(On Cable TV, June 2019) The early 1950s were some of the best years for MGM musicals, and Kiss Me Kate is a pretty good example of the form. It’s not next-level terrific like some of its contemporaries (I’m specifically thinking of thematically-similar The Band Wagon, also released in 1953), but it’s pretty good as a straightforward musical with no compulsions about what it is. While Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel both star as a divorced couple rediscovering each other over the course of a theatrical premiere, I frankly watched the film for my own favourite Ann Miller, who has a secondary but substantial role as a dim-witted but skilled dancer/actress. Much of the plot revolves around a staging of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, around which revolves a romantic reconnection plot and a pair of not-so-threatening gangsters holding the production hostage. I probably would have enjoyed the film more if I was more knowledgeable with Shakespeare’s comedies, but the final result is somewhat fun even for uncultured viewers. The song and dance numbers, after all, are the thing. “Too Darn Hot” doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the story, but it gets the film off to a roaring start with Miller vamping her way through a naughty song. “Wunderbar” gets the romantic subplot going, while “…any Tom, Dick or Harry…” gets Miller another chance to shine. “I Hate Men” is a cute number, and “Always True to You in My Fashion” has a few laughs—as does “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” The gender roles are 1950s-ish to the point of being uncomfortable today, but keep in mind that the plot of the original Broadway show reflects a late-1940s attitude toward a Shakespearian text: not exactly a hotbed of progressivism. It’s all in good fun, mind you, and the public spanking of the heroine (yes, really) has its mitigating factors. But you don’t watch MGM musicals for their liberalism—you watch them for the songs, the dances and the carefree fun. On those qualities, Kiss Me Kate certainly delivers.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) OK, so here’s a fun question as we contemplate whether movies from another era are so horrible by our standards: Can we still enjoy them? Accepting that some movies would never, ever be exactly as they were if they were remade today, is it OK if we still find some fun in those older movies? What if they tickle some find of traditional reactionary lizard-brain sensibility? Because let’s be blunt: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers makes cute out of a horrible situation, with brothers kidnapping women intending to make them their brides, and carrying them back in the woods while their friends and family are prevented from rescuing them by a snow-blocked mountain pass. In any realistic scenario, you’d feel the impotent rage and extended fear of those family members at the village, unable to launch a rescue for months and imagining the worst scenarios for the kidnapped girls. Fortunately, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a musical comedy (and one that name-checks the Sabine women): nothing ever remotely bad happens to the girls, and they spend the winter months falling in love with their kidnappers (no Stockholm syndrome here, we’re assured). In between the foregone conclusion and the beginning of the story, we do get pretty good set-pieces. Stronger in dance than in songs, the film features a unique blend of lumberjack ballet, with the barn-raising sequence being a dance/comedy set-piece that, by itself, justifies the film’s longevity even in its now-dodgy cuteness. (The mournful single-take dancing/woodchopping routine of “Lonesome Polecat” is also quite impressive in a different register.) Howard Keel is a lot of fun as the lead (what a beard!), with plenty of great supporting performance for a main cast that starts with fourteen people). I also suspect that the film’s longevity can also be attributed to a certain originality: How many other lumberjack musicals do you recall? This, combined with the film’s unfailing cheer, still makes Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a lot of fun to watch. You may even rewind to re-experience the barn-raising sequence all over again.