December 8, 1955 MGM 113 minutes
What a curious mongrel show is Kismet. The last new operetta to find success on Bway; it was equally an evolved-integrated musical comedy, a low burlesque with plenty of pulchritude; and a solid rages-to-riches-to-rags-to-royalty fable. The passage of time reveals another layer much less obvious at its incarnation in 1953: the lingering cult of Orientalism—a Western interpretation of Middle Eastern culture that veers heavily into exotica and camp over reality.
“Bagdad! Don’t underestimate Bagdad!
A city rich in romantic Oriental lore.
Bagdad! You must investigate Bagdad!
And learn a few of the facts you never
Facts, indeed. Recent history puts a different vision of Bagdad. . . and Iraq, Iran, and anything Middle Eastern—into Western minds. But Kismet is set in a fairy-tale village, where Islamic culture embraces free speech & sexy dames as well as slavery & torture. Anything goes in ol’ Bagdad. But let’s keep those jokes coming. It’s a tasting menu of Arabian Nights clichés, and on that level it’s quite potent kitsch—which explains, in part, the show’s continued popularity long past any sense. But then again the major part to its longevity is the score. Without it, Kismet would likely be as much a relic now as High Button Shoes.
What on earth inspired Chet Forrest & Robert Wright to marry composer Alexander Borodin to Edward Knoblock’s 1911 play? That was their thing: converting melodic passages from classical composers into pop and theatrical songs—a formula that rendered them a smash in 1944 with Song of Norway (based on the life & music of Edvard Greig), and a flop in ’48 with Magdalena (using the far less accessible music of Heitor Villa-Lobos). Borodin’s Russian romanticism proved a surprising fit for Knoblock’s Persian fantasia, and let’s face it, helped spread the composer’s fame to a broader general public. Borodin would ironically win a Tony Award after 66 years in a grave, and tho his themes are beautifully featured in Kismet, Wright & Forrest’s numerous contributions mustn’t be overlooked. They’d mix and match from the composer’s catalog, but also write entire sections on their own, providing the glue to a seamless score—as well as setting lyrics to match the character’s wit, poetry and verbal felicity. It’s a trick as magical as anything in the story.
Having made a film of the play in 1944 with Ronald Colman & Marlene Deitrich, MGM had an inside track for screen rights to the musical--so it naturally fell to the Freed unit, with Arthur assigning Vincente Minnelli to head the project. Only problem was Vince didn’t like the show. This wasn’t just indifference as on Brigadoon. He really hated Kismet, and only took it on in order to make the film he really wanted to make: the Van Gogh bio-pic, Lust for Life. With such a lack of enthusiasm at the helm what could one hope for as a result? Even Minnelli’s fabled visual expertise (which, at first fueled his only inspiration) came up stunningly short. What Kismet needed was Rouben Mamoulian; another visual stylist and perhaps one more attuned to exotica than Minnelli. As an MGM product this looks awfully threadbare, more like something out of second-unit Paramount or Universal. The cityscape, which should be breathtaking, reeks of leftover drywall and plaster from some Abbott & Costello pic. The exception is the Wazir’s palace, which looks like they at least made an effort. The floor here, one big caramel swirl is lavish against the black rock walls and gold screens. But the large matte paintings that frame the Caliph’s wedding parade; the opening minarets at sunrise, or the final scene of moonlit palace pools are sorely disappointing. On the other hand Tony Duquette’s costumes are spectacular. Fanciful, luxurious, humorous, varied and evocative but rarely campy (unlike those for Dietrich’s version), they far outshine the art direction. Duquette was a renown interior designer who barely dabbled as a costumer in movies and but once on Bway—for the equally lavish Camelot. Hlwd’s costumers chose Guys & Dolls over Kismet for an Oscar nomination, but the Asiatic slot (and win) went to Love is a Many Splendored Thing. I emphasize the costumes because they’re one of the few elements the movie got right.
