The 1948 musical, Kiss Me Kate, was a huge success on Broadway. It portrayed the romantic shenanigans and financial scrapes of a cast of actors rehearsing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. It took the play-within-a-play device, used by Shakespeare in his Induction, and wittily blurred the boundaries between events on and off stage in the battle of the sexes. Written by Samuel and Bella Spewack, with music by Cole Porter, it includes show-tunes like ‘Too Darn Hot’ and ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’.

The 1953 film of Kiss Me Kate showed actors rehearsing for Cole Porter’s musical, which had inspired the movie.

What happens in the film?

Directed by George Sidney, starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, the film was produced in 3D, with viewers given plastic glasses to bring it to full life.

In the opening scene, Cole Porter persuades the fiery Lilli Vanessi to take the role of Katherina alongside her showy ex-husband Fred Graham as Petruchio. Bianca is played by Lois Lane, whose boyfriend is a gambler pursued by gangsters for cash.

In a cynically funny song, ‘I Hate Men’, Lilli insists she will never again ‘play the hen’ to any man, though she asks, 'what would we do without 'em?' She is furious when she realises that her pre-show flowers from Fred were actually meant for Lois. Like Shakespeare’s Katherina, she batters him with blows; but unlike Shakespeare’s Petruchio, Fred spanks her in retaliation. As in The Taming of the Shrew, she is ultimately ‘tamed’, jumping into Fred’s arms in the last scene.

The Taming of the Shrew: ‘Come on, and kiss me, Kate’

The film’s title, ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ is heard three times in Shakespeare’s play (2.1.323; 5.1.143; 5.2.179–80). As a command from Petruchio to Katherina, it seems to tread a fine line between control and affection, capturing the tensions in this controversial play. On the one hand, the play is the troubling tale of a man who subdues his unwilling wife and claims her for her dowry. On the other hand, it could be seen as a romantic romp between two well-matched rebels, with the fighting as a harmless part of the slapstick comedy.

This 1953 film poster seems to veer towards the second, more palatable option, with Fred giving Lilli a flirtatious slap. But, what are we to make of this light-hearted view of violence, in the film or in Shakespeare’s drama?