I’m pretty sure I discovered the Marx Brothers first– when I was around 10 or 11. I happened by the living room as my parents watched Harpo on his harp, and I was enchanted. A Night at the Opera led me to MGM Musicals, and I must have watched That’s Entertainment a kajillion times.
Showboat came first, at around age 12, but it was quickly supplanted in my pantheon of favorites by Kiss Me Kate when I was thirteen.
It’s brilliant when you think about it. It was first a hit on Broadway, with the book by Samuel and Bella Spewack, and who else but Cole Porter could have possessed the wit, the magic, and the artistry to turn Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew into these musical gems? Plus, MGM included the impossibly deep-voiced Howard Keel and the impossibly lovely Kathryn Grayson (even with a bad red dye job) as our stars. How could I resist?
At the time, I knew nothing about Cole Porter, I just thought it was a fun plot with hilarious songs. It’s only been since I’ve gotten older that I’ve really been able to appreciate the genius that was Cole Porter. Who could rhyme “flatter her” with “Cleopatterer” or “heinous” with “Coriolanus?” (both from “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”).
My feminist sensibilities these days make me cringe at some of what goes on, but the good vibes from my youth remain.
Our main characters are Fred Graham (Keel) and Lilli Vanessi (Grayson), a divorced couple. They are former co-stars onstage as well as off, and as the movie kicks off, Fred and Cole (Ron Randell) are trying to sweet talk Lilli into being in their new production. they play So In Love so Lilli can hear some of the tunes, and you can see there’s still a little attraction between them, even though they snipe at each other (mostly Lilli at Fred).
And then complication #1 arrives, as Lois, Fred’s new girlfriend arrives (Ann Miller, in an abbreviated costume since she’s between gigs at the Copa). She insists on performing “Too Darn Hot” for everyone (even though Cole whispers to Fred that it’s been removed from the show). Ann Miller is my least favorite thing about the movie. Yeah, she can dance, but her personality GRATES on me, calling him “sweetie” every three seconds.
Although she’s nervous about the role interfering with her honeymoon (to wealthy cattle baron, Tex), Lilli eventually decides to take the role as Katherine, since she’s the star, and Lois is slated for Bianca. But as rehearsals begin, and Fred gets harsh with Lilli because her bows aren’t deep enough during curtain call, she utters her first “you LOUSE,” and you know things won’t be going as smoothly as hoped.
At the theater, we see Bianca with her real-life boyfriend, Bill Calhoun, and we see that she’s two timing Fred. Mostly just so she can work at something other than nightclubs. She’s convinced Bill, a chronic gambler, that this show is the key to them finally hitting the big time. Unfortunately, he’s just lost a couple of G’s. Only he signed Fred’s name on the IOU. She sings “Why Can’t You Behave.”
Fred sends flowers to Lois, but his butler, seeing that he’s used the same flowers that were in Lilli’s wedding bouquet, has them sent to Lilli by mistake. Lilli is enchanted, and sings a reboot of “So in Love” (before reading the card).
As their show gets underway, (after a brisk “We Open in Venice”), we get into the meat of the story. If you know the play, there’s this rich merchant in Padua who has two daughters. Bianca, the younger, is beautiful and sweet and has tons of suitors. She and the fellas sing “Tom, Dick or Harry” to show that she’s open to just about anyone. But according to the familial rules, the elder sister has to marry first. Unfortunately, Katherine (called Kate) is a bit of a bitch, so that means Bianca’s destined to stay single forever unless somebody brave steps up to the plate.
That brave soul turns out to be Petruchio, who while a bit of a womanizer, has decided to settle down. But only if that means a serious amount of coin for him (“I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua”). But then we get to see just how nasty Kate can be when she sings “I Hate Men.”
“Oh you may call it love, the doctors call it rheumatism….oooooh I hate men!”
But Petruchio sings “Were Thine That Special Face” to Kate, and Lilli is so moved, that she decides to read the card for the flowers, that she had stuck into her dress. Uh oh. When she says “You louse!” this time, she’s not acting. HOW could Fred send HER wedding bouquet flowers to Lois?! When they begin to scrap onstage, Lilli is out for blood, and throws in a couple choice words that aren’t in the script. Fred’s so annoyed that he tosses her over his knee and wallops her onstage (not very feminist of me, I know).
Lilli is so annoyed that she calls Tex to come pick her up. She’s leaving the production. But at the same time, two goons (Lippy and Slug) show up to collect on the debt that Bill Calhoun so kindly left in Fred’s name.
