Saturday, August 12, 2017

KISMET 1955 : BAGHDAD OR BUST



                                First off, let me be clear. I’m very fond of the stage musical “Kismet”.  Especially its songs.  Those songs were semi-created by Robert Wright and George Forrest -a pair of musicians with a gift for appropriating, refashioning and celebrating the works of classical composers, cleverly re-engineering them into hummable show tunes. They tasted success in the 40’s by adapting the music of Edvard Grieg to create a Broadway musical, “The Song of Norway”.  When looking for classical inspiration to transform the venerable night-in-old-Baghdad play “Kismet” (first produced in 1911) into a musical, they found their ideal source in the repertoire of Russian classical composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887). Borodin himself had a fascinating life. A world-renowned chemist, his hobby was music. And his enduring success came from the pursuit of that hobby. The body of work he created for symphony hall and stage is virtually unmatched for sheer Orientalist sweep and deliriously sustained exoticism.  His fusion of middle-eastern and Russian motifs with European classical forms established a kind of West meets East template, as heady and seductive now as it was when he first created it. The Borodin repertoire’s rich in melodic hooks, much of it already suggesting a kind of Great Arabian Nights Songbook. In some cases, little musical embellishment was required to turn his themes into classics of the Great White Way. Any refurbishments and additions needed  were expertly supplied by  Wright and Forrest. And certainly the team deserves full credit for crafting “Kismet” ‘s lyrics. Witty, romantic and inspired, they were a vital element in the show's success.  “Kismet” means fate and this “Kismet”s  fate on Broadway was a happy one. It opened in 1953 and ran to packed houses for two years. Songs like “Stranger in Paradise and “Baubles Bangles and Beads” stayed on the hit parade for ages, becoming part of the era’s DNA.  “And This is My Beloved”, though never a chart-topper, was singled out for critical praise and remains an especially radiant souvenir of Broadway’s Golden Age.  But even the lesser known songs in “Kismet” were jewels, each lending sparkle to the proceedings. MGM, regarded as the Tiffany of studios when it came to movie musicals, paid a princely sum to snap up the screen rights.
              
                Movie musicals are one of my things. Especially MGM musicals.  It’s a love affair that started early.  My first two childhood movie memories both came courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – one gleeful, the other empathetically agonizing.  Number one: seeing Gene Kelly singing and dancing around a flower stall with children (“An American in Paris”) ; number two, watching sweet Jane Powell  enduring some kind of terrifying physical torture. For years I wondered what possible movie could have contained a scene like that. As I found out decades later, it was MGM’s gently nostalgic musical “Two Weeks with Love”(1950). And that Spanish inquisition level torment I’d winced along with as a child was just a comedy sequence where Jane mistakenly tries on an uncooperative corset. My MGM indoctrination continued at home. My parents had a couple of 78 rpm records by crooner Tommy Edwards.They were on the MGM label; one of them, I remember, was “Please Mr. Sun”. Mr  Edwards’ songs never struck me as anything special. But the paper sleeves that contained them were covered with advertisements for a number of MGM movie soundtrack recordings. No pictures – just text. But every word helped me build up images of the glorious song-filled movies they touted.

                 Recorded directly from the Sound Track of the MGM Technicolor Musical
                                                      “SHOW BOAT”
                                                                                  
                        KATHRYN GRAYSON  AVA GARDNER  HOWARD KEEL 
                                                                  
                 Recorded directly from the Sound Track of the MGM Technicolor Musical
                                                “PAGAN LOVE  SONG" 
                                                                         
                                        ESTHER WILLIAMS  HOWARD KEEL

                 Recorded directly from the Sound Track of the MGM Technicolor Musical
                                     “RICH, YOUNG AND PRETTY”                                                                          
                      JANE POWELL DANIELLE DARRIEUX FERNANDO LAMAS
                                                               
There were a number of other MGM musicals calling out to me from those record sleeves, “The Merry Widow” and “Nancy Goes to Rio” were two I remember as especially enticing. No fancy promotional hype, no superlatives about soaring melodies and new vistas of entertainment. Somehow the titles of those films, the glamorous names of the stars and the words “Recorded directly from the Sound Track of the MGM Technicolor Musical” said all that to me - and more. Imaginary versions of these movies played in my six year old head as I pored over those ads. For me, they were the “Open Sesame” to Ali Baba’s cave.  That MGM mystique’s stayed with me all my life. By now I’ve seen pretty much every vintage Metro musical and there’ve been very few that didn’t offer some kind of road back to my initial entrancement.
                                Yet another movie genre I like – a subgenre really – is the Arabian Nights adventure. Related to the sword and sandal and biblical films, but specifically set among the deserts and minarets of the middle east. That imaginary antique middle east where you might find Aladdin or Sinbad leaping over the nearest garden wall. If there’s any religious figure alluded to it’s Allah. Usually with a poetic flourish. But supernatural elements are optional , not mandatory. When they do occur genies and magic carpets tend to be involved. Swordfights and camel rides are frequent and often furious. Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Maureen O’Hara and Sabu are seldom more than an oasis away from one another.  And in these exotic scenarios, those who outwit, outlast and outplay are usually handsome caliphs, rebel warriors, wily wizards and resourceful princesses in peril.
                                Theoretically “Kismet” ticks all the boxes for me ; it’s not just a musical, but an  MGM musical  - and with an Arabian Nights setting. So why did this big-ticket version of the show disappoint not just me, but also its studio (losses were catastrophic) and the 1955 public who swiftly and silently decided this was one to avoid? Stay tuned.

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