Casting was a matter of convenience over inspiration. Howard Keel had already cornered the Alfred Drake equivalency in Hlwd, and I can’t quarrel with him. He’s really quite the virile baritone, and I’ve come to like him on this journey. Ann Blyth is at least a better soprano than Kathryn Grayson, tho her personality isn’t much more fun. For me she’ll always remain, Veda—Mildred Pierce’s ungrateful daughter—but her oft worried face makes her look perpetually nauseous here and her line readings often verge on hysteria. She overacts like crazy. To be fair, Marsinah isn’t much of a role aside from warbling some gorgeous ballads. Much the same could be said for the Caliph. Vic Damone had a brief tenure at MGM, of which this was his capper. He comes across as little more than a pop singer uncomfortably stuffed into a costume role—and not one that does him any favors. The unfortunate head-piece he’s given suggests a woman’s coif more than a princely turban. Nor do his costumes help—he looks so feminized that if you squint you’d mistake him for Anna Maria Alberghetti. (She later played Marsinah in a 1967 ABC special.) Damone’s vocals on “Night of My Nights,” “Stranger in Paradise” & “And This is My Beloved” are so lackluster he doesn’t even attempt the high notes that Richard Kiley hit on Bway. Monty Wooley, once the mighty Man Who Came to Dinner, plays the poet Omar Khayam—as much a cameo role as a pointless literary reference. As the fatuous and impotent potentate, The Wazir, Minnelli chose not from the usual MGM stable (i.e. Keenan Wynn, Kurt Kasznar) but British actor Sebastian Cabot—whose greatest fame would later come playing TV “manny,” to bachelor Brian Keith’s orphaned godchildren on Family Affair. He underplays the Wazir so much you can see why they took away his song.
This was the second of four movies made by Dolores Gray in the mid-‘50s, and the one in which she looks least like a drag queen—the wide-mouthed hard-looking blonde mold for John Epperson’s deconstructionist drag diva, Lypsinka. Gray’s Lalume is the most vibrant presence in the film, and she socks the numbers over with her “warm brandy” voice and harem pajamas. She’s also a good match with Keel. As a spectator she seems an equal part of “Gesticulate,” tho it’s entirely Keel’s song. “Rahadlakum” is a guilty pleasure; as a seduction song I am seduced, but the number is rudely neutered of its bouncy song-length lead-in (“Virtue is the pathway to paradise…”) tho the DVD includes it in the extras—but only in B&W. Nonetheless, it’s a honey of a tune. “Bored” by its title risks boring an audience, and is often cut in productions, but Gray’s natural register suits the song beautifully and she sings it well. “Not Since Ninevah,” is a barn-burner of a number—I keep scratching my head for another song like it. It’s surely within the family of “Welcome To—”songs like “Consider Yourself;” “Christopher Street” “Grant Avenue,” and ”MacConnachy Square.” But it also has the feel of a stripper’s anthem. After Gray undersells the number—tho not in a bad way—we get the first of Jack Cole’s dance numbers. Recruited from the Bway production, Cole was a specialist in Asian and tribal dance moves, but seemed to be equally influenced by the school of bump & grind. Several scenes in the story involve slave girls who audition their wares to some very brassy ‘50s dance music. It’s that kind of show.
But nearly ever song in Kismet is engaging. I count no less than 7 numbers that for me are musical comedy bliss—or, if you will, aural rahadlakum—a colossal tally for any single show. “Stranger in Paradise,” is a real stunner of a ballad. The first section of the refrain is from Borodin, but the bridge beginning with “I saw your face, and I ascended…” is all Wright & Forrest. It’s an uncommonly long bridge (and has the wonderful lyric, “somewhere in space I hang suspended”) but leads back to Borodin making both look good in the process. The song was also catnip to pop vocalists in the ‘50s—my own personal favorite being Keely Smith’s swinging version. Unfortunately it’s not performed with much interest here; even its terraced garden setting, which is meant to ravish us (and should), looks entirely dressed in plastic foliage. Much better is “Baubles, Bangles & Beads,” with some genuine Minnelli magic; a market awash in silver and gold with pastel silks and satins—so striking in its uncommon palette. Here’s another great musical trope: Who Will Buy?—the great Market song. At least there’s some racial diversity in the street scenes. After the lily-white New York in Guys & Dolls (where Italians are the closest thing to an ethnic minority) it’s comforting to see at least some Asians and Africans part of the mix, for like Times Square this, too, is a crossroads of the world. More ethnics still are carrying the heavy, ornate bangled sculptures and rods in the Caliph’s wedding march, but “Night of My Nights” is dreadfully stagebound—a parade crossing screen right to left against a sharp light and nondescript background; the singing subdued where it should be celebratory. Butchered too is “And This is My Beloved,” a vocal quadrille taken from Borodin’s String Quartet #2 that does the masterpiece proud. Here it’s reduced to a quick demi-duet with Blyth & Damone, in separate spheres—a pallid affair, and a great disservice to one of the greatest vocal quartets. Tho often lackluster in performance, virtually the entire Bway score was used. “Rhymes Have I” and “Was I Wazir” were easy casualties, but the thunderous waltz taken from the Polovetsian Dances, “He’s in Love” is sadly missing, too. Doomed perhaps by its irrelevance in the show—it’s sung by an otherwise superfluous policeman to mislead a trio of foreign Princesses into thinking the Caliph is taken with them. Makes no sense, yet it’s such a grand song that stage productions usually include it. But it seems to me a better use would be as a finale. For then, aren’t the Caliph & Marsinah, as well as Hajj & Lalume, all truly in love? And if the score lacks anything it is an eleven o’clock number. “He’s in Love” would fit the bill splendidly. Instead we get the somber “Sands of Time,” not as a framing device as it was on stage, but as a final (previously unheard) musical number—an unfortunate choice for the film’s conclusion.
