Kiss Me Kate (1953): A Musical and Meta Entertainment

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The film version of Kiss Me Kate, helmed by MGM’s perennial musical director George Sidney, is a translation of Cole Porter’s rousing Broadway success. We must play a game of two degrees of separation because the stage smash was itself a comical backstage adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew. I cannot necessarily attest to where one begins and the other ends, between stage, film, and original play, since my own knowledge is shoddy at best. So I will contain my thoughts to the story at hand.

At its core are the strained relations of a formerly married couple composed of two prima donna stage performers: the devilishly handsome, barrel-chested baritone Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and his equally strong-willed, alluring, and talented ex Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson). In all regards, a match made it heaven. They undoubtedly deserve each other.

The undisputed peppiness of Ann Miller, as she bursts in on them and Cole Porter (Ron Randell), is an immediate jovial assault on their relationship as she flaunts her attributes in “Too Darn Hot” and gets a little lovey-dovey with the self-absorbed leading man. I’m not sure if any audience member is shocked when she’s seen playfully prancing about with her other boyfriend (the always impressive Tommy Rall) in  “Why Can’t You Behave?”

To needlessly mix metaphors, the production is nearly sunk before it gets off the ground. And yet a mixture of persuasion, jealousy, and the quality of the material coaxes Grayson’s character into the fragile reunion. Wunderbar!

Lilli’s rendition of “I Hate Men” proves a blatantly pointed number where on stage sentiments are mirrored in her life; she doesn’t mince words raging through the set, flinging props to her obvious satisfaction.

In fact, she’s far more suited for the flaming red wig she wears on stage than her actual modest cut. The 3-D qualities come to bear thanks to the tossing of beer steins and flower bouquets. It’s one of visual cues to suggest this very purposeful sense of the off-stage and on-stage lives merging and colliding with one another.

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We have the backroom interludes and then the continuous sequences of the performance photographed straight on until little discrepancies come into play to make everything run afoul.

Breaks in characters. Personal vendettas playing out on stage with each minor slap and smack in the stage directions supplied with ample fury from years of pent-up rage. Deviations in the actual production also come to pass. Namely, a cringe-worthy spanking as the midway curtain drops.

It’s in the intermittent period where Kate utters that immortal Shakespearian retort, “Thou Jerk.” In fact, there’s great fun to be had with this conscious collision of Old English prose and the contemporary vernacular. The number “Brush Up On Your Shakespeare” suggests as much.

Keenan Wynn and James Whitemore are brought on to thoroughly liven up the second act as a pair of neighborly enforcers sent to visit Fred in his dressing room. They go so far as becoming a part of the production as it continues to go off script and off-the-rails. Because Kate is intent on running off with her rich boyfriend Tex (a Ralph Bellamy-type), and Graham connives to keep her around, pulling the heavies into his plan.

It feels strikingly like a His Girl Friday (1940) deal as we see our leads gravitating toward others while never finding it within themselves to completely forsake their former spouses, in spite of the mutual distaste. It’s indisputable, but it also suggest the fire still kindling between them.

Hermes Pan adds to his illustrious body of work while Bob Fosse’s choreography is almost a blip on the radar. Even then,  it’s strangely singular and expressive, charting his course toward The Pajama Game and many, many more projects to come.

Meanwhile, Ann Miller’s dancing reminds us that she’s the purest performer on taps within this picture and when given free-range, she follows up her first routine with continued verve. She does feel all over the place, but that can mostly be attributed to her character. In fact, one could affirm that she rightfully earns some of the most memorable screen time based on the uninhibited vivacity she showcases.

In its waning moments, it looks like the fictional production has finally met its inevitable end: a crash-and-burn finale, as the understudy has to rush on to take the place of the departing Catherine. In an off-the-cuff moment, playing opposite his future father-in-law’s question of where his daughter might possibly be,  Fred mutters, “Right now she should be flying over Newark.”

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Thus, Kiss Me Kate, at its most inventive, is hyper-aware of its meta qualities; this story-within-a-story tracing the line between the artificial and the reality projected up on the screen that is itself a fabrication of light and images. It reaches out further than most films of this type because its original release in 3-D, while admittedly a gimmick to snag the TV generation, also accentuates this razor-thin dividing line between the cinematic space and the space that the viewer occupies.

