Thrice Told Tales: The Taming of the Shrew

 

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

Bill Shakespeare is the ultimate Old White Guy. Many academicians these days don’t see much value in the works written half a millennium ago. Though some are now beginning to see some value in The Merchant of Venice, one play is probably despised more than any other: The Taming of the Shrew.

Feminists have long complained about the perceived message of the play – that women must learn to be subservient to men. The play definitely argues that men and women are very different. Even early in the last century, George Benard Shaw called the play “vile” and an insult not just to womanhood, but manhood as well.

And yet the play has endured, bringing delight to audiences who recognize that the battle of the sexes is an aspect of human nature, one which brings pains and joys. Many different interpretations of the play have been presented on stages over the centuries. Sometimes it’s a romance, sometimes a farce; sometimes it’s a tribute to traditional values, and other times it’s a feminist treatise. Not surprisingly, adaptations have been brought to the screen with many variations. As is the practice of this ongoing feature, we will focus on three film versions.

Director Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

Though not the first of these films chronologically, I’m looking at it first because it’s a more traditional telling of the story. I could have gone with the 1929 version, staring Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the first movie power couple and the biggest stars of their day. Instead I’m going with the film with two of the biggest stars of the 1960s, another movie power couple: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

More importantly this is directed by Zeffirelli, so it’s flat-out gorgeous. Shot in studios in Rome, it feels like 16th-century Italy. You can almost smell and taste the marketplace and banquets. The costumes and sets are a feast for the eyes.

It tells Shakespeare’s tale in a fairly straightforward manner (leaving out the framing device in the play that few people really care about these days). Baptista, a wealthy man in Padua, has two daughters. The elder daughter, Katherine (or Kat), is headstrong, refuses to follow her father’s orders, is ill-tempered, and scares off all suitors. This is a problem since Baptisa refuses to let his younger, more desirable daughter Bianca marry until her older sister is married.

A stranger in town, the adventurer Petruccio, is offered a fortune to marry Kat. Getting the bride on board is quite a task, so he goes about doing what the title of the play says he’s going to do. He claims to be pampering her while treating her harshly. He does eventually marry her and (to outward appearances, anyway) make her a submissive bride.

Richard Burton had much experience with Shakespeare from his work on the stage, but Elizabeth Taylor didn’t. Zeffirelli assured her she was doing fine, but she does at times seem tentative. Nonetheless, she does a decent job with her final speech, urging women to submit to their husbands. With a bit of a wink. She may be truthful, she may have more than a touch of irony – making it more acceptable to modern audiences.

Director George Sidney’s Kiss Me Kate (1953)

In 1948, Cole Porter wrote the music and lyrics for a hit Broadway show, a play-within-a-play, about the production of a musical version of Kiss Me Kate. Some of the songs are within the embedded narrative and some are sung by the actors and actresses in situations that mirror the work of Shakespeare.

When MGM brought the musical to the screen, they had to tone things down — it was “Too Darn Hot”  — but the play-within-a-play concept remains. Howard Keel plays the actor Fred Graham playing Petruccio; Kathryn Grayson plays actress Lilli Vanessi playing Katherine. Fred and Lilli were married, now divorced, so their battles on stage as Shakespearean characters become real. (It’s interesting how often married couples have performed the play, such as the Fairbanks and the Burtons.)

As is true in many musicals, the secondary couple (Tommy Rall as Bill as Lucentio and Ann Miller as Lois Lane — yes, the name of the Daily Planet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter — as Bianca) are more fun than the leads. Bill sings one of my favorite lyrics ever, “I would give up coffee for Sanka, even Sanka, Bianca, for you.”

The film was originally shot in 3-D but is rarely shown in that format anymore. But because of this, people throw things (cups, bananas, whatever) at the camera throughout the film. Fans of SCTV’s Count Floyd will be familiar with the practice.

