Summer Under the Stars: Kiss Me Kate (1953)

TCM’s star of the day is Ann Miller, and my film pick for the actress is Kiss Me Kate, which airs today at 12:00 A.M. (EST).

This backstage musical follows divorced Broadway stars Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) as they attempt to put aside their differences to star together in a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. But the tension remains before the curtain rises on opening night, with Fred and Lilli’s constant quarreling off-stage mirroring the roles they’re playing on stage, threatening the production’s success. The only thing seemingly keeping the show together are threats from a pair of gangsters waiting to collect a gambling debt they believe Fred owes them.

The musical Kiss Me Kate was first brought to the stage in 1948 before MGM adapted it to the screen in 1953. It was written by husband-and-wife writing team Bella and Samuel Spewack, who wrote for both the stage and the screen. Their other most famous work is also a marital tale, the 1940 screwball comedy My Favorite Wife, which earned them their only Oscar nomination for Best Original Story alongside director Leo McCarey. The story itself was based on the on-stage/off-stage battling of husband-and-wife actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne during their 1935 production of The Taming of the Shrew, as witnessed by future Broadway producer Arnold Saint-Subber. He later approached the Spewacks to write the script, and the team enlisted Cole Porter to write the music and lyrics. It was the first show Porter wrote in which the songs were firmly connected to the script, in response to the success of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and other integrated musicals. A few years after the Broadway production’s success, Dorothy Kingsley adapted the story, and André Previn and Saul Chaplin adapted the score (the pair would earn the film’s sole Oscar nomination for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture), with George Sidney directing. MGM also used this movie as an opportunity to try to somewhat emulate the feeling of seeing the show in person by filming it in 3D. So watching it today you may notice the film’s stars throwing more objects at the screen than normal, as they utilized this new technique.

In bringing Kiss Me Kate to the screen, MGM cast Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson in the lead roles. They previously co-starred together in 1951’s Show Boat and 1952’s Lovely to Look At, the latter of which also featured Ann Miller in a supporting role. Unlike her previous film opposite Keel and Grayson, Miller’s role here is much larger, as she receives third billing playing the character Lois Lane, a spirited young actress who’s about to make her big break on Broadway. In a film filled with great musical talents (the operatic voices of Keel and Grayson and their on-screen chemistry are not to be dismissed), Miller just about steals the show with her energetic presence. She has several fun scenes here showing off her dancing skills, especially in the “Too Darn Hot” number, which wasn’t even originally performed by her character in the stage version (you can watch the scene featuring her famed speed tap dancing for yourself here). While she starred in a number of musical classics like Easter Parade and On the Town, Miller claimed her role in Kiss Me Kate as her favorite in her illustrious career.

Alongside MGM stars Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, and Ann Miller, Kiss Me Kate also boasted a truly fantastic supporting cast. Character actors Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore pop up throughout as the comedic gangsters, and playing Bianca’s suitors within the film’s show are dancers Tommy Rall, Bobby Van, and Bob Fosse. Unlike Van and Fosse, Rall has a more substantial role in the film as a whole, playing Lois Lane’s gambling boyfriend Bill Calhoun. It was Rall’s biggest role yet, as he previously played uncredited background roles in other films. Just a year later, he would play one of the titular roles in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers opposite Keel. Kiss Me Kate was also a big break for Fosse after he choreographed a short dance sequence with Carol Haney in “From This Moment On” (you can watch the full number here). That small scene brought him to the attention of Broadway producers, and he soon found success both on stage and on screen, especially working behind the scenes. Among the many accolades, he received throughout his career was a Best Director Oscar for Cabaret.

Kiss Me Kate is one of the most enjoyable musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and that’s saying something as so many good ones were produced in that time period. The Cole Porter tunes are still catchy today (I can’t tell you how many times the lyrics to “Too Darn Hot” pop into my head in the summer months), and the dance sequences remain a sight to behold. It may be too bold to say that this is one of the best Shakespearean adaptations to a more contemporary setting, but it’s certainly one of the most fun! It’s my favorite film featuring the onscreen pairing of Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson; I can only assume they didn’t make more movies together after this because they knew this one couldn’t be topped. But what I believe really makes this movie shine as well as it does decades later is the energy Ann Miller brings to every scene she’s in, as she’s done with many of her film roles.

I wrote this as a part of the 2020 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, where bloggers are celebrating the channel’s honorees and movies playing throughout the month. Click the image below to read more posts!

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