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Kiss Me Kate
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.
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 Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore, two very non-musical stars, in comedy roles. They're there mainly because Dore Schary needed to keep the contract players working. As it is, they're pretty amusing in their ersatz song and dance number, perhaps because they're a break from the real musical talent around them; audiences think they're great.
Kiss Me Kate is, along with Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, 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 a 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), but Savant was confused by the framing. It looks way over-cropped on the left side.
1953 was a changeover year for aspect ratios, with Cinerama and CinemaScope confusing matters. The fake 'widescreen' accomplished by matting to anywhere between 1:66 and 1:85 hadn't really happened yet, but many films were being composed for 1:66, and I thought Kiss Me Kate was one of them. When the left-hand side was consistently looking cropped during Too Darn Hot, I compared the DVD to my old Laserdisc, and sure enough, the flat Laser showed much, much more on the left - while cropping off the right just as severely! In the low angle of Miller dancing with a bongo player in the right foreground, the DVD shows the bongo player, but he's cropped out on the Laser. I didn't check all the way through, so I don't know if the Laser is consistently panned to the right, and the DVD to the left. If I didn't know better, I'd think that one was transferred from the 3D left eye negative, and the other from the right (but they wouldn't be that different).
I have it on good authority from Warner/Turner, and from their Ned Price, that the film was shot 1:37 and the flat release prints were re-framed just as seen on the DVD. The sometimes lop-sided framing on the DVD, was reportedly referenced from an archived original release print. This complicates the 'evidence' above, to the point that I have doubts about making any final judgments. Apparently, this is exactly how the film was cropped in flat 1953 prints. The word from Warners: "What you should see on the DVD is the way the master studio Technicolor print was when projected. Ned has explained that Technicolor's matrices eliminated 10% of the open aperture picture information. Earlier telecine operators wouldn't have known to compensate for that."
The DVD extras are pleasant. There's a short but informative new featurette that gives a general overview of the show, hosted by Ann Miller. 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:
Video: Good, or Excellent with serious aspect ratio grumbles
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
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.