The Shrew Must Go On

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There’s a bronze statue of an orangutan holding its young at Edinburgh Zoo, and as a kid I was crazy about climbing on it. There should be more statues you can climb on, statues should be tactile, interactive things, to take advantage of their solid, three-dimensional nature. Anyway, I was unexpectedly reminded of this when Fiona and I went to see KISS ME KATE at Filmhouse in glorious 3D.

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Say, how dod you do a glass shot in 3D? And note the MGM product placement bottom right.

The movie, fluidly directed by George Sidney (a largely overlooked figure in the Freed Unit’s stable of filmmakers), throws lots of crap in the audience’s face, to be sure, but the most effective moments of depth are the close-ups and medium shots, where I was constantly wowed by the strange spectacle of huge, colour, moving, realistic heads and shoulders in living three dimensions. It was a bit like the outsize photorealist sculptures of Ron Mueck, come to life. I wanted to climb up there and clamber about on Howard Keel or his co-stars. It helps that Kathryn Grayson and Ann Miller both have balconies you could do Shakespeare off.

(It was also a bit like the sculpted dioramas in a ViewMaster, the people being so smoothly and pinkly complected that you suspect them of being plasticine.)

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The whole thing was most entertaining, and though some of Cole Porter’s naughtier lyrics were censored for the screen, some real eye-brow raisers made it through. The Breen Office’s failure to excise “Lisa, where are you Lisa? / You gave new meaning to the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” can perhaps be understood: the line is perfectly meaningful if interpreted in an innocuous way. And Howard Keel sings it while reclining, so that if you were to picture him naked with an erection (you filthy beast) it would be at the wrong angle to suggest the famous Pisan monument.

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But “If she says your behaviour is heinous / Kick her right in the Coriolanus” doesn’t even begin to make sense as anything other than a dirty joke, so I have to assume the censor was just plain dumb, or so ashamed of what they thought the line MIGHT mean that they hesitated to bring it up.

The reordering of songs from the stage show is much more harmful than the cuts, and seems at times pretty bloody random. I mean, I’ve never seen the show, but given that this was Cole Porter building on Kern & Hammerstein’s success with Showboat, where the songs were all germane to the plot, I couldn’t help but noticing that as performed in the movie, many of them aren’t. Brush Up Your Shakespeare is great fun, but why are the rude mechanicals singing it to the Shakespearian star, in an alley, after their role in the show is over?

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The other weird thing is the heroine’s return for a happy ending — several plot turns seem to be getting jumped out here. The Taming of the Shrew NEVER works for me. Despite Shakes’ usual genius for not committing himself too strongly to particular opinions, this and Merchant of Venice seem so infected by the bad attitudes of the day that, despite the additional complexities he adds which stop them working as straight up masculinist or anti-semitic propaganda, they tend to leave a bad taste (unless you edit Shrew to the point where its meaning is reversed, as in the Fairbanks-Pickford version). Porter’s metatextual backstage farce version comes close to resolving a lot of the problems, but somewhere along the way some injudicious cuts have problematized it all over again…

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But — great, great fun. Especially when Hermes Pan lets Bob Fosse take over the choreography for his big bit, and you get a glimpse of the wonderfully contorted body-shapes of things to come.

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14 Responses to “The Shrew Must Go On”

  1. Re George Sidney: Have you seen his very bizarre but delightful educational comedy shorts? They’re quite inventive. AlsoN Scaramouche is wonderful.
    And regarding The Merchant of Venice: do you think the Pacino version did enough to reverse the anti Semitism of the original play. I thought it did, until right at the end (a very trite scene to follow up the trial on), but my memory might be hazy.

    Thanks for the blog post!

  2. “From This Moment On” was written by Porter for “Out of This World” — his follow-up to “Kiss Me Kate” that flopped. But the son was such a hit it was included in the “Kate” movie.

    George Sidney’s other credits include “The Harvey Girls,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Viva Las Vegas.” He was crazy about Ann-Margaret and showed off her talent to maximum efficiency.

  3. I like Viva Las Vegas a whole lot, and the credits of The Swinger are terrific, even if the rest of the film isn’t. Plenty of Ann-Margret to enjoy though.

    I must see the educational shorts, clearly! And Scaramouche has been on my list for a while.

    I still haven’t seen the Pacino Merchant — the thing about the play is, any attempt at redeeming it tends to involve massive cuts amounting to a major rewrite. Same with Shrew.

  4. The play takes place entirely within the theater building (aside from a scene in the alley out back) and plays in almost real time, beginning with the director/star blocking the bows just before the house opens and ending with the show’s onstage finale.

    Onstage, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is played straight to the audience. The two gangsters are supposedly wandering around in search of an exit. They notice the audience, and do the song. The script just presents it as an unapologetic olio; I’ve seen it staged so the gangsters are scared and — initially, at least — are just trying to bluff their way off by making like actors.

    “Too Darn Hot” takes place during the intermission of the show within a show. Secondary cast and crew are cooling off in the alley behind the theater; some in costume and some in what looks like rehearsal garb. It’s just screwing around for their own amusement.

