Kiss Me Kate: Creating an Icon

As the Kiss Me Kate movie was being made ready for release, MGM’s publicity department were busy deciding how it should be marketed. One of the key questions was, what should appear on the poster? Could they represent the film as a whole with a single iconic image? They could!

1953 poster green

Their decision defined the movie in the long term, identifying it on the covers of home entertainment media undreamt of back in 1953:

And, even more momentously, that decision also defined the musical itself: for decades, innumerable productions of Kiss Me Kate were marketed, on posters and in press photocalls, with pictures of the spanking scene.

We saw last week that at least five usable photos of the scene were taken during production, two of them in color. These did good service selling the movie: one featured on the cover of the pressbook,

some were used to illustrate stories and adverts in newspapers and magazines,

and several found their way onto ancillary products like sheet music for the songs,

and soundtrack albums.

But one thing these photos couldn’t do was appear on the poster. In this period, the main images in film posters were ordinarily paintings rather than photographs, perhaps because photos wouldn’t blow up to the dimensions required without revealing the grain. So someone was going to have to do a painting.

There was one other consideration. After all the time, effort and money that had gone into making this in 3D, the publicity needed a heavy emphasis on that aspect of the picture. So the art department had the idea of a series of publicity stills that would mimic the effect of seeing Kiss Me Kate in a 3D movie theater.

And given the planned emphasis of the campaign, one particular scene inevitably needed to be represented.

All this meant a trip to the photographic studio for Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, to pose for some more spanking stills – this time in the full OTK pose not used in the film itself. These were then mocked up to show the scene apparently coming out of the screen and into the midst of the audience:

And after those shots were taken, an unknown painter set to work creating the picture that would adorn the poster and become the most reproduced and most imitated Kiss Me Kate image of all.

1953 poster 2 red

We know that was the sequence of events, because the painting is based on a picture from that photographic session, as becomes obvious when you compare these two details, paying especial attention not just to the expression on her face but the arrangement of her hair:

Of course, there’s a big difference between the photos and the poster in that the painter has put the characters into modern dress, retaining only Lilli’s crisscross headgear. But here’s an alternate version with Fred still in his Elizabethan doublet and boots:

1953 artwork a

And that establishes something you must already have noticed. What we’re looking at is not a single painting but an image that was reproduced several times in different versions with different color schemes. After they produced the version with a red dress that appears on the main poster, they opted to have it redone with a green dress, with results that appear at the top of the article. Here it is again:

If you look at the red and green versions in minute detail, it becomes obvious that these are not the same painting recolored; they are two different paintings based on the same master image, apparently done by different draughtsmen. Then the green version was done again to produce a version for yet another poster,

which is the one that made the DVD cover decades later. And that was then redone in turn, in a markedly different style, for a less often seen variant:

It’s when we look at overseas versions that things really start to become intriguing. Very occasionally, a country’s publicists decided they wanted a completely different image, as was the case in Japan:

The German film program deployed a painted rendering of one of the photographs from the set:

But most used versions of the US painting, once again redone by local artists whose work ranged stylistically from the rudimentary, like this one from Yugoslavia…

to this more fully rendered painting by the French artist Roger Doutric, which also adorned the Spanish and Italian posters:


Typical of the French, perhaps? Well, not particularly, because look how the image was done for Denmark and Austria by an artist who signed himself Gaston:


And in Germany:

And Mexico:


All this is not a coincidence, and to begin to prove it, let’s take a closer look at some details of the US versions of the image.

1953 poster detail 1

There are several odd things about the skirt here. There seems to be a very great deal of it, with fabric flowing everywhere. But there’s also something strange about the way the material lies: the folds and wrinkles don’t fall as you’d naturally expect them to. Look in particular at the ruck of material around her waist, which is connected to the part of the skirt that is wrapping itself around his leg, but apparently not with the section covering her bottom and thighs.

In the ‘red’ version, look at the edge of her right leg in relation to the skirt:

1953 poster detail 2

And here’s a version that will repay close attention to the target area:

1953 poster 1b

Her panties are visible through the skirt! And the same phenomenon can be seen, to varying degrees, in several other iterations of the image:

All of which leads us inescapably to the conclusion that the skirt is a later addition, painted over an original in which it was raised, and which was the version used by the European and Mexican artists. The ones where you can still discern the panties have an intermediate quality, as if the skirt hasn’t yet been done thoroughly enough. That accounts for the Belgian version of the poster, where the skirt is down, with all the curious folds in place, but is also see-through in the relevant area:

To cut a long story short, the original US version of the image looked like this, as seen in the trade press in October 1953:

1953 original

Even in America, it was originally a panty spanking!

And that begs a tantalizing question. For we know that the painting derives from studio publicity photographs of Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, of which there are two available. Let’s have another look at them:

The thing to notice here is the disarrangement of Kathryn Grayson’s skirt in the second photo. This is not just the result of a bit of leg movement between the two shots: the hem has completely turned over. This is a skirt that has recently been raised and then put back none too carefully. And the question is: how far was it raised?

A panty spanking publicity photo wouldn’t have been completely unprecedented in 1953:

But the key difference between Dona Drake in 1948 and Kathryn Grayson in 1953 is one of status: Kathryn was at the top of the bill, above even Howard Keel, whereas Dona was at the bottom – which made it easier for the publicists to ask her to show her bottom. Would they have asked the same of the acknowledged star of Kiss Me Kate?

We can say with some confidence that there were more than just the two available Keel and Grayson spanking photos taken in the 1953 studio session. You may have noticed that some of the posters have line drawings dotted round them, based on identifiable photos from the production. Here’s one that wasn’t used so often, for the obvious reason that the painting rendered it supererogatory:

But it did find its way into the French print ads:

The image belongs to that same run of publicity photos, though I’ve never seen the original it was drawn from. In this one, Kathryn’s skirt has been hiked up to show her legs, and that accounts for the difference between the two available photographs, which were obviously before and after. But were there even more photos taken in the interim, and if so, how far up was the skirt raised in them? Was the seat of Kathryn Grayson’s panties put on show for the photographer, or did that only happen in the artist’s imagination? Sadly, that’s a question that will remain unanswerable – unless one day the original photos should come to light!

One thought on “Kiss Me Kate: Creating an Icon

  1. jimc says:

    i really do enjoy all your Kiss Me Kate memorabilia as that is how i came into the scene as that was always what i saw 1st was these posters and although i was born in 1953 i somehow had seen this poster somewhere and i became enamored with spanking. I do think there may have been other spankings that i must have seen, but this one always has stood out for me. Thanks for sharing and have a great day.


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