The Sound of Music. Singin’ in the Rain. The Wizard of Oz. Cabaret. When people talk about the best movie musicals, these are often the titles that you’ll hear. In my opinion, there is one glaring omission: 1953’s Kiss Me, Kate. A brilliant mixture of William Shakespeare and Cole Porter, Kiss Me, Kate first opened on Broadway in 1949 and wound up winning the first Tony Award for Best Musical. When it came time for the show to be made into a film, it found the perfect studio in MGM, which produced the finest, sleekest musicals in all of Hollywood. KMK is first-class all the way with direction by George Sidney, choreography by Hermes Pan (Fred Astaire’s frequent collaborator), a screenplay adapted by Dorothy Kingsley from Samuel and Bella Spewack’s Tony-winning script, and a cast that can’t be beat.
Frederick Graham (Howard Keel) is an egotistical Broadway vet preparing to direct and act in Cole Porter’s (Ron Randell) latest production, a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew called Kiss Me, Kate. Fred guarantees Porter that he can convince fellow theatre star Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) to headline with him. The problem? Lilli and Fred used to be married and things definitely did not end well. The show becomes a battle of the exes, their jealousies and insecurities exacerbated by backstage chaos, such as a duo of goodhearted gangsters (Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore).
The uniqueness of KMK lies in its dual plots. The actors’ lives and characteristics are reflected in the very musical that they’re putting on, creating highly amusing results. It is seamless how the two narratives dovetail, and also very risky. Shakespeare made over as a bright Fifties musical? It sounds shaky, yet it is done with intelligence and sophistication. And then you add in Howard Keel and everybody wins. There are many standouts in this film, but if you ask me, Keel outshines them all.
Along with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), KMK is the best showcase of Keel’s talents that he ever had. For proof of this, look no further than the musical numbers. “Were Thine That Special Face” and “So in Love” illustrate how gorgeously tender Keel’s booming voice could be. His tour de force, though, is “Where is the Life That Late I Led?” Prowling the set with a devilish grin, Keel sings to the audience as if they were buddies having a cold beer in a smoky bar. It’s boisterous and frisky.
The rocky romance of Lilli and Fred is mirrored in the relationship of second leads Lois and Bill (Ann Miller and Tommy Rall). While Lois can’t stop flirting with other men, Bill is a perpetual gambler and avoids the idea of marriage like the plague. Played by Miller, Lois is a vivacious, fast-talking brunette who loves nothing more than showing off her legs. The delight in watching Lois is that she desires sex just as much as men, and she’s not ashamed of it despite the side-eye she gets from Lilli or the hypocritical reproaches she hears from Bill. This equality is reflected in Miller’s dancing and her numbers. Any step the men can do, you can bet Miller can do, and all with a smile on her face.
With the number “Why Can’t You Behave?” Lois pleads with Bill to get more serious about life and maybe even consider c-c-c-commitment. It’s a terrific routine, one that solidified to me during my first viewing that KMK was going to become one of my favorites. It also led me to discover Rall, one of the best dancers the silver screen ever boasted. He is unfairly forgotten today, probably because he didn’t receive lead roles like he should have. He was a stunning dancer—balletic, athletic, and oozing confidence. Watching him match taps with Ann Miller is an absolute privilege.
Dancing alongside Miller and Rall are two of the most superb hoofers MGM had, the underrated Bobby Van and—wait for it—Bob Fosse. 1953 became the year Fosse made his foray in Hollywood with not one but three excellent supporting turns in Give a Girl a Break, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, and KMK. Watching him in these films is fascinating. He is earnest, adorable, and unaware of the iconic legacy he was slowly building. KMK provides us with one of the routines that helped that legacy.
Towards the end of the film, Rall, Van, and Fosse are paired off with Miller, Jeanne Coyne, and Carol Haney in “From This Moment On.” Each couple has a solo that reflects their style. Miller and Rall are all twirls and leaps; Van and Coyne do a cute tap interlude… and then Fosse and Haney enter. The music becomes jazzy and the lighting dims. While Pan’s choreography for the other couples is exuberant, Fosse created choreography that seems to tell a story. It feels provocative and sensual and utterly thrilling.
With all of this stuffed into one Technicolor extravaganza, it’s hard to imagine why KMK isn’t mentioned in the same breath as, say, Meet Me in St. Louis or The Band Wagon. To make it even more interesting, KMK was initially released in 3-D. Simply put, it is a shining example of the creative genius that epitomizes the Golden Age of Hollywood and an impeccable display of the era’s blinding talent.
The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music were both screened in 2016 as part of the CINEkids International Children’s Film Series.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, Michaela has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn.