The Original Kiss Me Kate, Part 1: Writing the Show

1948

The first idea was simply to do a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. The second thought was to do a musical about a troupe of actors putting on a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. Somewhere down the line, a spanking scene was thrown into the mix… and Kiss Me Kate was born.

Success has many parents. It’s certain that the first discussions took place between the theatrical producers Saint Subber (1918-94) and Lemuel Ayers (1915-55), probably some time in 1947. It’s pretty certain that what they were talking about, initially, was just a straight Shrew musical. It’s entirely certain that they wanted the book to be written by the Hungarian-American playwright Bella Spewack (1899-1990), who had twenty years’ experience writing comedy and usually worked with her Ukrainian-American husband Samuel (1899-1971). They set about the task at Wingover, their house in Blue Bell, Philadelphia, apparently in early 1948, while Cole Porter (1891-1964) wrote the songs in California. That much we know. About almost everything else, there are multiple, mutually incompatible stories.

For example, who brought in Cole Porter? Subber and Ayers took the credit, but Bella Spewack said that the original suggestion came from her. As she told the story, Porter wasn’t all that interested in a Shrew musical, until she put a spin on the idea and turned it into a backstage musical about a feuding pair of leading actors. So in effect, Bella claimed ultimate responsibility for both the key elements of Kiss Me Kate’s long-term success: the music of Cole Porter and the core show-within-a-show concept.

The Spewacks had collaborated with Porter before on the musical Leave It To Me! (1938), and that lends credence to that part of the story. But the backstage dimension is more likely to have originated with Saint Subber. He had worked as a stage hand on the touring Taming of the Shrew production starring the husband and wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, which opened in 1935 and played on and off for five years. One thing he noticed was that they quarreled offstage in much the same way as Kate and Petruchio do in the play.

This was surely something he brought to those early meetings, even though it was then down to Bella to pick up the idea and make it work.

But the influence of the Lunt/Fontanne Shrew tends to be overstated. For one thing, the famously devoted Broadway couple were not going through major marital difficulties during the production: they were just fighting, as husbands and wives often do. But there was some connubial strife behind the scenes during the writing of Kiss Me Kate, when Samuel Spewack ran off with a ballerina. In retaliation, Bella decided to minimize his contribution, which happened to be the gangland subplot – so it didn’t help that Cole Porter had written the second-act show-stopper, ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, for the gangsters. In the course of pre-production, Sam’s credit was dropped and reinstated several times, depending on the current state of the marriage, before Bella finally made her mind up on the eve of the New York opening, and her errant husband was irrevocably ‘in’. Convention even dictated that his name should go first, but Bella indicated the true state of things in the dedication: ‘To W.S. from B.S. and S.S.’

But perhaps that ongoing episode contributed more to the development of philandering Bill Calhoun than the musical’s central couple, the narcissistic actor-producer Fred Graham and his co-star and ex-wife, movie star Lilli Vanessi, celebrating the first anniversary of their divorce. We first meet them on the stage of Ford’s Theatre, Baltimore, at the final rehearsal for a tryout of The Shrew. Tensions are running high: bookers from New York are coming tonight, there’s a totally inexperienced actress playing Bianca and, being June, it’s just too darn hot. The first thing Fred says to Lilli is an order to join the company for the opening call. The first thing she says to him is, ‘You bastard!’, a line that often serves as a bellwether for how the audience is going to take the show. (If they laugh, it will go well; a shocked intake of breath means trouble.) And in those two moments, the essence of the relationship is laid down: Fred’s drive to control and dominate versus Lilli’s recalcitrance, her resentment against him and the hint that there’s a lot to resent.

Part of the problem between them is that she’s had a more successful career, making money in Hollywood while Fred was busy losing it backing no-hope productions in the theater. For him, this musical Shrew is make-or-break, whereas for her it’s almost a pastime while she awaits the fruition of her new romantic liaison with the senior Republican politician Harrison Howell; he’s one of the show’s backers and is obviously the reason she’s there in the first place. Fred is, correspondingly, skirt-chasing: that’s why, despite the show’s vital importance for his whole future, he has hired nightclub singer Lois Lane as the aforementioned unsuitable casting for Bianca. But the other part of the problem is that Fred and Lilli also still love one another – so when a bouquet from Fred arrives at Miss Vanessi’s dressing room, containing the very same flowers she carried at their wedding, the inference is obvious and she expresses her ongoing feelings in the musical’s first solo number, ‘So in Love’.

