Not for the first time, I’ve made a mistake and would like to talk to you about it. There I was yesterday adding a few last minute typos to my review of Kiss Me Kate, and I happened to notice while doing my picture search that there’s a big red flag hanging above this film and abruptly pulled the review to revise. George Sidney’s film is an adaptation of a work by the notoriously un-woke William Shakespeare, bang up to date for 1953, but falling into disrepute over the recent culture wars; Kiss Me Kate is rarely referenced positively these days. Based on 1948 stage musical, this film version uses The Taming of the Shrew as a play-within-a-play to offer a front-line dispatch about the ongoing battle between men and women.
We open rather stiffly with an evening soiree; Howard Keel plays Fred Graham, a Broadway actor who we first see welcoming Cole Porter to his apartment in Manhattan. His guests include his ex-wife Lili (Kathryn Grayson) and a feisty new ingénue Lois Lane (Ann Miller), and sparks begin to fly as the two women size each other up. Keel has a role to cast; a lady must be chosen to play opposite him in a musical stage-show of The Taming of the Shrew, but casting his ex-wife proves to have plenty of collateral baggage to park, and when things go off the rails, he ends up spanking her on stage in front of an uproarious audience. It’s scenes like this that have diminished the resputation of this musical, and today’s critics have been keen to connect the attitudes here to serious issues of domestic abuse; women don’t require to be physically tamed, and some of the assumptions are questionable, even if they do hark back to the original text.
Ok, so the sexual politics that are being brought up to date here are still quite antiquated, but it’s worth noting that Grayson and particularly Miller don’t seem like anyone’s saps; Grayson delivers I Hate Men as a funereal lament for the opposite sex, while Miller’s upbeat Tom Dick or Harry looks at the male species in an agreeable caustic way, and both songs articulate an acerbic and decidedly female point of view. And Kiss Me Kate does have some claims to modernity; Bob Fosse contributes an early blast of his wired persona, and there’s the Brush Up your Shakespeare routine from Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore. The pay-off line ‘kick her right in the Coriolanus’ probably wouldn’t pass muster today, and with some reason; sexual violence towards women shouldn’t be something sung about with such glee, even in jest.
Yet Kiss Me Kate is a property which could really use a make-over for the MeToo generation, the musical score is as sharp as you’d expect from one of those new fangled integrated musicals from Porter. Only True to You Darling In My Fashion, In Padua, From This Moment On, Wunderbar and show-stopper We Open In Venice are all delivered with gusto here, the last of these delivered on an ingenious treadmill. Even the early adoption of 3D, with coins, confetti, keys and more objects flung in our faces, only adds to the spectacle, and while the subtext is in need of an update, Kiss Me Kate’s credentials as a great musical shouldn’t be a question of fashion. You don’t have to be a defender of the patriarchy to enjoy these tunes, but Kiss Me Kate should be viewed with a little caution today; a woke remake with Florence Pugh spanking Harry Styles and Chris Pine would seem like one way forward….