Kiss Me Kate

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/29/05 11:02:12

"Pretty and fun."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED IN "NATURALVISION" 3-D: "Kiss Me Kate" has one of the most clever uses for 3-D that I can recall seeing, in that it explicitly delineates three different levels of reality. It's a backstage comedy, you see, so during the final performance sequence, director George Sidney occasionally arranges the action so that the audience for the play is between the movie audience and the action on stage. It's a constant, subtle reminder that while what's going on on-stage is funny, it's not as "real" as what's going on backstage.

In a lot of movies, I'd suspect that this was just an attempt to create a flashy 3-D effect, but the structure of the play is self-referential enough that for me figure it's deliberate. Kiss Me Kate is a movie (adapted from a Broadway musical) about the mounting of a Broadway musical based upon Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. The movie has songs by Cole Porter, and also has a character named Cole Porter writing songs for the play. Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) and Fred Graham (Howard Keel) don't quite fit into their roles of Katherine and Petruchio off-stage - they're a divorced pair of actors whose mutual annoyance trumps their love, more His Girl Friday than Shakespeare - but it's close enough for government work.

As much banter-ific fun as Keel and Grayson are on their own, it's the other pairing that kicks things into high gear. Ms. Vanessi, after all, wouldn't consider working with her ex-husband - who is not only starring, but directing - until she's confronted with Lois Lane (Ann Miller), a dancer with, Lilli figures, more leg than class; the implication that this girl is Fred's co-star both on and off the stage stirs up a jealousy that is far too powerful to admit to. Her real boyfriend, Bill (Tommy Rall), is also in the show, but his gambling problems - and tendency to sign his boss's name to his debts - leads a pair of gangsters (Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore) to visit the show and decide that they have a fiduciary interest in making sure Lilli stays with the show, even though Fred has managed to provoke her into storming out mid-show. These guys clearly don't belong backstage - or onstage - but that won't stop them from holding the show hostage, with the director's blessing.

Kiss Me Kate shows its stage origins in several ways - most of its sets are roughly stage-sized, whether they be an apartment, a rooftop, the backstage area, or an actual stage. The show starts roughly halfway through the movie, and the action stays confined to the same two or three areas for the rest of the running time. There is even, in the 3-D version screened, an intermission. It's also a musical, with the songs integrated into the story fairly well. Half have an in-story explanation for why everyone's singing, but the ones that don't fit in just as well.

There's a lot of quality work behind these scenes. Dorothy Kingsley adapts the play by Cole Porter (songs) and Samuel & Bella Spewack (book) with what appears to be little molestation, although some songs were cut for being too racy for film. As director, George Sidney keeps the movie moving forward at a lively clip, well aware that there should be either a song or a joke going on at all times, and seldom overindulges in throwing things at the screen. Hermes Pan handles the choreography, which is energetic (Bob Fosse is part of the cast). Cinematographer Charles Rosher shoots an absolutely beautiful film, with bright, vibrant colors and very good use of the depth 3-D gives him. The dual-projector/polarized glasses system results in a quite incredible image; absolutely worth seeing if you get the chance.

The cast is good at what they do, pros at the musical game. Ann Miller steals pretty much every scene she's in, as do Whitmore and Wynn. There's nobody with a bad voice or who conspicuously doesn't dance despite the rest of the cast hoofing it up, and everyone's got good comic timing. It's a strong ensemble.

I'll readily admit that I'm not much of a musical fan; I tend to look at them as an all-or-nothing form (either very, very good or painfully artificial). Even without the 3-D, I bet that this one is much closer to "all" than "nothing".

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