A subplot of the film has Bill charging his gambling debts to Fred, which brings two thugs to hang out at the show:  Keenan Wynn as Lippy and James Whitmore as Slug. Lippy and Slug’s duet, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” gives a comic recap of the Bard’s portfolio. Neither Wynn nor Whitmore were experienced in musical theater, and it took a month for them to learn their song and dance. It was worth it.

Director Gil Junger’s Ten Things I Hate About You (1999)

How about Shrew as a TeenRomCom? The kids, they love the Bard. The amazing thing is that this one is pretty good.

Larry Miller plays Walter Stratford, a single father raising two teenage girls in Seattle, Washington (a lot was filmed in Tacoma). He forbids his daughters from dating or going to parties, which doesn’t seem to bother his older daughter Kat (Julia Stiles) much, but very much bothers the younger daughter, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik). Walter finally yields, saying that Bianca can date when Kat does. He feels confident that the bright but antisocial Kat will never date.

A rich and popular athlete at school, Joey (Andrew Keegan), wants to date Bianca, perhaps partly because she’s unattainable. A new kid, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), wants to date Bianca as well. So he comes up with a plan to have Joey pay an edgy outsider, Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger), to date Kat. Bianca will be free and Cameron hopes to steal her away from Joey.

It’s a very clever contextualization of the story, and in many ways is a much more romantic. And it’s still quite funny.

In the film, Kat complains about the sexist choices in the assigned reading in an English class: all the dead old white men. In a DVD extra Julia Stiles admits she had complained about having to read a sexist work, The Taming of the Shrew, in her English class.

Screenwriters Karen McCullah and Kristen Smith honor Shakespeare in their work though, even finding a way to include poetry. Toward the end of the film, Kat reads this poem in her English class:

I hate the way you talk to me

And the way you cut your hair

I hate the way you drive my car

I hate it when you stare

I hate your big dumb combat boots

And the way you read my mind

I hate you so much that it makes me sick

And even makes me rhyme

I hate it when you lie

I hate it when you make me laugh

Even worse when you make me cry

I hate it when you’re not around

And the fact that you didn’t call

But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you

Not even close

Not even a little bit

Not even at all.

The poem, like the play, is a good representation of the Battle of the Sexes.

(“Thrice Told Tales” is on ongoing series — that no one asked for — about multiple takes on stories old and new. The last one was in January.)

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There are 19 comments.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    These are excellent! Please keep ’em coming!

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Eustace C. Scrubb: Even early in the last century, George Benard Shaw called the play “vile” and an insult not just to womanhood, but manhood as well.

    Speaking of vile, good day, Mister Shaw.

    • #2
  3. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    Kat’s poem shows clearly what men are up against: women hate it when men don’t read their minds. But as many people realize – they also hate it when men do.

    What has changed? Prior to feminism, women still experienced these sticking points with the men in their lives. But the mainstream media did not care to offer them a podium 24/7 for the complaints. (Except once in a while – see Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movies.)

    Deborah Tannen attempts through linguistics and modern pop psychology to shed light on male-female interactions. Her book “That’s Not What I Meant” explains the difficulties which humans experience when we try to address a problem specifically through some  messaging we employ to be outlining the issue’s details, while the person we are confronting is dealing with the issue’s metamessage:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFa2m-tLIaE

    As he wrote the “Taming of the Shrew” Will Shakespeare had no way of knowing that the rebellious “Kate’s” of the world would eventually  capture entire societies. 

    And then some  two generations later, and this would have surely addled Will’s logical as well as the fully  poetic sides of his mind, somehow  women would once again be nobodies. (Unless the specific  woman  could prove “she  had once been a male who is now a female.”)

    • #3
  4. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    My alma mater’s English department took down the portrait of the Bard which had graced the department’s offices for decades, and in its place put up a picture of some obscure African lesbian poet. Just wonder how many of the latter’s works will stand the test of time and get new versions and be made and remade over the next five centuries. Sigh.

    • #4
  5. MikeMcCarthy Coolidge
    MikeMcCarthy
    @MikeMcCarthy

    Bravo. More please.

