As a queer, I’ve always had a great appreciation for the musical (I know, I know, what a stereotype, blah blah blah). There’s just something glorious about the midcentury musical, in particular those produced by MGM, the grand dame of the studio system, the one studio that one could count on (in its heyday, anyway), to produce a glossy, shiny, fabulous film. Thus, when I was cruising about on TCM and saw that Kiss Me Kate was showing, I knew I had to watch it.
Despite being divorced, Fred and Lilli (Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson), find themselves starring in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew). The bulk of the film follows the performance of the play, with several Cole Porter songs thrown into the mix (this probably helps to explain the film’s undeniable queer appeal). Just as the mains of the play find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other, so do Lilli and Fred also become increasingly convinced that they should get back together which, in true Hollywood musical fashion, they ultimately do.
In terms of cinematography, the color serves as important a function as anything that happens in the narrative. Not surprisingly, the Technicolor is almost lurid in its intensity, speaks in a language in excess of what is happening between the characters. Thus, while the two leads are constantly squabbling with one another and trying to avoid speaking the words that they know would allow them to say how they really feel for each other, the colors of their outfits grow increasingly saturated, until the redness of their respective costumes is so glaring that you can’t possibly ignore it. It speaks in a language that exceeds that of the narrative, the tempestuous and unruly law of desire that always threatens to overcome even the most resistant of people.
Howard Keel has always done something for me. While I often find the patriarchal characters he plays utterly repugnant at an ideological level, I often find that it is precisely because he is so transparently misogynist that he is so attractive (and I strong suspect this might be why so many people found him attractive in the times in which he appeared). Whether starring as the hirsute eldest brother in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or the bellicose Hannibal in the divinely awful Jupiter’s Darling, or even as Wild Bill in Calamity Jane (costarring Doris Day), there is always something tremendously sexy (yes, I said it), about this paragon of masculinity. And there is no one in classic Hollywood, and very few since then, who have managed to inflect their voices with such booming power (I’m a sucker for a great male voice).
Of course, I am also not blind to the almost toxic amount of patriarchy permeating this film. I mean, it is based on one of Shakespeare’s most notoriously misogynistic plays, starring a man who almost inevitably performed in roles that required the subjugating (sometimes quite brutally and cruelly) of a woman who dared to resist his charms. And, as in those other films, Keel’s hero remains largely unchanged by the end of the film and, I suspect, we are happy to see him so, for to tame him would be to remove those very aspects of his personality that make him so erotically appealing. (As you can see, I like to think that my own queer readings of the film help to offset at least some of the more problematic and vexing aspects of its ideology).
All in all, Kiss Me Kate manages to combine the best of Shakespeare with the best of the midcentury MGM musical formula. The Technicolor (not surprisingly) is as lurid as it is appealing, and the musical numbers are as spirited as one would expect from an MGM musical from the period of its greatest flowering. As long as you’re able to bracket the gender problematics–and anyone who has learned to love classic Hollywood has probably developed that skill in ample measure), this is truly one musical you can sing along to.
If you want to read more about the MGM musical and the ways in which queer men in particular responded to them, I highly recommend the following books:
Cohan, Steven. Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
Farmer, Brett. Spectacular Passions: Cinema, Fantasy, Gay Male Spectatorships. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.