“Kismet” opened as Christmas attraction at the immense Radio City Music Hall in New York. And though we’re unlikely ever to see the movie projected on a screen that large again, the currently available Blu-Ray edition offers a pretty good idea of what audiences first witnessed. The image is clear and sharp; the color exhibits none of the fading that became the fate of so many films. And flat-screen TV’s accommodate the wide Cinemascope images beautifully.
One of the problems I have with “Kismet” is that it’s substantially over-lit. But the overarching rule at Metro in the 50’s seemed to be that every bit and bob should be drenched in surgery room lighting. It’s a strategy that undermines any sense of mystery. And Arabian Nights tales require some degree of mystery. Yes, you want to make sure every dollar spent is up there on the screen. But shadow and light should be equal partners in making that happen.
There was also a clear over-reliance on sound-stage shooting. That approach ensures a more easily controlled environment. But a picture needs to breathe and MGM’s “Kismet” often doesn’t. Somehow, in their long string of sword and sand dune adventures, lower tier Universal found a wonderful balance, blending picturesque interiors with panoramic outdoor scenes. They made good use of back-lot exteriors and location work. And films like “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Sudan” have moments of almost John Ford/ Monument Valley grandeur. Full of free-wheeling movement spilling across imposing natural landscapes. And Universal did it on far smaller budgets than MGM generally had at its disposal. Metro had, as it happens, filmed “Kismet” once before (in ’44) and shown very little aptitude for the genre. The sets were considerably bigger than the ‘55 version’s but the costumes less imaginative. There was a little more action, sporadic attempts at some Fairbanksian flair, mostly involving Ronald Colman’s stunt double. But the story was handled poorly – at once listless and preposterous - with little sympathy or interest aroused for its characters. One yearns to see Jon Hall, Sabu and Maria Montez ride into the picture and shake it by its shoulders. This version wasn’t a musical – though a few weak-kneed songs, written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg on an off day, were tossed into the mix. The musical element being much more crucial to the ’55 version, it was handled with considerably more care. There the songs were, after all, the explicit centerpiece. But the story, changed and streamlined, was also more clearly told. In spite of its plot complications, “Kismet”(55) never loses its narrative grip. Casting and performances are generally more appropriate and effective than in the ’44 edition. Ronald Colman, for instance, misuses that beautiful speaking voice in the earlier version, conveying an off-putting archness that makes his Haaj more trial than triumph. Still, the 55 “Kismet” had even less action than its predecessor. In a fantasy film, and that’s essentially what “Kismet” is (regardless of its lack of actual supernatural elements), narrative clarity needs at least a little jolt of derring-do to achieve any kind of real momentum.
The heavy reliance on sound-stage work was a direct result of the budget slashing policy then in place at Metro. As more and more film companies went on location to fully exploit the new Cinemascope screens, MGM’s embrace of the practice remained tentative. The studio clung to its Culver City interiors. 1954’s “Rose Marie” wasn’t much of a picture to begin with. But certainly it gained no value from its clumsy scene to scene alternation of genuine forest, lake and mountain footage with airless sound-stage recreations of same. Vincente Minnelli originally dreamed of shooting Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon” outdoors in Scotland. With Scottish ballerina Moira Shearer as Gene Kelly’s leading lady. After a long series of no’s from head office, Minnelli, Kelly and Shearer substitute Cyd Charisse found themselves trapped - start to finish - in acres of unconvincing heather on the MGM sound-stage. Result: another great MGM soundtrack album, the film little more than a ponderously empty can tied to its tail. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” suffers from the same ill-advised economy. Though, in this case, the over-use of painted backdrops and flat sound-stage surfaces keeps an otherwise excellent film from realizing its full potential. If I remember correctly, the same year’s “The Student Prince” peddled its wares in an entirely indoor Mitteleuropa. With both “The Student Prince” and “Seven Brides“ turning profits in spite of all that phony-looking sound-stage stuff, MGM, felt little inclination to change the strategy for “Kismet”. Location shooting meant extra expense. And expense was to be avoided.
Musicals could certainly deliver visual punch using only in-studio footage. For instance, the sound-stage approach was often perfectly appropriate for putting on a show items like “The Band Wagon”. More fanciful environments could also be successfully created without ever going outdoors. “The Mikado” from 1939 is one of the most beautiful looking movies ever made and neither cast nor crew ever set foot outside the doors of Pinewood studios. Vincente Minnelli’s own “The Pirate” (1948) teems with color and excitement, the Minnelli aesthetic in full flourish. The ’55 version of “Kismet” does hit the occasional artistic bull’s eye. But – except for the costumes - not many of those bull’s eyes involve the visuals. Almost everything’s enclosed, airless and stubbornly over-lit. All words that make me think of a Victorian parlor in some Hammer horror movie.
Although Tony Duquette came through for the most part with his costumes, the sets for “Kismet” were generally underwhelming. Far smaller and less imposing than the ones in the ’44 version. And – in some cases – plug ugly. Matte work was unsatisfactory, most of the painted flats flagrantly unapologetic counterfeits. Simulated moons and bogus vistas offered little in the way of visual nourishment. The set for the Wazir’s palace – where far too much of the picture took place – was the film’s worst visual offender. An establishing matte shot suggested the palace was supposed to be built into the rock surface of a mountain. But what the MGM art direction team cooked up as an interior was hideous. A nightmare of purplish rubber and gold-plated bric-a-brac , a sort of combination torture chamber and vomitorium. Like Mister Magoo cartoons, mid 50’s musicals tended toward broad visual stylization. But, spread across Cinemascope screens, the results usually just looked tacky. Which isn’t to say “Kismet” was totally without decorative pleasures. But, considering the opportunities for visual excitement and energy an Arabian Nights style subject offered, "Kismet” remained – on that level – something of a promise unfulfilled.