The inference may be obvious, but it is also wrong: the flowers were for Lois. Fred manages to talk Lilli into not reading the note that came with them, by telling her the substance of what it says, but is unable to retrieve the note itself, which she sentimentally puts into the front of her dress, right next to her heart. And with that ticking time bomb down her decolletage, the show starts.

At first, all seems to go well, up to and including Kate’s shrew anthem, ‘I Hate Men’ (a number everyone except Cole Porter detested and wanted to cut – and which was later recognized as a bravura highlight of the show). Things begin to go wrong when Kate comes onstage before her cue to enter, wielding the bouquet ‘as if it were a stiletto’. She has found out it wasn’t intended for her, and now pulls the card out of her bosom, rips it to pieces and throws them in his face. In the course of the wooing scene that follows, she hits Fred in the stomach, bites him and slaps him twice. Fred’s response, timed to coincide with Petruchio’s threat, ‘I swear I’ll cuff you if you strike again’, is:

You keep on acting just the way you’ve been doing, Miss Vanessi, and I will give you the paddling of your life and right on stage.

‘You wouldn’t dare,’ is Lilli’s predictable retort, allowing her to slide effortlessly back into Kate’s ‘If you strike me, you are no gentleman.’ As the scene goes on, she raises her hand to hit him again, but he grabs her by the wrist and, as the stage direction specifies, ‘slaps her behind’ to propel her over to the table. The scene proceeds, with more violence from Kate, starting with a kick (‘I’m warning you!’), and then:

PETRUCHIO: Kiss me, Kate.

(She slaps him.)

PETRUCHIO: All right Miss Vanessi – you asked for this and you’re going to get it.

(He takes her across his knee. He begins paddling her.)

KATHARINE: Oh!

(He paddles her harder.)

KATHARINE: Fred, what are you doing? Oh! … Oh! … Oh!

(She screams. He paddles her harder. Screams from crowd.)

And thereupon the action shifts to backstage. ‘That’s the last time you’ll ever lay hands on me, Mr Graham,’ says the angry Lilli, to which Fred replies, ‘You asked for it. may I remind you, Miss Vanessi, the name of this piece is The Taming of the Shrew, not He Who Gets Slapped.’ (That’s a 1924 Lon Chaney movie about a circus clown.) ‘I am a realistic actress,’ she insists, then goes off to her dressing room to summon Harrison Howell and pack her things: she’s walking out of the show halfway through the performance!

This wasn’t inspired by the Lunt/Fontanne Shrew, a production that was noted for its rough and tumble, and featured ‘plenty of bustle-smacking’ business but, as its promptbook makes clear, did not include a formal spanking scene. Lynn Fontanne did in fact sustain a knee injury in 1935 after some rough handling onstage by Lunt, but, in complete contrast to Lilli, she went on in subsequent performances with a bandaged leg. But there was a celebrated theatrical incident in which a leading lady walked out of a play after the star, who happened to be her husband, had spanked her too hard onstage. By coincidence, it not only had Shakespearean connections but was running on Broadway in 1940 at the very same time as the final run of the Lunt/Fontanne Shrew. It was the play that marked the end of John Barrymore’s stage career, My Dear Children:

29 Feb 16

In short, Bella Spewack drew inspiration for the Kiss Me Kate spanking scene, and its consequences, from the serious, terminal marital troubles of the Barrymores, rather than the everyday spatting of the Lunts.

Most stories with spanking scenes move onward through the emotional effects of the spanking, giving their main attention to the way it changes the relationship between the participants. That’s part of the Kiss Me Kate scenario, too: being spanked onstage is the indignity that creates the crisis of the play, as Lilli decides to leave and has to be kept in the show by the forcible intervention of the gangsters. But with the action played in a much tighter timescale, during the performance of Mr Graham’s Shrew musical, there is also a greater than usual emphasis on the physical effects.

When the lights come up on Lilli’s dressing room, she is speaking to Howell, ‘holding phone in one hand and rubbing her posterior with the other’.

Harrison, I’ll marry you tonight. You don’t know what that villain’s done to me. I can’t sit down. I said, ‘I can’t sit down.’ I’m through with the theater. Send a car for me. Better still, send an ambulance! I want to go where no one will ever find me. I’ll go to Washington!

