Kathryn Grayson & Howard Keel are the Perfect Team, Ann Miller Steal the Show, & Bob Fosse is the Best. From 1953, it's Kiss Me Kate.
Kiss Me Kate (1953)
January 31, 2019 Updated November 26, 2021
I’ve seen Kiss Me Kate (1953) countless times over the years. Sometimes from start to finish, but mostly in bits and pieces. I remember being completely disappointed the first time I watched the film at about age twelve: I’d just discovered the amazing Ann Miller, and couldn’t get enough of her machine gun taps. So you can imagine how underwhelmed I was to find that Ann only has one tap number in the film.
That being said, Ann’s tap dance in Kiss Me Kate is a showstopper. If you only watch one scene in Kiss Me Kate, Ann’s dancing to “Too Darn Hot” should be it.
Take a look below. You’ll see what I mean.
Kiss Me Kate: More Than Ann's Tap Dancing
I decided to review Kiss Me Kate this final week of our month with Kathryrn Grayson because, this month, I’ve officially become a Kathryn Grayson fan. And viewing the film without my previous “Ann Miller tunnel vision” was a revelation.
Although I must admit that my heart still particularly leaps and soars whenever Ann comes on the screen, now I also fully appreciate the performances of Kathryn Grayson and the other members of the film’s incredibly talented cast.
Let’s get to the plot.
Kiss Me Kate is a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. It’s also a “show within a show”: we’re watching a film about putting on a play, so the film switches back and fourth between the actors’ lives off stage and their on stage performance. And of course, to make it even more fun, the plot of the film itself and the plot of the play within the film parallel each other.
Kathryn Grayson plays Lilli Vanessi, a singing star whose ex husband, Fred Graham, is about to direct and star in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. Fred (Howard Keel), convinces Lilli to play the lead role of Katherine/Kate opposite his Petruchio. Fred casts Lilli despite their tempestuous relationship, past marriage, and Lilli’s current engagement to a Texas oilman named, what else, Tex.
Emotions run high when, during rehearsals, it becomes apparent that Lilli and Fred still have feelings for each other. And then there’s the fact that Fred’s current girlfriend Lois (Ann Miller) gets the part of Bianca in the play, while Lois’ other boyfriend, Bill, gets the part of Lucentio. The plot further thickens (hilariously) when two gangsters enter the scene (James Whitmore and Keenan Wynn). These two thugs are after Fred for signing a $2000 IOU that was actually signed by Bill using Fred’s name.
Does this all sound a little improbable and complicated?
Just remember Kiss Me Kate is a musical from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and no other explanation is necessary.
The Evolving Talents of Kathryn Grayson
A quick side note, it’s interesting to see how Kathryn Grayson matured in Kiss Me Kate from the other three Grayson films I reviewed earlier this month. In Seven Sweethearts, Anchors Aweigh, and The Kissing Bandit, Kathryn plays young, sweet, ingénues, and she does it perfectly. Kathryn was barely twenty when Seven Sweethearts was released, while she was in her early thirties when Kiss Me Kate entered theaters. I do miss the sweetness of the young Kathryn Grayson, but she does an excellent job transitioning from the ingénue roles of her early career to the more experienced woman she plays in Kiss Me Kate. It’s a truly seamless transition worth noting.
Kiss Me Kate & the Grayson/Keel Team
Back to Kiss Me Kate.
It’s safe to say there wasn’t a better (musical film) costar for Kathryn than Howard Keel: their acting talents were on par, as were their looks; they were good friends off screen, and, not only could both Kathryn and Howard sing beautifully, they sang in a similar style.
I enjoyed the pairing of Frank Sinatra and Kathryn in Anchors Aweigh and The Kissing Bandit, but, though Sinatra and Grayson each have beautiful singing voices (that’s an understatement) their styles are very dissimilar.
Contrast that with the Kathryn Grayson/Mario Lanza teaming in the films they made together. I mentioned briefly last week that I’m not a fan of Mario Lanza as a screen presence (fair or not, much of my distaste for Lanza stems from the terrible way he treated his numerous lovely costars), but Lanza’s and Grayson’s singing voices are a good match as far as style is concerned.
So putting Grayson and Keel together in Kiss Me Kate is like taking the best of Kathryn’s pairing with Sinatra, and the best of Kathryn’s pairing with Lanza. Kathryn and Howard are indeed a winning team.
