Toronto
3 min

Follow every rainbow

A whip smart tour of two camp classics

Machines scare me. Especially new ones. Musicals please me. Especially old ones. So to ease the pain of purchasing, hooking up and learning to operate a DVD player, I rented two of my favourite movies: Kiss Me, Kate and The Sound Of Music. Turns out I chose the perfect double feature.



The 1953 MGM film version of Cole Porter’s 1948 Broadway hit Kiss Me, Kate tells the backstage story of a theatre troupe preparing a musical comedy adaptation of The Taming Of The Shrew. It’s a sublimely erratic movie. The good stuff’s great and the mistakes are sensational. Back in the 1980s my shut-in friends and I shared a third generation video copy of this film with which we’d inflict a highlight tour on semi-enthusiastic visitors. The fast-forward and rewind buttons were the source of much tension, however, as arguments over song order led to battles over the remote. Now, thanks to the empowering option of scene selection, our tour is a snap. Here’s how to condense a hit-and-miss full-length feature into 45 minutes of dynamite.



Avoid the talky stuff. The stage script was blanded up for the screen and it drags. Cole Porter’s score is brilliant, so visit every musical number. Even the stiff Kathryn Grayson numbers are worth checking out because, as this film was shot in 3D, sometimes she hurls Elizabethan trinkets at the camera. Indeed, the costumes and sets are bold and trippy. Leading man Howard Keel is a great sport in his earring and stripes. Ann Miller dazzles in every one of her numbers, especially “Too Darn Hot” (in which she vamps it up for an inappropriately able-legged actor portraying Cole Porter). Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore do a great job with “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”… I don’t care what Pauline Kael says. But Bob Fosse is the revelation. When he performs his sexy, hip routine with Carol Haney in “From This Moment On,” he blossoms before our eyes.



As for the gaffes, pay close attention during “Tom, Dick Or Harry.” It’s stunning. While Tommy Rall is performing his acrobatic solo, Bobby Van trips over Fosse and stares dejectedly into the camera (it’s on the right side of the screen). And stay alert immediately after Miller and Rall’s charming “Always True To You In My Fashion.” Thanks to a lucky continuity blunder, an elderly stage manager defies physics.



The most interesting extra feature on the disc is the 1949 MGM travelogue Might Manhattan, New York’s Wonder City. It transports us to a time when the United Nations Building was under construction and children fed hippos in Central Park Zoo. This DVD was released after 9/11 and I’m sure we’re supposed to squirm with irony watching this naïve little documentary. Best follow it up with Van tripping over Fosse.



***

I first saw The Sound Of Music when it was released in 1965. I was three. When it ended, I bawled and bawled. Being so abruptly yanked away from Julie Andrews was too much to bear. Had the DVD been waiting when I got home, I would have detoxed properly. Not only would I have enjoyed the enchanting Robert Wise classic again, but there would have been a second disc filled with documentaries, interviews and on-set footage to soothe me. This 30th anniversary package provides nearly six hours of rainy day comfort. And it’s a hell of a lot more magical that the dreary Sound Of Music bus tour I inflicted on two semi-enthusiastic newlyweds back in the 1980s.



The most extensive special feature on disc two, The Sound Of Music: From Fact To Phenomenon, examines the commercial appeal of the Maria Von Trapp story. (You see, there’s nothing more irresistible than a renegade nun who marries a naval captain, transforms his seven children into a professional singing group and foils Nazis in three-quarter time.) This 87-minute documentary is narrated by Claire Bloom, so it sounds smart. And, oh, what we learn. Maria’s real life daughter tells us it was, in fact, a rebel priest who taught the Von Trapps to harmonize. Julie Andrews regales us with the tale of Kim “Gretel” Karath’s near drowning during the boat-tripping scene. And someone lets it slip that both Christopher Plummer and Peggy Wood’s singing voices are dubbed, albeit not by Marni Nixon.



Some of the most enlightening material comes from screenwriter Ernest Lehman who was intensely involved in the development of the film from word go. Fortunately, we can hear his entire interview in the 36-minute audio supplement Ernest Lehman: Master Storyteller. From contending with a misguided William Wyler to re-conceiving the saccharine Broadway show on which the film is based, his journey is fascinating. It’s clear much of the film’s brilliance is due to his savvy.



The real find among the special features, however, is the 20th Century Fox short Salzburg Sight And Sound. Shot in 1954, this 36-minute doc, narrated by a breathless Charmion “Liesl” Carr, follows the young actress as she arrives in Austria to make her very first movie. In one unintentionally hilarious segment, a snooty dialect coach teaches Carr to say “hurry” in flawless mid-Atlantic. And oddly suspenseful is the footage of her wandering through old churches and castles. I was reminded of Polanski’s Repulsion.



There’s only one thing that’ll make you sad watching the interviews on this DVD. They were shot in the mid-’90s before Julie lost her voice. When she discusses her singing challenges, you might squirm with irony. Make sure the Bobby Van gaffe is nearby.



KISS ME, KATE.

MGM. $22.98.



SOUND OF MUSIC.

20th Century Fox. $21.98.