Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel are the Perfect Team, Ann Miller Steal the Show, and Bob Fosse Proves He's the Best! It's 1953's Kiss Me Kate.
Kiss Me Kate
I have seen Kiss Me Kate (1953) countless times over the years, sometimes from start to finish, but mostly in bits and pieces. I remember being quite disappointed the first time I saw it at about age twelve: I had just discovered the amazing Ann Miller and could not get enough of her machine gun taps. I watched Kiss Me Kate for the first time because I wanted to see Ann Miller tap! The film disappointed me because she only has one tap number in the picture.
Miller’s tap dance in Kiss Me Kate is a SHOWSTOPPER. I have no idea how many times I have watched the dance on youtube since I first saw the film, it’s that good! (Take a look if you have a minute!)
Enjoying More Than Ann's Tap Dancing!
I wanted to review Kiss Me Kate this week because I thought I would probably really enjoy it now as a whole, viewing it without the “Ann Miller tunnel vision,” so to speak, that I watched it with growing up. I have become a Kathryn Grayson fan this month! I wanted to watch Kiss Me Kate to appreciate the performances of Grayson and the other members of the incredibly talented and diverse cast.
And I was not disappointed! I watched Kiss Me Kate with my daughter yesterday, and we both absolutely loved it! I have never enjoyed this film more than I did watching it yesterday. Mary Jeanne wanted to watch it again as soon as it finished, and I was left wondering how I could ever have only appreciated Ms Miller’s performance in this film when every cast member truly pulls their weight. (Although I must admit, my heart still particularly leaps and soars whenever Ann comes on the screen.)
Kiss Me Kate is basically a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. It’s also a “show within a show”: we are watching a film about putting on a play, so the film switches back and fourth between the actors’ lives offstage and their onstage 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.
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, played by Howard Keel, is trying to court Lilli to play the lead role of Katherine/Kate opposite him as Petruchio, despite their tempestuous relationship, past marriage, and Lilli’s current engagement to a Texas oilman named, what else, Tex! Emotions run high when Lilli and Fred seem to still have feelings for each other, and 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. Hilarity ensues when two gangsters enter the storyline and the play itself! They are after Fred for an IOU for $2000 signed by Bill using Fred’s name! Does this all sound improbable and complicated? It’s a musical from the 1950s, need I say more? (:
Grayson's Evolving Talents
A quick sidenote, I found it really interesting to see how Kathryn Grayson matured in Kiss Me Kate from the three films of hers I watched earlier this month. In Seven Sweethearts, Anchors Aweigh, and The Kissing Bandit, she plays young, sweet, ingénues, and she does so perfectly. She was barely twenty when Seven Sweethearts was released, and she was in her early thirties when Kiss Me Kate entered theaters. I do miss the young Grayson, but I think 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. You have to move ahead with time, and I say good for Ms Grayson for not remaining stagnant! There were many stars who could not make such a transition, and Kathryn does it seamlessly.
The Grayson/Keel Team!
Ok, back to Kiss Me Kate, I do not think there was a better (musical film) costar for Ms Grayson than Howard Keel: their acting talents were on par, as were their looks, they were good friends off screen, AND not only could they both sing beautifully, they sang in a similar style! I really enjoyed the pairing of Frank Sinatra with Ms Grayson in Anchors Aweigh and The Kissing Bandit, but though Sinatra and Grayson each have beautiful singing voices (that is an understatement!) their styles are very dissimilar. I mentioned briefly last week that I am not a fan of Mario Lanza as a screen presence (I will admit much of my distaste for him stems from the way he treated his numerous lovely costars. NOT GOOD!), but Lanza’s and Grayson’s singing voices are a good match as far as style is concerned in the films they made together. So you can imagine, or agree if you have seen a Grayson/Keel film, what a perfect teaming Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel are! Kiss Me Kate plays this teaming to full advantage.
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, but they genuinely seem to have a great time with each other, hamming it up and just playing off each other beautifully. As a feuding couple both onstage and off in the film, their banter is so 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. Grayson’s face after being told by Fred to do as Lois does is priceless!
Critics at the time the film was released were of mixed opinions about the vitality of the Grayson/Keel pairing in the movie. 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 must say I do not understand how anyone could not think Grayson and Keel were a perfect pair 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 too. The relationship between Lilli and Fred constantly cycles between love and hate in the film, and I found the amicable scenes just as believable as the bitter ones. Watch as they reminisce about their marriage before singing “Wunderbar.” You completely believe that Lilli and Fred were once married and in love, even though they were arguing just minutes before. I could go on and on about how much I enjoy Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in Kiss Me Kate, but this post is already long and I want to touch on a few other standouts from the film!
Ann Miller is surrounded by a slew of talented dancers throughout Kiss Me Kate, including Tommy Rall, Carol Haney, Bobby Van, and a young Bob Fosse. Yes, BOB FOSSE as a supporting dancer. I guess this is a reminder that even the greats start small. (If you call being in a feature film period (!) as small.) Interesting fact about Tommy Rall, who you may recognize from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954): he suffered from a crossed eye as a child. His doctor recommended that his mother have him do activities that would exercise his eyes, but he was so young, he still could not yet read very well. So his mom decided to start him in dance classes. She thought all the literal spotting and focus involved in dance would provide the exercise his eyes needed, and she was right! And her son became a great, athletic dancer on top of it. Well done Mother Rall!!
Rall plays Bill in the film, definitely the most featured of the three male dancers, both in the dancing sequences and in the film overall. He plays 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. Definite shades of Gene Kelly in the ease with which Rall can jump (this guy gets SKY I am telling you!) and retain his masculinity through the more ballet-ish sequences. He throws in some aerials here and there that he makes look so easy, you have to remind yourself that a cartwheel with no hands is actually no small feat. There is no doubt this guy is talented and can dance.
The Incomparable Bob Fosse
But Fosse!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! He just steals the show. He 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 Miller as Bianca, but again, he is probably the least featured of the three guys. Despite this, you find yourself drawn to him. That Fosse “cool,” that smooth, sharp, and ease of movement is THERE, these elements that would soon become part of his signature style. Even though he is wearing Shakespearian garb, there is something so undeniably modern about Fosse’s every move.
And 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 were given a short, but dynamic Fosse-style duet within the dance, and after this, there was no denying Fosse was going places.
An Honorable Mention
This post is far too long and needs to be wrapped up, 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 completely entertaining song/”dance” duet, “Brush up your Shakespeare.” (And fun sidenote, watch Keenan Wynn’s granddaughter, Jessica Keenan Wynn, carry on in his comedy tradition as Young Tanya in last year’s Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!)
Did any of you catch Kiss Me Kate? Did you enjoy the film?
I am so sad to bid farwell to January’s lovely Star of the Month, Kathryn Grayson. I have so enjoyed getting more familiar with Ms Grayson and her films. Thank you TCM! This month made me a bona fide Kathryn Grayson fan! (Now someone write a book about her please, I would love more information about her life!)
Don’t forget to tune into TCM beginning tomorrow for a month of Oscars! No star of the month as TCM highlights various Oscar-winning films throughout February. And I hope you all will enjoy my take on celebrating “Oscar Month.” (: