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Oct 05 2016

George Sidney Centennial: "Kiss Me Kate"

by Tim Brayton

Our centennial tribute to MGM mainstay George Sidney continues with the director's 1953 musicalKiss Me Kate,and such a curious beast it is.Adapted with a slightly free hand from Cole Porter's hit 1948 musical,it's a musical version ofThe Taming of the Shrewthat's also a backstage comedy about the staging of a musical version ofThe Taming of the Shrew,in which the actors playing Kate and Petruchio are recently feuding exes.

Don't let the plot worry you,though.Since this is a 1950s MGM musical the focus is obviously one one thing first and foremost,and that's big,heaving SPECTACLE.

The concept offers room for elaborate costumes in a rainbow of splashy colors,and of course the film takes full advantage;while choreographer Hermes Pan (and,for one jaw-dropping scene,the very young Bob Fosse) throws a lot of high-energy moves into the dances.But there's no question what setsKiss Me Kateapart from the pack,even among MGM's big-budget productions: this was the studio's first musical in 3D,and it remains one of the best uses of that gimmick across the decades and three different waves of stereoscopic filmmaking.Warner Bros.released the film on a drop-dead gorgeous 3D Blu-ray in 2015,and if you keep your eyes peeled,it sometimes crops up in revival houses.It's worth whatever effort it takes: it's a revelation in 3D,and that has everything to do with Sidney's excellent staging of the action.

Sure,there's the usual gamut of cheap 3D tricks: Ann Miller tossing scarves at the camera,Kathryn Grayson flinging mugs of water,jugglers launching bowling pins straight at our faces.Which is,I would insist,a perfectly okay thing to do.Let's say,though,that you need a bit more than that: Sidney provides it.Like all the best 3D movies,Kiss Me Katemakes plenty of gestures towards creating a deep space for the action,using the open space of the theatrical stage and backstage to create multiple planes of activity,and all sorts of useful visual analogues for the emotional conflict.

One of the pervasive gestures throughout the movie is direct address: characters completely abandon the reality of the scene to deliver their songs,and sometimes even dialogue,straight to the camera.It's weird in the 2D version of the movie,but it suddenly feels perfectly natural when the extra depth is added,giving the sense that we the viewers are involved in the action somehow.When Howard Keel performs "Where Is the Life That Late I Led"on a thrust stage,surrounded by the theatrical audience,the film's intent is clear: it's trying to recreate,in cinema,the unique sense of shared space that happens in theatrical performance.It doesn't work and probably can't,but it's a pretty fun failed attempt.

None of which should imply thatKiss Me Kateisn't worth your time in the good ol' 2D version that has been,for decades,the only way to see it.In all versions,the film is a lot of fun,with Porter's enjoyable,if hardly top-tier collection of upbeat songs (scrubbed clean for the movies at the censors' behest,though "Kick her right in theCoriolanus"stayed in) handled with big showy gusto.The whole thing is resolutely trivial: it's a soap bubble of a romantic comedy that pulls in a couple of powerfully unthreatening gangsters to add some measure of a plot.Accordingly,Sidney and the cast treat it as a big lark,and there's a definite "let's put on a show"vibe to the performances,especially Miller's completely unrestrained joy at shimmying every chance she gets,and Grayson's embrace of the hammy potential in playing a character called "the shrew"in what was her very best screen performance  (Sidney had a special hand for working with Grayson: just look at the number Dan discussedlast time).

It's a big piece of eye and ear candy,and nothing else really;but where better to get that than MGM at its '50s biggest?And in Sidney's estimable career as a director of musicals,he never topped how much goofy,good-natured fun this film is for every minute of its running time.

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Reader Comments (12)

I have actually seen this in 3D at a revival house and it is so fun.I mean it's fun without the 3D too.I hate 3D but i make exceptions for "novelty"acts like this one which is a movie about the performance of a stage play.so all the proscenium and to the audience thing really works.

also bob fosse & ann miller dancing.Yes please forever.

October 5,2016 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Ann Miller slays in It's Too Darn Hot.The movie would be worth watching just for that,but there are both things to love about it,too.

October 5,2016 | Unregistered Commentercash

The dance with the 3 couples: Anne Miller and Bobby Van,Bob Fosse and Carol Haney,Tommy Rall (love him) and Jeanne Coyne!How I love that one,they are all such wonderful dancers and the choreography such fun.

The songs stick in my head for days too.

October 5,2016 | Unregistered Commenteradri

It is a big bandbox pretty show from beginning to end and as has been mentioned the Bob Fosse/Bobby Van/Ann Miller number is phenomenal.That may be the apex but the entire film is such a feast for the eyes,some of the costumes are eyepopping in many ways.

MGM tried to lure Deanna Durbin out of retirement to play Kathryn Grayson's role and I can see her scoring a big hit with it.A shame that she didn't it's the sort of high quality project that Universal never offered her but she'd had enough and stayed happily in France.As fantastic as that would have been I agree this is Grayson's best onscreen work,she's much more relaxed,comic and kittenish than in any of her other films embracing Kate's shrewish qualities.

October 5,2016 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

This is one of those films that shows up on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon on TCM and you decide to give it a shot.It turns out to be a rollicking,funny,exquisitely staged gem.
Some terrific songs & Bob Fosse.The whole cast is good,and you sit back very pleased that you've watched a film that no one really talks about.More people should see and talk about gems like this.Thank goodness for websites like these.
Great article.

October 5,2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

One of the all time great musicals on stage,and one of the better films of one of the all time great stage musicals.I take issue with the faint praise for the score: Porter's songs are almost universally top tier.But the uncensored original stage lyrics do pack a stronger punch.

Never saw it in 3D,but hope to have the chance some day.

October 6,2016 | Unregistered CommenterDanny A.

Howard Keel was one of Hollywood's better baritones and he has great fun with this role.

October 6,2016 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Great fun with terrific dancing

October 6,2016 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

What's This Strange Sensation?
Chapter 6: Howard Keel as Petruchio,especially when spanking Kathryn Grayson.

October 6,2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Two gods together : Cole Porter and Will Shakespeare!
Everything was already said.
MGM was collapsing and making these incredible movies.
Ann Miller steals anything she's in and Howard Keel is the perfect
combination of virility,male beauty and comedy.
Kiss Me Kate was a"routine movie": they just wanted
capitalize on the stage hit,not to make"art"or a lot of awards -
think about it!

October 7,2016 | Unregistered CommenterIngrid_Essex

Not only is this musical overrated,I am mystified how it's still a thing,for reasons so obvious they need not be named.

October 7,2016 | Unregistered CommenterAJ

Tom,Dick,or Harry 4eva!

Fun fact--hubby and I came out dancing at our wedding reception to Wundebar.

October 7,2016 | Unregistered CommenterPam

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