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In sixteenth century Padua, Hortensio loves Bianca, the youngest daughter of Baptista. But Baptista will not allow the two to get married until his eldest daughter, the extremely headstrong Katherine, is betrothed. This task seems impossible because of Katherine's shrewish demeanor. They believe their prayers have been answered with the arrival from Verona of the lusty Petruchio, whose father has just passed, leaving him to travel the world and marry. Having not yet met her, Petruchio agrees to court Katherine when he is told of her beauty and wit. Petruchio is even more excited at the prospect of marrying this wildcat of a woman after meeting her. Katherine will have none of it, even if it means her sister's spinsterhood, but has no choice but to marry him. Beyond the fact of the marriage itself, Katherine is even more irked by Petruchio's less than conventional behavior at the ceremony and post ceremony bridal feast. Each starts to play what they consider sly games of oneupsmanship ... Written by
The theatre provided a lot of material for early sound theatre, so it was a matter of course that fairly soon someone would use the new talkie medium to take on Shakespeare. But which of his plays would be the first to be adapted? One of the famous tragedies Hamlet, MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet? No. It was lightweight comedy The Taming of the Shrew, a play which unfortunately sees the bard at his most misogynistic.
The movie was a vehicle for real-life husband and wife Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, he in his first talkie, she in her second. Given the state that their marriage had degenerated into by this point, the storminess between the two of them probably wasn't that far from the truth. They both act well it has to be said, hamming it up magnificently in a manner drawing upon their experience both in stage and silent cinema, and which you can only really get away with in the context of this play's comical theatricality.
The director is Sam Taylor, a man with a background in comedy, who helmed the finest Harold Lloyd movies during the silent era. The Taming of the Shrew sees him returning to his roots, staging the verbal comedy as broad slapstick. Taylor is a master of the pull-back-and-reveal gag, making us think one thing then punch-lining us with another. In adapting the play, he pares down Shakespeare's dialogue, and reduces it for the most part to a poetic backdrop, allowing the comic vignettes to tell the story. This is quite something, because this style of physical comedy more or less died out when the talkies came along, but here Sam Taylor is showing a way it could have continued.
But what is also intriguingly good about this version of The Taming of the Shrew is its sly subversion of Shakespeare's misogyny. The bard's lines remain what they are, but the action in between them is enough to tweak their message. Pickford is brilliantly sarcastic for Katherine's final speech, and as Fairbanks sits beside her with a large bandage on his head, it becomes clear who's taming whom.
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