On November 2, 1945, a newcomer named Tommy Rall was thrown into the Jerome Robbins smash Fancy Free with the company then known as Ballet Theatre. In the plum assignment of one of three sailors on shore leave, the fresh-faced kid from Missouri did not go unnoticed. “A boy of talent,” John Martin of The New York Times allowed, “but this role is considerably beyond him both as a dancer and a comedian.” By spring, Martin had warmed considerably. “If there may be those who have had their doubts, let them breathe easily,” he wrote on April 9, 1946. “Rall still has a few transitional moments to fill up and half a dozen comedy points to make more sharply, but he dances like a wild colt and is altogether all right.” The wild colt had just turned 16.
Flash forward to 1953, when Rall hit the screen in MGM’s Kiss Me, Kate, Bella and Samuel Spewack’s gloss on Shakespeare’s sexist farce The Taming of the Shrew, songs by Cole Porter. With his sloe eyes, square jaw, cleft chin, and great hair, Rall’s gambler and second banana Bill Calhoun looks like the kid brother of the about-to-be-knighted Laurence Olivier, 22 years his senior. His mercurial facial expressions leaven Chaplin’s mischief with Keaton’s grace. And good lord, between the flips, the jetés, and the tin-soldier bits, sliding off rooftops and swinging from arches, he’s the Hollywood harbinger of Mikhail Baryshnikov, then five years old and living in Riga.
If there’s no solo number for Rall, he at least has screen time to burn, in rip-roaring company. As Calhoun’s soulmate Lois Lane and Kate the Shrew’s sister Bianca, in whose mouth butter does not melt, there’s Ann Miller—fastest taps in the West and a dead ringer for Anna Netrebko, Russian diva as yet unborn. And in the threesome of Bianca’s suitors, Rall’s rivals are Bobby Van and the young Bob Fosse, still with his hair and quite the dish. What’s more, Rall gets to rock a whole portfolio of great fashion looks, from a Polo-caliber suit and tie (plus novelty glasses) to a raspberry-and-pink neo-Renaissance doublet and tights worthy of Henri Matisse. Gene Kelly, eat your heart out.
Like the Shakespearean source material, Kiss Me, Kate merrily offends contemporary pieties. Best cast those to the wind! The gender stereotypes are right up front, the gloves are off, and the lovers duke out their differences—often physically—to a blissfully happy end. Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel fill their dual roles of Lilli Vanessi/Kate the Shrew and Fred Graham/Petruchio the Shrew’s Tamer with panache. Happily, Porter’s celestial song list is mostly intact, right down to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” The only serious loss is Porter’s limpid setting of Kate’s surprise peroration, “I am ashamed that women are so simple,” leaving Grayson to recite the now-taboo lines as spoken text.
Ready for your next Tommy Rall fix? In Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, you’ll find Rall raising the roof alongside the likes of Jacques d’Amboise and Russ Tamblyn. And in the Swan Lake spoof from Funny Girl, every inch the danseur noble, he runs afowl of Barbra Streisand’s wacky Odette. Artist that he is, Tommy plays it straight. Cherish his memory. Our dancing man extraordinaire died in Santa Monica on October 6, 2020, age 90.
Kiss Me, Kate is available to stream on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Plus, and YouTube
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii