Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson), now divorced, are musical theater actors now playing Petruchio and Katherine, the leads in a musical based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The two stars are on bad terms and their spats, not the least of which involve Fred’s new girlfriend Lois (Ann Miller), threaten to close down the show. Keeping things together are pair of gangsters (Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore), who are there to collect bad gambling debts from Bill Calhoun (Tommy Rall), who plays Lucentio. Classic gags and craziness ensue before it all works out in the final act.
The 3D craze during the 1950s was relatively brief, but it spawned a few noteworthy films that were good enough to stand on their own in flat versions after the fad faded. Chief among them is 'Kiss Me Kate,' Cole Porter's tuneful backstage romp that ran for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway and became one of MGM's most vibrant and exhilarating musicals. (And for a studio that specialized in the genre and produced such classics as 'The Wizard of Oz,' 'Meet Me in St. Louis,' 'Easter Parade,' 'An American in Paris,' 'Singin' in the Rain,' 'The Band Wagon,' and 'Gigi,' that's saying something!) Aside from a lucky, aged few who attended the movie during its premiere engagement, most 'Kiss Me Kate' aficionados have only seen the 2D version, which has been the sole circulating version since 1953. Though 2D doesn't at all compromise this acclaimed, scintillating film (3D isn't required to admire the top-notch score, applaud the vital performances, and bask in the dazzling terpsichorean feats), many of us have dreamed of viewing the film in the format for which it was expressly designed. And yet nothing could really prepare us for the stunning reality of that experience.
Simply put, 'Kiss Me Kate' in 3D is a revelation, and serious film fans should send thank-you notes to Warner Home Video for meticulously restoring this impeccable production to its original, eye-popping splendor. Though it's still the same movie, 'Kiss Me Kate' seems strikingly different and wondrously fresh in 3D, as the extra dimension makes it more playful, innovative, visually striking, and - of course - immersive and immediate than its 2D counterpart. At last, we can fully appreciate Ann Miller tossing a scarf and bracelet at the camera during the 'Too Darn Hot' number, Tommy Rall swinging through the screen on a rope as he dances to 'Why Can't You Behave?,' and Kathryn Grayson knocking a tin saucer in our laps as she grouchily sings the archly comic feminine lament, 'I Hate Men.' Finally, after more than 60 years, 'Kiss Me Kate' seems whole, and it's a tremendous treat to see this musical in the manner in which it was always intended.
Produced by Jack Cummings (eat your heart out, Arthur Freed) and directed with spirit and panache by the underrated George Sidney, this tale of a bickering theatrical couple (modeled after the temperamental Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne) who ceaselessly mouth off and square off during an opening night performance of a musical adaptation of Shakespeare's 'The Taming of the Shrew' brims with wit, style, and sophistication. Dorothy Kingsley's spritely screenplay (adapted from Sam and Bella Spewack's book) seamlessly merges the backstage and onstage scenarios, and combines The Bard's poetry with more contemporary banter to create a madcap atmosphere of romance, lunacy, and mix-ups galore. Porter's memorable tunes, including 'So in Love,' 'Tom, Dick, or Harry,' 'Wunderbar,' 'Always True to You (in My Fashion),' 'Where Is the Life That Late I Led?,' 'We Open in Venice,' and 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare,' punctuate and augment the story, and his clever, jaunty lyrics heighten the air of joie de vivre pervading the proceedings. (Though some of them had to be toned down to pass the censors, one of my favorite lines from 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare' managed to squeak by: "If she says your behavior is heinous, kick her right in the Coriolanus!" That's classic Porter and oh so clever!)
