Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kiss Me Kate (1953)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture - Andre Previn and Saul Chaplin

Ten minutes in to my first viewing of Kiss Me Kate, I began to question the wisdom of my action earlier that evening, when I had declared to my wife "Let's watch a classic musical tonight."  The Every Oscar Ever project has given me a long list of musicals that I need to watch, largely due to the music categories, particularly Scoring of a Musical Picture, which gave most musicals the chance to receive at least one nomination.  My wife, never in need of persuading to watch a musical, happily complied, and after finding a Turner Classic Movies DVD Musical Collection at Target that included three nominated musicals I had not seen (Kiss Me Kate, Show Boat, and Annie Get Your Gun) as well as one of my favorites (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers).  After just a few minutes, I had grown so bored that I began to curse the names of Howard Keel, Target, and, I admit, even the sacred Turner Classic Movies.

But like many movies I have watched as part of the Every Oscar Ever Project, Kiss Me Kate slowly won me over.  Once the opening scene in the apartment of Howard Keel's character ended (a scene which the New York Times's original review of the film referred to as "one of the silliest and clumsiest beginnings that a musical has had") and we move to the "put on" portion of the "Let's put on a show" musical, Kiss Me Kate nearly immediately won me over with its clever structure, strong performances, and, most of all, the bundle of top-notch Cole Porter songs.

The film's greatest drawback is its lack of visual interest.  Because Kiss Me Kate is a show-within-a-show, nearly the entirety of the movie takes place in a theater, leading to long, static shots of dressing rooms and wings of the stage, hardly the makings of exciting visuals.  The film brightens whenever the characters are performing The Taming of the Shrew, with the colorful costumes and set design representing the Italian setting of Shakespeare's play, but that vividness quickly dissipates the moment the characters are off stage.  This obviously would not have been a problem for the stage musical, but it is a hindrance to the otherwise lively film adaptation.  While later film adaptations like Chicago would solve this problem by taking the performed scenes out of theater, the earlier backstage musicals often suffered from the problem of static visuals.

When the characters are performing The Taming of the Shrew, there is no such lack of visual interest.  Kathryn Grayson performs a fun and memorable "I Hate Men," and Ann Miller steals a scene of her own with "Tom, Dick or Harry."  The film's best number is "From This Moment On," featuring three dancing couples each taking a minute to perform a duet.  According to the Kiss Me Kate DVD's bonus features, each couple was given wide latitude in choreographing their dance.  The first two couples each perform stellar dances, but they are overshadowed by third couple, Carol Haney and a young Bob Fosse.  In only a minute, Fosse gives the world a preview of what he would bring to the theater in the following decades, jazz hands and all.  Perhaps the jazz dance is a bit out of place in a Shakespearean adaptation, but I can't imagine the film without it.

Kiss Me Kate received its sole Academy Award nomination for its score, losing out to Alfred Newman's scoring of Call Me Madam.  Previn and Chaplin's score is a bright and bouncy effort built around Cole Porter's songs, and the score is a great help in keeping the film feeling lively despite being weighed down by the lack of visual interest.  It is a strong score, no surprise considering the talent of Previn and Chaplin.

Despite my reservations early in the film, my initial excitement to watch Kiss Me Kate turned out to be well founded.  Though the film drags for long stretches and screams out for more creative directing, it was far ahead of its time in many ways.  Even at its slowest moments, the unparalleled Cole Porter songs and enthusiastic performances from the cast make the film well worth watching, despite its weaknesses.

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