snapper package cover looks like something that should be on a calendar in a car repair shop ... Grayson's vivacious, but not that sexy!


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Kiss Me Kate rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent, now that the serious framing concerns have been corrected
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: docu: Cole Porter in Hollywood: Too Darn Hot, Music-only track, travelog Mighty Manhattan, New York's Wonder City
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: April 22, 2003


Footnote:

1. Carol Haney, one of the best, least-filmed talents of the time also plays the hilarious comedy 2nd lead in The Pajama Game - you know, the office girl with the hidden key who takes John Raitt to Hernando's Hideaway. When Fosse made the leap from dancer to choreographer-director in New York, From This Moment On served as his resumé ... Gwen Verdon encouraged prospective directors and producers to see it.
Return

Some really enlightening info from , 4/26/03:

Glenn: Great reviews, as always. Here is some additional information regarding Kiss Me Kate's original theatrical exhibition which may or may not explain the framing issues with the DVD (note: the original disc before correction).

From Box Office magazine of May, 1953 (parapharasing): It was filmed with MGM's own 3D camera rig at a negative aspect ratio of 1.37; however, it would be available for playdates in 3D at full Academy ratio and could be matted for 2D "flat" playdates at any of three aspect ratios - 1.66, 1.75, or 1.85. So, the negative would be fully exposed and the theatres would soft-matte it to whichever ratio they preferred.

Here's a direct quote from George Sidney, the director: "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 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 wider the screen, you see, the narrower; we had to compensate for those cut-off tops and bottoms. Same with the lighting: we used many more side lights than usual to relieve and bring out persons and objects at different distances from the camera. Even if you see Kate flat, you'll notice that it seems to have more depth than the ordinary movie." - Interview from the L.A. Times, November 8, 1953

And, finally, here is information from Bob Furmanek, the curator of the 3D Archives and the most knowledgeable person I know regarding 50s-era 3D (he has much studio paperwork on file):

The new dual-strip 3-D print of Kiss Me Kate is cropped on the left side of both prints, destroying the composition and losing important information. (For instance, the opening title triangle with the word "Kiss" on it is clipped on the left. This is unfortunate because it is meant to sit in front of the screen/stereo window, while "Me" is at the window - or base of the screen - and "Kate" sits further back behind the window. The clipping of the left destroys the composition of this great 3-D title sequence.) It's very possible that this new DVD is mastered from one of these off-center elements. Also, un-like the information in the DVD, Kiss Me Kate had a very wide 3-D release. It played most of its original and sub-run bookings in the depth version. The only major venue that played it flat was the Radio City Music Hall. There was such an unexpected demand for left/right 3-D prints, MGM had to go back to Technicolor to strike more dual-strip pairs. It was a tremendously succesful 3-D release.

Hope this information is of some use to you.
Regards, Pete Apruzzese, Big Screen Classics





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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