When actor-producer-director Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and composer Cole Porter (Ron Randell) decide to mount a musicalized version of 'The Taming of the Shrew,' they trepidatiously approach Fred's bitter ex-wife - and diva extraordinaire - Lilli Vanessi (Grayson) to play Katherine opposite his Petruchio. She reluctantly agrees, and so begins an adversarial partnership made all the more volatile by the simmering sexual tension that still rages between the unhappily divorced couple. Complicating matters is Fred's dalliance with the saucy Lois Lane (Miller), who portrays the comely Bianca, and Lilli's impending nuptials to down-home cattle baron Tex Callaway (Willard Parker), whom she hopes will whisk her away from the theatrical hurly-burly to a tranquil life on the range. (Of course, from the get-go, we all know that's the last thing Lilli really wants.) Meanwhile, Lois tries to keep her irresponsible boyfriend, Bill Calhoun (Rall), on the straight and narrow, but when he signs Fred's name on a gambling I.O.U., a couple of mafia henchmen (Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore) come to the theater to collect, and threaten to shut down the show on opening night if Fred doesn't pay up. Holding them at bay, taming his shrewish leading lady onstage and off, and weathering Lilli's mercurial mood swings and rash decisions frazzle fearsome Fred to a fare-thee-well and put the success of the show in jeopardy.
'Kiss Me Kate' is supremely entertaining from start to finish, a bright, vivacious musical filled with romance, humor, and dynamite songs and dances. Though it might seem an odd choice for a 3D extravaganza, this splendidly realized production embraces the format and allows us the rare opportunity to experience musical numbers in a uniquely up-close-and-personal manner, heightening their intimacy and impact. Keel and Grayson, who co-starred two years earlier in MGM's remake of 'Show Boat,' possess terrific chemistry, and his booming bass aligned with her light soprano make their mellifluous duets of 'So in Love' and 'Wunderbar' soar. Both also rise to the occasion dramatically, and seem to relish flinging barbs and beating each other up verbally and physically. Miller, in what she claimed was her all-time favorite role, lights up the screen as Lois/Bianca in her finest screen performance. Her fresh-faced beauty, boundless energy, and sizzling tap dancing always grab our attention, while Wynn and Whitmore as the bumbling, streetwise thugs inject even more madcap comedy into the tale. The duo also proves they can hoof it almost as well as their professional colleagues; their 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare' is a delightfully hammy tour de force that always stops the show.
And speaking of show-stopping numbers, nothing can top the sublime 'From This Moment On,' an orphan song that was cut from another Porter musical and - in one of the most inspired decisions in Hollywood musical history - added to the 'Kiss Me Kate' film score. This sumptuous, breathtakingly danced number showcases a young, unknown Bob Fosse, whose minute-long jazz ballet with Carol Haney (see photo below) marked a shift in the choreographic wind and the introduction of a unique and electrifying style that would soon take Broadway by storm and be forever identified with its brilliant creator. Though Hermes Pan exquisitely choreographed the rest of the film, he allowed Fosse, Rall, and Bobby Van - all of whom represented dance's new wave - to devise their own specialty routines within the 'From This Moment On' framework, and the result is a dazzlingly eclectic display of grace, athleticism, innovation, and unadulterated brashness that's as fresh and exhilarating today as it surely was more than six decades ago. Coupled with an infectious melody, stark yet functional set, and thrilling orchestration that ranks among the genre's best, 'From This Moment On' is sheer bliss and the undisputed highlight of a film that's stacked to the gills with memorable musical sequences.