    If memory serves, the movie gives the stage a runway that extends into the audience — now and then — for Keel’s solos (including his jabbing a banana at the camera, which killed when I saw it in a theater). Also, as per Hollywood tradition, the stage is sometimes soundstage wide and deep.

    Sidney was certainly capable, but I tend to associate him with watered-down versions of Broadway hits: “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Bye Bye Birdie” as well as this. It’s not just the censorship but the studio’s lack of faith in librettos that still play sharp and funny while the movie scripts creak. Maybe they wouldn’t have played as written for stage, but “My Fair Lady”, “Music Man”, “Sound of Music” and “Oliver” all managed to at least FEEL close to the source, and were the better for it (Your mileage may vary).

  5. On “Merchant of Venice”:

    Harry Golden was a folksy old-school liberal who wrote and published “The Carolina Israelite”, essentially a print blog filled with musings, nostalgia and commentary. He was big in the 50s and early 60s with bestselling books. Golden, very much a Shakespeare buff, made the case that “Merchant” was a subversive mockery of anti-semites. A key point was how the Bard went out of his way to give the gentiles unheroic and even sleazy motivations; he also noted that a surefire laugh for Elizabethan audiences — a Jewish girl stealing her father’s fortune at the behest of her gentile lover, and breaking Jewish law by dressing as a boy — was capped by a line that she had proved herself a gentile. Golden’s take was that the line was never meant to be heard over the laughs; Shakespeare was consciously writing for posterity.

    Drama critic Walter Kerr had a different argument: He saw Shylock as a comic Pantaloon, that being a baby step upward from outright villain but still far short of martyr.

    What I remember about seeing the play itself in Ashland years ago was that Shylock took up comparatively little of the show. There was the merchant and his ambiguous relationship to the young guy sponging money to marry a rich widow; there was the widow and her sidekick offering suitors a pick-the-box game that was fraught with random symbolism; there was Shylock’s daughter and her lover, and his boorish band. The whole thing could easily have been played as bitter misanthropic comedy; at his worst Shylock was typical of the play’s Venicians.

  6. I like the reading that Shakespeare tried to write an antisemitic vision of a Jewish villain but was too good a writer: Shylock gets motivation that makes him sympathetic, even if we feel he should finally show mercy.
    Personally, I think such a villain, with a tragic edge, has more dignity than a buffoon and is a more positive representation.
    But then the play basically goes on a whole act after he’s vanquished, which strikes me as (a) clearly anticlimactic and (b) undercuts the sympathy we felt for Shylock at his defeat.
    19th century productions had a convention of Shylock walking mutely across the stage on his way to banishment, towards the end of the play, which seems an honorable device, save that Shakespeare never wrote it (so far as we know).

  7. Prepare to Die and Go to Heaven!

  8. Why can’t other westerns be this colourful?

  9. I’m not usually a defender of MERCHANT (D.Benson’s paraphrase of the plot elements leaves out the dreary clown-servant, whose showpiece gag is fooling-around with his father’s blindness). But when he writes Shylock into the trial-scene, a lone figure standing up to an enraged, racially motivated crowd, his theatrical instinct is surely in play– audiences inevitably intuit the isolate’s posture as heroic. The same instinct is at play with Coriolanus, a egoistic blowhard who nonetheless grows in sympathy as the hateful mob surrounds him.

  10. Agreed. When Shakespeare doesn’t care about a character’s motivation, as with Iago, he’s happy to leave it weak. But he makes Shylock motivated by bigoted cruelty inflicted on him by the play’s supposed heroes. He definitely wanted some kind of sympathy there. But he doesn’t seem willing to do anything with it once it’s aroused, so Shylock disappears and the play trundles on, celebrating the idyllic happiness of the anti-semites.

  11. I have an (admittedly completely self-serving) theory about Merchant in which Shylock’s soliloquy on Antonio’s entrance – the one in which he says he hates Antonio because he’s a Christian and lends money gratis and relates how much he’d like to score a point against him – was added later, and possibly not by Shakespeare. The play works far better without it: Shylock gives more than enough reasons for hating Antonio to his face, and the decision to carry out the terms of the contract is far more dramatic if made in the heat of his learning of Jessicca’s flight. The soliloquy ruins that however. It’s a block of unquoteable, ambiguity-shattering, button-pushing exposition, unlike anything else Shakespeare wrote, certainly this far into his career. It doesn’t even sound like Shylock.
    Pacino as Shylock has to be seen, I’d say, but the film containing that performance doesn’t but what ya gonna do?
    (As it stands the only way to save the play is have Jessica realise she’s made a hideous mistake.)

  12. I think you’ve convinced me!

    Another point in Shakespeare’s favour is of course the “Hath a Jew not eyes?” speech, which I don’t think anyone, ever, has been able to play as insincere. Have they even wanted to?

  13. Yes! And of course it ends “Shall we not seek revenge?” which is a nonsense if this was the plan all along.

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