    • #5
  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Eustace C. Scrubb: Many academicians these days don’t see much value in the works written half a millennium ago.

    Many old white guys don’t see much value in academicians these days.

    • #6
  7. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    There’s also a movie, ‘O’,  based on ‘Othello’ set in a modern high school.  I thought it was very good.  The title character Odin James, is a black basketball star recruited into an predominantly white high school.  

    I reviewed it here.

     

    • #7
  8. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald
    @Jose

    Eustace C. Scrubb: The film was originally shot in 3-D but is rarely shown in that format anymore.

    I’m more interested in 3D than Shakespeare, but I enjoyed this post.  I’ll pick up a copy of Kiss Me Kate, in 3D of course.  I might even watch 10 things...

    • #8
  9. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Re: Kiss Me Kate. The very first time I ever saw this movie, at Theater 80 St. Marks in New York, almost a half century ago, I suspected it was originally shot in 3D. It’s not just the “stunt” shots, but something about the way it keeps staging and framing scenes as if they were part of a diorama. 

    Much later in life I found out how many films of 1953 and ’54 were made that way. This was largely forgotten later, since once the industry retreated from 3D there was virtually no way to see them properly. 

    • #9
  10. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Eustace C. Scrubb: Even early in the last century, George Benard Shaw called the play “vile” and an insult not just to womanhood, but manhood as well.

    Speaking of vile, good day, Mister Shaw.

    • #10
  11. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    • #11
  12. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    I’ve got another adaptation for you: 1977’s Darling Darling, a Bollywood musical version. Pouty rich girl Zeenat Aman, sort of an Indian Lea Michele or Neve Campbell, gets her comeuppance from Dev Anand. 

    • #12
  13. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Lately Hollywood has been specializing in giving us things that no one was asking for, most recently a Mad Max movie sans Mad Max.

    • #13
  14. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    I haven’t seen any of these movies, but I positively loved the episode of Moonlighting where they did “The Taming of the Shrew.”

    • #14
  15. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    I haven’t seen any of these movies, but I positively loved the episode of Moonlighting where they did “The Taming of the Shrew.”

    It’s pretty great.

    • #15
  16. Not Jennifer Coolidge
    Not Jennifer
    @JayneEsse

    Can’t disagree with you more about Liz. She was fantastic. No qualifier. The words flowed from her as if speaking modern day prose. And the chemistry with Burton tangible and hot.  Liz was so wonderful I wish she had done more Shakespeare.
    Thanks for the piece. I’m going to look for the 1929 version- haven’t seen it.

    • #16
  17. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald
    @Jose

    I watched Kiss Me Kate this evening for the first time. In 3D (blu ray)of course.  I enjoyed the dancing and the vocals were impressive.  Watching Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore sing and dance was a hoot.  I really didn’t expect that.  The restoration was great and the colors were beautiful.  The 3D was very nice – there was only a composite scene at the very end that wasn’t quite right.  The opening scene in the apartment with the full length mirrors, and the accordion folding partition added a lot of depth and visual interest. The back wall is glass and there was addition depth “outside” on the balcony.  All good stuff throughout.

    • #17
  18. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Lunchbox Gerald (View Comment):
    Watching Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore sing and dance was a hoot. 

    Brush up your Shakespeare!

    • #18
  19. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Lunchbox Gerald (View Comment):

    I watched Kiss Me Kate this evening for the first time. In 3D (blu ray)of course. I enjoyed the dancing and the vocals were impressive. Watching Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore sing and dance was a hoot. I really didn’t expect that. The restoration was great and the colors were beautiful. The 3D was very nice – there was only a composite scene at the very end that wasn’t quite right. The opening scene in the apartment with the full length mirrors, and the accordion folding partition added a lot of depth and visual interest. The back wall is glass and there was addition depth “outside” on the balcony. All good stuff throughout.

    Thanks for this review in ddDepth!

     

    • #19
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