However, ultimately the production though laced with humor and vengeful lovers, quality choreography, and flamboyant set design and costuming, comes off strangely hollow in its landing. Because the ending feels false and inherently wrong.

Here is a man who is conceited and has no sense of self-sacrifice or concern for others, as farcical as he might be. Again, we could argue that Kiss Me Kate is solely entertainment, only occupying cinematic space. And yet we brushed up against everything thus far. How are we to make distinctions? In the real world, even in the 1950s and especially now, there is no excuse for Graham.

Surely, like any person, he deserves a second chance and the grace that comes from a person willing to forgive. However, one might question the way in which Lilli flies back to him. There seems to be no regard for his past indiscretions just as there’s no conversation to be had about the flings they’ve both been having on the sides. Because Kate is herself a bit of an entitled snob. And there you have this falseness most fully realized.

Life is a lot more complicated than film reality. Kiss Me Kate cannot quite pull it off because it inserts the uncluttered, picture-perfect Hollywood framing on the storyline.

Ironically, it’s actually the performance that gets continually disrupted while so-called real-life falls into place nearly seamlessly. So in the end, it matters whether you care about making a distinction between the stage and what happens backstage in the purported reality.

Because at least we can all agree that none of it is actually before us in the flesh where real lives are at stake. We can keep it at an arm’s length and laugh along with it without allowing it to influence our perceptions of this world.

Taken as such, Kiss Me Kate is a coruscating delight bursting forth, rather agreeably, with comedy and song. It can be absorbed merely as diverting Technicolor entertainment for sure. However, when we allow it to reach out and influence our worldview in other ways that’s where we might falter.

3.5/5 Stars

Bye Bye Birdie (1963)

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Bye Bye Birdie has sunshiny singalong written all over it even before we know the premise. The fact that it’s about the frenzy following the draft notice of a beloved hunky teenage heartthrob Conrad Birdie (a knowing amalgamation of Conway Twitty and Elvis) doesn’t help its case much. It can be rather annoying for the complete and utter squareness of every successive moment. That is true.

But on the whole, that overwhelming peppiness bowls you over with its sheer gaiety and the fervor of teenybopper spirit. So yes, at times it’s nearly suffocating and still intoxicating due to that same excessively sweet 1960s optimism.

Birdie’s unfortunate fate creates the spectacle. In its wake is left a war zone of swooning girls who go absolutely gaga after a particularly spectacular performance. But that’s just the beginning. To set the stage we must look first to a biochemist turned composer named Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) who after 6 years of fruitless toil is looking to leave the business.

But his gal, the chipper Rosie DeLeon (Janet Leigh), hanging onto the hope that he will one day propose marriage, brings a brilliant idea before America’s greatest variety show icon Ed Sullivan himself. Her idea: To have the beloved Birdie kiss an All-American girl as a symbolic gesture of his goodwill towards his booming fan base. Ed, of course, eats it up, and her Albert will pen the song to be heard by millions across the country that fateful Sunday night.

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All that’s left is to find the girl and by the most coincidental circumstances the lucky tween winds up being Ohio’s own Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret). Her best boy Hugo (Bobby Rydell) has just “pinned her” and she sits chatting away on the telephone but it’s peanuts compared to the meteor that strikes her household that evening. Soon the whole student body and her family get carried away in the excitement promising them eternal bliss and stardom on the biggest stage imaginable.

The adolescent masses continue going baddie — namely those of the feminine persuasion — while the boys hate Birdie’s guts for stealing away their dates. In the end, Kim and her family, Albert and Rosie are on the brink of getting pushed off of Sullivan. It all seems for naught until some quick thinking gets them the outcome they were long hoping for. The Russian Ballet gets truncated to put it lightly.

What matters is that everyone gets a happy ending. Each person winds up with their respective significant other and just as it opened, Bye Bye Birdie goes out with Ann-Margret belting out the title chorus with a charisma that conquered many a young heart.

What the screen adaptation does well is act as a fitting forerunner for another cultural explosion that would occur on Ed Sullivan’s Show only a year later. In fact, Birdiemania looks strangely familiar and perfectly personifies the older generations befuddlement with their crazy kids. Paul Lynde is the perfectly idiosyncratic father figure to reflect the changing times.

Meanwhile, Janet Leigh seems to relish an opportunity to tap into one of her more ditzy personalities as Rosie DeLeon. While new to film, the beloved Dick Van Dyke struts his physical comedy and provides a charming performance of “Put on a Happy Face.”