Howell seems slow on the uptake, so she spells it out: ‘He beat me. I’m black and blue!’ Enter Fred on cue, echoing her own earlier words: ‘I’m a realistic actor!’

Having to play a spanking scene with a ‘realistic actor’ was such a regular hazard in both the American theater and in Hollywood that the joke can’t be pinned down to any particular source of inspiration. But what’s new in Kiss Me Kate is the amount of attention given to Lilli’s bottom, before and after the spanking, but especially after. Early on, she boasts to Fred that rolling in money every day is good for her hips, and rubs one to emphasize her point. In the second half, when she has a different reason to be rubbing the same area, there’s a moment when Fred comes onstage to announce that a scene is being cut: Kate was to have fallen off a mule into the mud, but, owing to unforeseen circumstances, Miss Vanessi is unable to ride the mule. She can’t avoid sitting down in the next scene, when the dinner is served at Petruchio’s house and then whisked away, and there is additional slapstick business when Petruchio (or is it Fred?) supplies a much-needed cushion, but then at the last moment whisks it too away, making her yelp as her bottom comes into direct contact with the chair.

Never before had so much comedy been extracted from a sore bottom, in line with the risqué way Kiss Me Kate handles all sorts of indelicate subject matter. Elsewhere, a girl who is angry at having been spanked may threaten to go to the police, only to be told that modesty will stop her from showing evidence of the assault. (See here for an example in a play that Bella Spewack almost certainly didn’t know.) Lilli takes a completely opposite line when threatened with union reprisals for walking out:

FRED: I’ll have you up on charges at Equity!

LILLI: Hah! I’ll be glad – glad to appear before Equity. I shall bring photographs (indicates backside) of what you have done to me. In Technicolor!

This was another moment where Bella Spewack drew inspiration from a spanking cause célèbre of a decade earlier, this one involving the 21-year-old Hungarian actress Vilma Hertha Holenia:

In 1936, she took passage to America aboard a German cargo ship, the Elbe, and encouraged the amorous attentions of its captain, Herr Vogt. As the end of the voyage approached, he wanted things to take their natural course, at which point Vilma spurned him. Realizing he’d been led on by a flirt who only wanted a nice time on voyage and now had no further use for him, Vogt put her across his knee and spanked her, hard. Vilma disembarked with a sore bottom, and immediately brought charges against the captain. Faced with the issue of evidence, her attorney took the unusual steps which are illustrated in this contemporary cartoon:

But probably, unlike Lilli Vanessi, not in Technicolor!

The spanking gets this much attention simply because it’s important: for the rest of her life, Bella Spewack stressed that it was the key, pivotal event in the story. Its complexity as a moment is often simplified by write-ups that describe it as (from one point of view) ‘well-deserved’ and (from the other) ‘abusive’. In fact, there is right and wrong on both sides. Lilli acts up onstage, which is not only unprofessional but also a case of double standards: she can’t reasonably object to Fred’s carrying on with Lois when she is doing the same with Harrison Howell. But Fred is also being unprofessional when he steps outside the script to take the reprisals she has provoked: he’s not ‘forced to spank her’, as the standard modern synopsis puts it, he chooses to do it, and it’s a clever choice in the Shrew context, but not necessarily right or unavoidable. Another gross simplification is the kind of summary (not so often seen nowadays) that says Lilli falls back in love with Fred because he spanks her: the way forward isn’t nearly so straightforward. It works more like the romantic spanking trope that I’ve discussed elsewhere: an action that is simultaneously an outrage that propels Lilli away from Fred and a sublimated sexual act that reveals the continuing strength of his passion for her – something Lilli then comes to realize and reciprocate in the course of the second act. It is a moment that can be played with various different emphases, but it can’t and shouldn’t be cut out altogether to comply with modern sensibilities and anxieties.

By the middle of 1948, Kiss Me Kate had a script, and it had songs (including another incidental spanking reference in a second-act number, which you can read about here). It was ready to go into pre-production – which is where the second part of this article will begin.

2 thoughts on “The Original Kiss Me Kate, Part 1: Writing the Show

  1. sweetspot444 says:

    Excellent detective work. Your piecing together the origins of the KMK spanking scene is expertly done and your conclusions are very convincing. An outstanding contribution to the ‘celebration’ of the 70th anniversary of Kiss Me, Kate’s Broadway opening.

    Like

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