While Marsinah is being baubled and bangled, her father is spending money too. Acquisitions include a new set of duds, gleaming white with fuchsia trim. Plus half a dozen bodacious servant girls, all in harem-ready fashions. In what seems a misuse of their energies, these ladies are currently carting him through the streets in a sedan chair. No crack squad as litter bearers, they inevitably drop the thing. Out spills Howard – but not to chastise, just to flirt. His eye-candy brigade includes a couple of blondes whose knock out looks and up to snuff line readings seemed to qualify them for onscreen careers that never materialized. One of them is whistle magnet Pat Sheehan. No stranger to cinematic seraglios, she’d advanced from Handmaiden in “Adventures of Hajji Baba” and Harem Girl in “Son of Sinbad” to Harem Showgirl in “Kismet”. Progress, I guess, albeit incremental. Sheehan made a final appearance (which, in her case, seems to be the operative word) in “Gigi”, identified in the credits as “Blonde’. After a last shot at glory (Miss October 1958 in Playboy), she married one of Bing Crosby’s sons. Eventually providing Der Bingle with several grandchildren. Anyway, back to what’s onscreen. The sedan chair idyll comes to a sudden end when the Wazir’s men identify our protagonist’s bag of gold as loot from a recent robbery. The money’s confiscated, the glamazons are returned to the market for refunds and Haaj is hauled off for trial.
In the meantime, the caliph has somehow tracked Marsinah down to what appears to be her house. Yes, she suddenly has a house. In an earlier bit of dialogue, Haaj had alluded to a dwelling “out near the pomegranate grove” that Marsinah dreamed of living in. So we’ll have to suppose that - in between buying clothes and harem girls - her father had somehow squeezed in time to purchase this place and also get word back to Marsinah that she could move in any time. Because when we see her –lolling around in the house’s back garden - she seems to be fully ensconced at the new address. Not much time can have passed because Blyth and the soon to be seen Damone are still wearing their costumes from the marketplace scene. But why quibble? It’s a musical.
At any rate, Marsinah’s enjoying the garden when her royal stalker enters. She’s a bit startled but also intrigued by his mysterious formality, his handsome face and probably by that killer outfit. They actually only have two conversation in the movie. And this one –which includes a song – apparently clinches the love of my life bond. It would have been nice to develop their relationship a bit more. But I don’t think Disney’s Snow White ever said a word to Prince Charming. Just scurried away from the wishing well, air-mailed him a kiss from her balcony, then woke up as he swept her out of that glass casket into the happily ever after. So – by comparison – Marsinah and the caliph are relationship veterans. Blyth handles the heavy lifting in their dialogue scenes. Just as well, considering Bosley Crowther (in his New York Times review) observed “Mr. Damone would make a fine cigar store Indian”. Ouch! I wouldn’t go that far, but – yes - his acting is definitely on the pianissimo side.
What does work against this scene is the sheer, over-lit airlessness of the set. Everything seems hermetically sealed. There may be flowers galore but the net effect is not so much garden as mortuary viewing room. If only this were actually shot outdoors. What a difference a little breeze would make. Or just the sustained use of lighting to create something moody and romantic. I suppose the sequence of events dictates it’s still daytime. But even setting it in the waning moments of afternoon could have lent the thing some kind of visual fervour. Instead we’re stuck with a wax flowers under glass atmosphere that does neither “Kismet” nor its audience any favours.
The pair talk a little, (not quite ready to reveal his true identity, Damone presents himself as a gardener) then start to sing the show’s payoff number, “Stranger in Paradise”. Talent-wise, spirit-wise, Blyth’s totally up for it, fully communicating, not just her own joy in singing but also her delight in being serenaded. Especially since Damone’s splendid voice is a right as rain match for hers. He’s no Olivier. But Olivier couldn’t have sung like this. And “Stranger in Paradise’ is a song that only fully blossoms in the hands of first-rate singers. They wander slowly through the
mortuary garden - first past some sort of rigid,
long-tailed fowl who seems bolted to the spot, then alongside a
highly offended looking white peacock. I guess these birds are supposed to represent nature in harmony with budding love. But the poor things just seem like unwilling detainees in an avian prison camp. Luckily, the lovers’ next steps take them under a mini-gazebo and suddenly we have the single most beautiful shot in the whole movie. The branches, flowers and latticework around them suddenly conspire to cast bewitching shadows on the pair. All at once it’s color noir “Leave Her to Heaven” time. And for a moment or two, the scene’s alive and vibrant. If only camera director Joseph Ruttenberg had been inspired to (or asked to or allowed to) spread a little of this look throughout the film. The effect of that visual frisson sustains as Damone begs Blyth to meet him alone in the garden later that night. Trying to deflect the question while sinking into a whirlpool of romantic attraction, Blyth delivers my favorite line reading in the whole film. “You say you’re a gardener...what kind of flowers should I plant along the ledge? I thought... hyacinths...but perhaps...oleanders....?" Voice trailing upwards in, trembling confusion. Then, losing her moorings and somehow not caring. “Yes...yes...of course”. Blyth’s speaking voice and emotion-drenched intonation are wonderful here. No poet could hope to hear his words conveyed more expressively. One of the few things I regret about the 90’s restoration soundtrack CD is that this spoken passage is missing from it. It was one of the parts I always loved on the original 1955 LP. But I suppose it was recorded on the film’s dialogue track rather than the music one. And when the Turner/Rhino team put the CD version together they stuck to the music track for this number. The singing, the youth and beauty of Blyth and Damone, the bright colors and costumes and – of course – the song itself all provide levels of pleasure. But one yearns for what might have been. For example, take the Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn musical “Funny Face” (from ’57). A by no means perfect film. But in it the star duo performs a magical number to Gershwin’s “He Loves and She Loves”. And the scene’s power goes beyond the charms of its performers or the Gershwin song. What lifts these already delicious ingredients to full delectability are director Stanley Donen’s loving investment in the film, the beautiful art direction and the incredible camerawork of Ray June. The studio (Paramount, in this case) was willing to spring for Paris location shooting. And – boy - does it pay off, especially in this sequence. Photographed outdoors in golden afternoon light between an old French church and a winding stream, it’s shot mainly in soft focus, Astaire and Hepburn dancing dreamily across a shimmering green lawn. Doves and swans move gracefully, organically in and out of view. Hardly looking down, the pair, still in dance hold, step lightly onto a raft and float away. Movie musical bliss. If only the garden scene in“Kismet” could have come anywhere near this level. The potential was there. The music was inspired. And Blyth and Damone put their hearts and voices into it. I’m not suggesting MGM should have shot the picture in Iraq. That would have been all wrong. “Kismet” requires a Baghdad that never existed outside a fairytale. But that’s why there should have been no limit to the creative imagination put into realizing it. Find a nice California location. Or shoot it on the lot – but outside. If you do it indoors, create a fantasy space that breathes and moves with the music. In the end, we have a host of elements -all worthy of a setting far better, certainly less prosaic and static than the one MGM came up with. It’s such a shame the great Minnelli wasn’t inspired by the opportunities presented. Surely there were directors out there who would have been. In the end, the “Stranger in Paradise” sequence stands as a prime illustration of the maddening gulf between what this “Kismet” was and what it could have been.