'Kiss Me Kate' doesn't have much substance, but it knocks itself out in the entertainment department, thanks to a fantastic score, high-energy dancing (Rall, Fosse, and Miller are worth the price of admission), a cleverly crafted screenplay, flashy costumes, and a supremely talented cast. All that, and 3D, too! Along with 'Anything Goes,' Porter called 'Kiss Me Kate' one of his two perfect shows, and MGM's glorious screen adaptation honors it well. What's more, this superb 3D release revitalizes the film and secures its standing as one of the studio's practically perfect musicals.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Kiss Me Kate' arrives on Blu-ray in both 3D and 2D versions on one BD50 dual-layer disc that's packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/MVC MPEG-4 for the 3D version and 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 for the 2D version. Default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Now THIS is what 3D is all about! Unabashedly bold, packed with fun, and maximizing the inherent gimmicky nature of the process, 'Kiss Me Kate' embraces 3D technology like few films before or since, and the result is a dazzling display of dynamic dimensionality that Warner Home Video has lovingly restored frame by frame. One of the best 3D transfers I've seen (it rivals, but can't quite surpass 'Hugo'...yes, it's that good), the 1080p/MVC MPEG-4 transfer captures every 3D element with spectacular clarity so each shot achieves a breathtaking degree of depth and presence. From the clever opening title sequence of spinning diamonds to numerous projectiles and in-your-face close-ups, the film's wow factor is off the charts, and the visual shenanigans only enhance our enjoyment of the story and songs. Director George Sidney doesn't just fill this musical with a bunch of cheesy - yet completely captivating - 3D effects, he fully integrates the process into the narrative, so the bulk of his shots exude some level of palpable dimensionality. A strategically placed piece of furniture, foreground grouping of extras or set pieces, or slightly angled perspective all contribute to the stimulating 3D feel that permeates the picture. Unlike other films that only tease us with a hint of 3D, 'Kiss Me Kate' continually flings a barrage of eye-popping images our way, and almost all of them tickle our fancy and delight our senses. This 3D version also restores some deleted footage that was cut from the film's "flat" prints, most notably the show-within-the-show's lavish opening featuring Bob Fosse and Bobby Van tossing confetti and a pail of water at the camera and an Intermission card that follows Grayson's 'I Hate Men' number. Best of all, 'Kiss Me Kate' is at last presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.75:1, the way Sidney always intended it to be seen. Considering the framing issues that plagued the 2003 DVD that ultimately spawned a replacement disc, this is very good news indeed.
As is the case with most vintage 3D, grain levels here are a tad enhanced (though some shots look gloriously grain-free), but never approach the noisy look that hampered the 3D transfer of Hitchcock's 'Dial M for Murder.' Contrast occasionally runs a bit hot, but clarity is excellent, and close-ups brim with fine detail. 'Kiss Me Kate' is one of Hollywood's most colorful musicals, and the garish, brightly patterned costumes burst with bold, richly saturated hues. Reds appear especially lush, yellows and oranges flaunt a pleasing vibrancy, and pastels are delicate yet distinct. A slight bit of bleeding could be detected, but most of the color is rock solid. (The film was one of a handful shot in Ansco Color, which later became Metrocolor, but was printed by Technicolor using their imbibition process.) Inky blacks add weight, and flesh tones, from Grayson's and Miller's alabaster complexions to Keel's olive ruddiness, remain lifelike and stable throughout. Not a single nick or scratch sullies the pristine source material and almost no crosstalk afflicts the image.
The 2D transfer is equally stunning, but after seeing the 3D version, it looks a bit...well, flat. (Pun intended.) Colors don't pop quite as much, but contrast and clarity are superb, depth is excellent, and background elements are easy to discern. But if you have a 3D setup, there's no reason to watch 'Kiss Me Kate' in 2D. It was originally shot solely for 3D and intended to be exhibited that way, so by all means, enjoy this classic musical in its original, preferred format.
Cole Porter's classic score for 'Kiss Me Kate' demands top-notch sound and Warner complies with a crisp, clear, beautifully modulated DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track remixed from original recording stems and magnetic masters that bursts with fidelity and tonal depth. There's not much surround activity to speak of, but distinct front channel stereo separation widens the soundscape and heightens subtle nuances. André Previn and Saul Chaplin received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for their musical scoring, and this track terrifically showcases their dynamite arrangements. All of them thrill the senses, but 'From This Moment On' is a bona fide tour de force encompassing a trio of different musical styles that seamlessly blend together to create a captivating whole. A wide dynamic scale allows the brass to soar and the strings to swell without a hint of distortion, and percussion comes across well, too, whether it be bongo drums or Ann Miller's taps. The track also handles the widely variant vocal styles of the two leads with aplomb, allowing us to appreciate both Keel's robust bass and Grayson's soprano trills. Dialogue is always easy to comprehend, and no age-related defects, such as hiss, pops, or crackles, disrupt the track's purity. This is a superior mix that will delight lovers of Hollywood musicals, Cole Porter, and the film's accomplished stars.