Kiss Me Kate: the Best Duet
Grayson and Keel sing several songs in the film. One of their two duets from the Cole Porter score, “Wunderbar,” is particularly fun. Not only are their voices gorgeous here, Kathryn and Howard genuinely seem to have a great time with each other, hamming it up and playing off each other beautifully. As a feuding couple both onstage and off in the film, their banter is incredibly entertaining. “You LOUSE!,” Lilli repeatedly exclaims after real or imagined jabs from Fred. Watch the scene towards the beginning when Fred is directing Lilli and Lois during a rehearsal on how to take their bows. Kathryn’s face after being told by Fred to do as Lois does is priceless.
Surprisingly, critics at the time of Kiss Me Kate‘s release were of mixed opinions about the vitality of the Grayson/Keel team. John McCarten of The New Yorker found Grayson and Keel
“as a bickering theatrical pair compelled to play opposite each other in Shakespeare…lacking in vital juices.”
I don’t understand how anyone could take issue with Grayson and Keel in Kiss Me Kate. I found their banter totally impassioned and believable. What’s more, I thought their pairing even more perfect because you believe the more tender scenes between them as well. The relationship between Lilli and Fred constantly cycles between love and hate in the film, and the amicable scenes are just as believable as the bitter ones. Watch as Lilli and Fred reminisce about their marriage before singing “Wunderbar.” We completely believe that Lilli and Fred were once married and in love, even though they were arguing just minutes before.
Kiss Me Kate: That's Dancing!
Let’s take a moment to focus on the stellar dancing in Kiss Me Kate.
Ann Miller is surrounded by a slew of talented dancers throughout the film, including Tommy Rall, Carol Haney, Bobby Van, and a young Bob Fosse.
Yes, Bob Fosse is a supporting dancer in Kiss Me Kate, certainly a reminder that even the greats start small.
Interesting fact about Tommy Rall, whom you may recognize from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954): he suffered from a crossed eye as a child. Tommy’s doctor recommended that his mother have Tommy do activities that would exercise his eyes. But Tommy was so young, he still couldn’t read or write very well. So his mom put him in dance classes. She figured all the spotting dance requires would provide the exercise Tommy’s eyes needed, and she was right.
And her son became a great, athletic dancer on top of it.
Tommy Rall plays Bill in Kiss Me Kate, definitely the most featured of the three male dancers, both in the dancing sequences and in the film overall. He plays Ann Miller’s love interest onstage and offstage in the film, and they share two dance/song duets offstage in addition to the dance numbers in the play.
There are definite shades of Gene Kelly in the ease with which Rall can jump, and retain his masculinity through the more ballet-ish sequences. Tommy also throws in some aerials here and there. And he makes them look so easy, you forget that an aerial is cartwheel with no hands, certainly no small feat. Watching Kiss Me Kate, we have no doubt Tommy Rall is talented and can dance.
The Incomparable Bob Fosse
He just steals the show. Bob Fosse gets a chance to modestly show what he can do in the “Tom, Dick, or Harry” number, where he, Rall, and Van, fight for the affections of Ann Miller’ Bianca. But again, Fosse is probably the least featured of the three guys. Despite this, you find yourself drawn to him. That Fosse “cool,” that smooth, sharp, ease of movement is clearly there; these elements that the world would soon recognize as Bob Fosse’s signature style. And even though he’s wearing Shakespearian garb, there’s something so undeniably modern about Fosse’s every move.
Then we get to “From this Moment On” at the end of the film where Fosse finally gets his time to shine. Rall and Miller, Fosse and Haney, and Van and Jeanne Coyne pair off in this number, and though the two other pairs do just fine, Fosse and Haney are the ones to watch. They’re given a short but dynamic Fosse-style duet within the dance, which clearly shows that this Bob Fosse fellow was going places.
Kiss Me Kate: An Honorable Mention
I can’t end without mentioning the fantastic performances of James Whitmore and Keenan Wynn as Slug and Lippy, the two thugs trying to collect the $2000 they believe Fred owes.
Whitmore and Wynn are hilarious. Watch as they follow Fred onstage and decide now would be a good time to have a card game. They also have a surprisingly entertaining song/”dance” duet, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” (And fun side note, don’t miss Keenan Wynn’s granddaughter, Jessica Keenan Wynn, carry on in his comedy tradition as Young Tanya in 2018’s Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!)
Next Up: Great Oscar Injustices
And that wraps up our month with Kathryn Grayson.
Be sure to join me next week as I celebrate TCM‘s “Oscar Month” in a unique way. I’ll highlight two great stars who somehow never managed to win competitive Oscars.
Can you guess who?