Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

Year 9, Day 103 - 4/13/17 - Movie #2,597

BEFORE: Back in February, I worked in the movie "Cleopatra" between a Liz Taylor movie ("The Flinstones") and a Richard Burton movie ("1984") and boy, did I think I was being clever.  But then Turner Classic Movies went ahead and made Richard Burton their "Artist of the Month" for March, and I was swamped with many more of his films, some made with Liz and some without.  I was suddenly a bit regretful that I hadn't saved "Cleopatra", because I could have possibly assembled a 10-film chain with Richard Burton, and now that's not going to happen.

I can't even watch the remaining 8 together, because this one's going to provide the much-needed outro link from "Start the Revolution Without Me", with Victor Spinetti carrying over, and it also sets up the Easter-themed chain, which starts tomorrow.  (Oddly, a Richard Burton film is also going to be the outro from the Easter chain, but it's a one-off.). So, three Richard Burton films on the docket this week, why not 8?  Well, even though there must be a way to work them all in this week, if I did it now then I wouldn't hit Easter on time, and if I did it after Easter, then I wouldn't hit my Mother's Day film on time.

As much as it pains me to split them up, it's three Richard Burton films this week, and then the other five will have to come later, possibly next February since they're all sort of relationship-y.  Those are the breaks.  I try to make the best decisions that I can at all times, to somehow justify both the actor linking and a respect for the calendar.

THE PLOT: Brutish, fortune-hunting scoundrel Petruchio tames his wealthy, shrewish wife, Katharina.

AFTER: Hey, teens, I'm back to get you in trouble with...I mean, to help you impress your English teachers...

I bet this is one of the toughest Shakespeare plays to stage for a modern audience, because it automatically snaps us back to the time it represents, where women had the legal standing of being the property of their husbands, without being able to vote or be employed (except housework, of course) and basically were second-class citizens all around.  Oh, sure, once in a while one would get lucky and be born into a royal family and maybe have a chance of being queen, but that would only be after all the male members of that family had their turn on the throne.  And don't get me started on dowries, which were basically payoffs from the groom's father to make sure that their daughters would have husbands and the family line would continue.

On second thought, let's talk about dowries, because they figure prominently here.  Petruchio's main motivation in wooing Katharina, "The Shrew", is probably largely affected by her huge dowry.  Her father is adamant that he won't allow his younger daughter, Bianca, to get married until the older one is married - but it seems that Katharina's temperament won't allow it.  "Shrew" was apparently 16th Century code for "raging bitch".  What other possible motivation could Petruchio have, other than the money?  Friendship or camaraderie, I suppose, if he's willing to "take one for the team" so some other man can wed Bianca and be happy - or maybe he's interested in the extra challenge involved?

(I admit I'm kind of flying blind here, most of what I know about "The Taming of the Shrew" comes from that time that the TV show "Moonlighting" did a parody episode of it...but I think that was mostly an excuse to put Cybill Shepherd in an Elizabethan gown to show off her cleavage...)

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, yeah, feminism.  Which didn't even exist back then, so Petruchio is allowed to do whatever he wants to his wife, which includes psychological torture, depriving her of food and sleep, all in the interests of "taming" her.  What is she supposed to be, Billy Shakes, a dog?  Some kind of wild animal?  Because that's who you "tame", right?  So a strong woman who expresses her own opinions and has a bit of an attitude, we just can't have that, right?  It would be bad for society if women had even just a little taste of power or the ability to express an opinion.  Give me a break.

Maybe I'm being too harsh here, because perhaps it was all played for comic effect.  Nobody dies here, so it can't be a Shakespearean tragedy, so by default it's one of his comedies.  The director here seemed to pick up on that, because he went quite slapstick-y with it all, having Petruchio dumping the trays of food on the floor because they weren't cooked well enough for his wife, and then having Liz Taylor take a few pratfalls into giant rain puddles when they're traveling to his castle.  Hey, if I wanted to watch Liz Taylor and Richard Burton argue for two hours, I'd rewatch "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", right?

But there's more to the story, it turns out, and Old Willy S. must have been in one of his "mistaken identity" trends, because there's quite a few instances of people disguising themselves and pretending to be who they're not.  Lucentio wants to get close to Bianca to woo her, so he disguises himself as a Latin teacher, and forces his manservant to masquerade as Lucentio.  (Wouldn't it have been easier to make the manservant pretend to be the teacher, and then Lucentio could just be himself?  Just sayin'.) Petruchio's friend, Hortensio, has a similar idea, and disguises himself as a music tutor, just so he can get close to Bianca, too.  But why are any of these disguises necessary, if they've also got the plan of Petruchio wooing Katharina - are the teacher masquerades a back-up plan, or is it that the horny young men can't wait another week for Bianca to be eligible?

Then once Petruchio marries Katharina, and Bianca is able to be courted, the pretenses continue - even when Lucentio is clear to woo Bianca, and Bianca's father wants to talk about the dowry, Lucentio (still the manservant in disguise, I think...) recruits a passerby to play the role of his father in the dowry discussion, which would only be a problem if Lucentio's real father were to show up in Padua.  Umm, guess what....

Did Lucentio even have an end-game?  What was he going to do when he could no longer keep up the disguises and the deceptions?  At some point, the whole thing's going to fall apart like a house of cards, you've got to figure.  But Lucentio elopes with Bianca, and reveals all before his real father can be thrown in jail for impersonating...umm, himself?  Ha ha, all is forgiven, because we all know that the strict fathers of the 16th Century also had quite a sense of humor about things.

But it's at the wedding feast for Lucentio and Bianca that Petruchio, Lucentio and Hortensio (who somehow married a rich widow very suddenly, off stage...) decide to test which of them has more control over their new wife by summoning them, via servant, from the other room.  The ultimate message - which admittedly, is a bit of a tough sell in the 21st century - seems to be "It's better for a woman to obey her husband at all costs, even if he's clearly wrong, because that's just easier for everyone, and it will enable him to win bar bets."  Yeah, nice play there, Shakespeare.

Some, however, seem to interpret the ending of this film as an ironic show of female power, because of how quickly Katharina storms out of the ballroom after her husband wins his bet.  But I maintain that she DID come when he asked her to, and she even dragged those other two wives with her, which sure seems like she believes that any wife SHOULD come when her husband calls her.  I heard that they performed an all-female version of this play last year in Central Park, and I'm kind of intrigued by that.  At least it would seem to be more in tune with the sexual politics of THIS century.  Considering that in Shakespeare's time, even the female roles were played by men, it at least seems fair to do it the other way.

Also starring Richard Burton (last seen in "1984"), Elizabeth Taylor (last seen in "The Flintstones"), Cyril Cusack (also last seen in "1984"), Michael Hordern (last seen in "Cleopatra"), Michael York, Alfred Lynch, Alan Webb (last seen in "King Lear"), Natasha Pyne, Mark Dignam (last seen in "Tom Jones"), Roy Holder (last seen in "Pride & Prejudice"), Vernon Dobtcheff (last seen in "The Spy Who Loved Me"), Bice Valori.

RATING: 4 out of 10 piles of feathers

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