All the extras from the previous DVD have been ported over to this release. An audio commentary would have been a nice addition, but is not included.
Featurette: "Cole Porter in Hollywood: Too Darn Hot" (SD, 10 minutes) - The late, legendary Ann Miller hosts this slick and snappy making-of featurette, and though she looks a bit frail, her spirit and pep can't be denied as she discusses composer Cole Porter's involvement in the production, how the film was cast, the contribution of choreographer Hermes Pan, and director George Sidney's free-wheeling use of 3D. (The featurette, however, incorrectly states that only about half of the theaters that showed 'Kiss Me Kate' during its initial engagements projected the film in 3D, when in fact the movie was exhibited almost exclusively in the 3D format nationwide and was one of the most successful 3D releases of the 1950s. The only major venue that did not project the picture in 3D was New York City's Radio City Music Hall.) Howard Keel recalls testing for the role of Fred Graham, Kathryn Grayson jokes about her remedial dancing skills (Miller reportedly nicknamed her and Keel "Tanglefoot and Twinkletoes"), and James Whitmore amusingly details how he and Keenan Wynn drove Pan crazy by refusing to rehearse their 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare' number, preferring to play handball instead. Miller also reveals how she spied Bob Fosse and Carol Haney rehearsing an electrifying avant-garde dance on an empty soundstage and called Sidney and Pan over to watch. They were so impressed, the dance was included as part of the 'From This Moment On' number, and Fosse was forever grateful to Miller for giving him his big break. If you're a fan of 'Kiss Me Kate,' you'll certainly enjoy this excellent piece...and wish it were longer.
Vintage Short: "Mighty Manhattan, New York's Wonder City" (SD, 5 minutes) - This excerpt from a longer 1949 Technicolor short celebrates the Big Apple with vintage shots of various department stores, Grand Central Station, and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. A cameo by Ann Miller and performance by Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra brighten this interesting historical travelogue.
Vintage Animated Short: "Barney's Hungry Cousin" (SD, 7 minutes) - Years before Yogi Bear came on the scene, a bear named Barney decides to vacation at Jellystone National Park, and this amusing 1953 cartoon chronicles how a rival bear continually tries to steal his picnic lunch.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 4 minutes) - This lengthy preview includes clips from a host of musical numbers, which really ramp up the excitement level for the film.
Musical lovers, rejoice! Sixty-two years after its initial release, the 3D version of 'Kiss Me Kate' at last comes to home video, and Warner's sparkling Blu-ray treatment makes its arrival worth the wait. Cole Porter's smash Broadway hit about a bickering theatrical couple mounting a musical adaptation of Shakespeare's 'The Taming of the Shrew' transitions seamlessly to the screen and cleverly combines backstage backstabbing with onstage bedlam. Filled with sophisticated humor, a host of memorable tunes, captivating performances, and breathtaking dance routines, 'Kiss Me Kate' is sublime entertainment from start to finish, and even more beguiling in 3D. Warner's Blu-ray presentation hits a homerun, with a stunningly crisp, highly immersive 3D transfer that rivals the best contemporary 3D efforts, as well as a beautifully restored 2D rendering that also showcases the movie's eye-popping color and grand musical spectacle. The 5.1 lossless audio track also impresses, enhancing the vitality of the score, and a few vintage extras provide some historical perspective. 'Kiss Me Kate' stands on its own as one of Hollywood's most delightful musicals, but seeing it in its original 3D splendor - the way its creators meant it to be seen - is both a revelation and a treat. Every classics fan should pick up this superior disc, which earns a high and very hearty recommendation.