They of course don’t believe him when he tells them it’s not his signature, so he tells them “I don’t have the money. But there’s a way I can get the money– this show has to go on.” Unfortunately, he says, it won’t be able to go on because his star is quitting. And Lilli won’t be bulllied, so the logical thing to do, is have Lippy and Slug dress up as extras in the cast and stay onstage with her so she can’t sneak out, which is one of the funniest things about the film. Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore are my favorite!
As the play progresses, Petruchio won’t let Kate sleep (at least anywhere comfortable), won’t let her eat, and is generally abusive to her until he wears her down and she begins singing a different tune. But in the meantime, he misses catting around (“Where is the Life That Late I Led”). The combination of women’s names and exotic Italian locales make this one of my favorite songs. Another of Porter’s funniest.
Tex arrives to take Lilli away, and when he gets there, Lois recognizes him, pissing off Bill. It turns out that Lois has a thing for rich men, and even though she loves Bill, she likes dates with guys who have the money to show her a good time (“Always True to You in My Fashion”), with lyrics like “Mr Fritz invented Schlitz and that ain’t hay!”
While Lippy and Slug are on the phone with their gangster boss, they hear him being unceremoniously dispatched by machine gun fire, so Bill/Fred’s debt is automatically forgiven. Lippy and Slug commiserate with Fred about his women problems and tell him that dames like classic verse, and that he oughta “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
“If you can’t be a ham and do Hamlet, they will not give a damn or a damlet…”
The guys leave on good terms, wishing Fred the best, and he tries to figure out how to make do with an understudy. But Lilli surprises him by coming back. As the play concludes, Bianca ends up with Lucentio (Petruchio’s friend), and her other suitors end up with attractive ladies as well. they all sing “From This Moment On,” and then Kate/Lilli enters and gives her speech about how women should bow to their husbands (and all that crap that I haven’t believed since I quit wearing pantyhose about 1985) (“I’m Ashamed That Women Are So Simple”). When things wrap up, it looks as though Fred and Lilli are going to reconcile in real life as well and they all do the finale’ (“Kiss Me Kate”)
Now imagine a 13-year old me seeing this musical and finding my mom’s soundtrack album (yes, vinyl- that’s what we did back then), and listening to it over and over again. I memorized the lyrics. And as an even bigger geek, I even tortured my junior high classmates by playing “I Hate Men” when I volunteered to provide my stereo for our 7th grade dance. Because I was madly in love with Joe S., and he only tolerated me, kind of like a mosquito you keep swatting at but can never quite get rid of. Every once in a while, he’d throw me a bone and ask me to dance to a slow song, because there were only about 30 kids in our class, and we were all friends (it was a Catholic school, and that’s what you did back then). So this whole musical reminds me of those carefree days of yore, because back then, the most important thing in life was that Joe ask me to dance (or skate, because these were the roller disco years, after all). When he didn’t, I’d once again play “I Hate Men,” (and bang a pretend tankard on a table), and then everything would feel better.
Not long after my “Kiss Me Kate” period, my father died, and then everything changed radically even more than I thought they could. This movie takes me back to a much more innocent, much more happy time.
I chose Cherry Chocolate Chunk for my ice cream flavor because it reminds me of the cherry-colored dress that Lily wears when she’s singing “I Hate Men.” This one is taken from a magazine I picked up a year or so ago, Matthew Mead’s Backyard Style. It’s only called Cherry Ice Cream in the mag, but it’s like your own homemade Cherry Garcia. Yum!
Cherry Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup whole milk
2 T. sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 t. salt (they missed this in the ingredients list, but this is what I used, and it tasted OK)
2 egg yolks
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/2 pound fresh cherries, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (I like using our lovely Canadian Bernard Callebaut variety…)
- To prepare the ice cream base, pour 1/2 cup cream into a medium heatproof bowl and set it in a larger bowl filled with ice and water to make an ice bath. Place a strainer on top.
- In a medium saucepan, heat the remaining 1/2 cup cream, milk, sugars, and salt until sugars are dissolved.
- In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Slowly whisk in some of the warm milk mixture to temper the eggs without cooking them, then pour it all back into the saucepan.
- Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon, or, if using a candy thermometer, until the mixture reaches a temperature of 160 to 165 degrees. Remove from heat.
- Pour the cream mixture through a strainer into the reserved cream and stir. Whisk in the vanilla. Let cool in the ice bath until it reaches room temperature. Cover the bowl and refrigerate until cold.
- Place the custard into an ice cream maker and freeze according to directions. If you don’t use an ice cream maker, place the bowl in the freezer, whisking every 30-45 minutes to break up the ice crystals. When the ice cream base is a few minutes away from being completely firm, stir in the cherries and chocolate.