The story works as a credible facsimile of an Arabian Nights fable; outrageous fortune and its reversals within a single eventful day, ending in a fairy tale paradise. It moves too fast for scrutiny, or you might wonder why Hajj and his daughter start the morning as if they’re trying on new lives and personalities—there’s no sense these two have had a previous life before this day. Hajj peddles “rhymes for sale” (tho not in song), but given his own admission of few buyers, how has he survived up to now? Curious too, how our hero turns assassin; tho we’re given ample justification for his motives—not only has the Wazir married his daughter, but in the process deprived him of becoming father-in-law to the Caliph.
The history of Hlwd is rife with inaccurate and insensitive historical depictions, and absurd representations of foreign cultures. Among the most egregious reinventions are those dealing with the Islamic World. Here’s one part of the globe that kept pretty much away from our shores until OPEC’s interest began the snowball of international conflict. But Hlwd remained adamantly ignorant of the true religious and political climate of places such as Bagdad and Tehran; and would continue filming Arabic kitsch, such as the ’65 Elvis Presley musical, Harum Scarum, which casts a Persian harem with Jewish Princesses from Beverly Hills, and is as much an insult to Elvis, as to Muslims of all stripes. (The movie is enjoyably watchable for its cluelessness—and one jaw-dropping number Elvis sings to a 6 year old—“Hey, Little Girl”—that was surely made in innocence but now looks chillingly lascivious—a pedophile’s wet dream.) My point is to note that Hlwd loved to invent a Near East on a theme of Sodom & Gomorrah over Mecca. No lack of underdressed women and bare-chested men to represent a people wrapped from head to tow in Egyptian cotton. They might just as well have been from outer space.
I came late to this movie, not until its release on video in 1987. But I knew the show well from several productions, two of them college shows that were among the most enjoyable nights I’ve ever had in the theatre. Tho I have little memory of it, I know I saw the ABC production that aired October 24, 1967 (one night after Henry Sweet Henry opened on Bway—the first Bway opening I was ever aware of and closely followed.) On TV, Jose Ferrer was Hajj, with the aforementioned Alberhetti and George Chakiris as the young lovers. Barbara Eden had barely a wardrobe change from her Jeannie-garb to play Lalume. It would be interesting to see this version again someday. Done right the show is delightful. It plays from moment to moment with consistent engagement and pace—but above all it has that buoyant score to sock over. It’s an easy critical dartboard but an audience charmer, and somehow lasts into this new century. Little sense of that fun, that pomp and pageantry got up on the screen. With so little enthusiasm from the top, the film could only be infected by such lack of energy right thru its release and audience reaction. MGM got the prestigious Xmas slot at the Music Hall on December 8. But coming so fast on the heels of two Bway smashes breaking new ground, Kismet was almost instantly irrelevant. Howard Keel’s screen career ended here, and Alfred Drake never had another hit after it, either. Not a bad role, really, to conclude a body of work. The film made a modest $1,250,000—so the die was cast: bigger and better was the road ahead.
I’ll tell you one thing: in writing this piece (as in all the others) I’ve constantly played the albums, and tho I can’t say I got tired of any of them, Kismet more than others keeps unfolding and getting its hooks into me. I’m especially fond of the ’91 studio recording with Samuel Ramey, Jerry Hadley and Ruth Ann Swenson. The voices are all fine—especially the sultry Julia Migenes as Lalume, but what really makes this version the one above others is the full orchestrations of Arthur Kay, and the peerless conducting of Paul Gemignani--more on him, soon enuf.
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