Director George Sidney comes in with an innate understanding that musicals are a communal event and just as importantly with the realization that he had a star on his hands in Ann-Margret. If this story was on the stage, Van Dyke and Leigh would have been the stars and they did indeed have top billing. Still, with the purposeful framing device he chose and the many close-ups and set ups he picked Sidney made this Ann-Margret’s picture no question. She obliges by lighting up the screen with that unparalleled mixture of perky sensuality and early 60s innocence.

It’s all so cute and fluffy and sweetly sincere it’s almost difficult to sense the satire sitting there. But I would like to think that it’s purposefully here from the cameos of Ed Sullivan and John Daly to every other spastic characterization. My only hangup is that instead of Elvis Presley himself we got Jesse Pearson. No offense whatsoever, but he’s not exactly the King and besides having Elvis in the picture would have only accentuated the irony of the whole ordeal. Still, fans can still find solace in the fact that there’s Viva Las Vegas.

3.5/5 Stars

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

Viva_Las_Vegas_1964_PosterPreviously, whenever I thought of Elvis and films, my first inclination was to think musical and then secondly because, by some form of osmosis the culture had taught me this, Elvis went with Ann-Margret. In truth, they were astoundingly only ever in this one picture together but what a picture for them to be in. It left an indelible impact on both stars as much as it did their audience.

Sure, it’s at times utterly laughable, light, and saccharine with gaudy color schemes that make Las Vegas the flashiest spectacle known to man (which it might actually conceivably be), but there’s something still so winsome about it.

The story is one of those contrived Hollywood love stories that we know the rhythms of before they have begun.  Boy meets girl. Boy becomes infatuated with girl. Girl keeps him at arm’s length. Girl begins to fall for him. Girl gets turned off because of some trivial misunderstanding. In the end, girl gets boy or vice versa. Whichever you prefer because either way it still proves a formulaic picture.

But gosh darn it, Viva Las Vegas has a vibrant energy that probably makes every man, woman, and child wish they could go back to that era, especially all those rock ‘n rollers and beboppers who grew up with Elvis for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

There’s no doubt that he had a magnetic charisma that went beyond a voice or a look but the very way he shimmies, snaps, and shakes his way into the heart of every gal. However, the real vivacity of the picture comes from the same kinetic friskiness that seems to charge through Ann-Margret as well. Because in most any given equation Elvis Presley is bar none going to be your dominating force commanding the screen as the indisputable Elvis the Pelvis, the King of Rock and Roll. But put him up against Ann-Margret and they tease and prod each other this way and that — the perfect romantic counterpoints.

It’s as if they both have a sense of the game that they are playing — the back and forth — the one-upmanship and playful toying that gives the story a hint of sensuality while still maintaining that squeaky clean sensibility allowing a picture like this to remain more charming than most films we are introduced to today.

And when it’s all said and done, aside from the title track which will undoubtedly be most familiar and exhilarating for audience members in its numerous refrains, there are quite a few truly dynamic sequences that go beyond tedious asides in a musical love story.

They reflect how Hollywood seemed to understand the collective power that musicals could have. Director George Sidney is not necessarily a noted name of great repute but if you look down the list of his directing catalog you see many a diverting musical (ie. Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me Kate, Bye Bye Birdie, and a whole slew of others).

With Viva Las Vegas it’s easy to acknowledge that he has a knack for the spectacle that remains light and amusing to the end including the notable Ray Charles tune “What’d I Say” played out on a giant roulette wheel, our leads making eyes at each other, surrounded by a crowd of fellow shimmy and shakers. But also the hip swinging, finger-snapping crowd pleaser “C’mon Everybody” that puts our stars on full display. They even end up making the smaller trifles like “The Lady Loves Me” and “If You Think I Don’t Need You” more than a complete drag.

To top it all off, far from being corny, the final Grand Prix sequence is actually quite marvelous as the cars speed through the desert past Hoover Dam and we see Lucky win out against his good-natured rival. The film truly does benefit from the on location shooting only topped by the breezy chemistry of its leads. More than The Rat Pack or Bond, this film gives me at least an iota of desire to visit Las Vegas. Although that might simply be the fact that Elvis and Ann-Margret, in particular, imbue the lifestyle with so much verve. Anyways there are no qualms in proclaiming, Viva Las Vegas!

3.5/5 Stars