Opening in 1911, Edward Knoblock’s original non-musical play toured successfully for years, usually starring Otis Skinner, an old-school trouper whose name and career became inseparably linked with the property. You can still hear the grand old man declaiming snippets of Shakespeare on YouTube, voice throbbing with Edwin Booth fervour. He even starred in a couple of early film versions – a silent and a talkie (1930 – with Loretta Young - and now thought lost). The original play’s as antiquated as bustles and buggy whips. So these days no one would think of mounting any version but the Wright-Forrest musicalization. Whatever theatrical longevity “Kismet” ‘s achieved since the 50’s is largely due to its songs. And I’d say MGM’s ‘ 55 version did a pretty good job at presenting those songs. Orchestrations and choral work are superb. In later years, Andre Previn – in his mid twenties when he conducted “Kismet” - still recalled the joy of working with the huge MGM Studio Orchestra and Chorus. The original soundtrack LP, reissued many times over the years, was definitely a keeper. Certainly I held on to my copy, purchased when I was 12 or so. Matter of fact, I recently framed it.
Starting in 1995 MGM musical fans got a wonderfully unexpected treat. Under the guiding direction of George Feltenstein, best friend the MGM musical ever had, the Turner and Rhino companies joined forces to issue a new series of golden age soundtracks on CD. For each musical chosen, they sourced the original elements (by that time owned by Turner) and re-mastered them, supplementing the originally issued contents with extended versions, orchestral background material etc – all with the best sound quality these items had ever enjoyed. In short, Feltenstein and crew created a glowing audio afterlife for dozens of Metro’s vault treasures. Most of us original fans – seniors or near seniors by then - could hardly believe our luck. Naturally, “Kismet” was one of the titles released. And once again that lovely score reasserted its magnificence. Each stage of the movie’s home video history - from VHS onward – has used available technology to refine the viewing and listening experience. The Blu-ray we have today represents the best “Kismet” has looked and sounded since its Radio City debut.
The soundtrack under the film’s credits teases out a few exotic bars of “Not Since Nineveh”, then goes for the musical jugular, with “Stranger in Paradise”. Like the stage version, the movie proper begins with a call to prayer by a holy man. But here – in keeping with Hollywood’s bigger is better fixation- we get two holy men in two different minarets. At least one of these structures is a holdover from the ’44 version. The minarets are positioned to create a sort of 3D View-Master effect, which would probably work better if the painted backgrounds weren’t quite so artificial looking. In the stage show, the call to prayer leads into one of the chorus soloing on “Sands of Time”, the melancholy refrain that opens and closes the play. The reprise by Haaj at show’s end brings the thing full-circle. The first version’s cut from the film. So anyone who’s actually seen “Kismet” on stage is likely to miss that lovely bit of book-end balancing. The call to prayer episode, probably meant to be just before sunrise, happens in a not particularly appealing semi-darkness. No real play between light and shadow here – just a vaguely oppressive dimness.
Then we’re abruptly plopped into close quarters with a camel who looks a bit confused, probably about the sound-stage stable he’s occupying. The lighting’s full-on high key - good if indiscriminate clarity’s your thing, not so much if you’re after visual nuance. Get used to this look because there’s a lot more of it on the menu. A ragged poet (Howard Keel) awakens on an improvised bed of straw, then Ann Blyth (as his daughter) gets a neat pop-up entrance, materializing from under a nearby (and up to then inert ) blanket. Both sport pauper’s garb, drab but immaculate. And both are hungry. As all the father has to sell are his poems, the two immediately set out from the stable singing “Rhymes Have I”. At least they do in the stage show. The movie makes its second ruthless musical excision by cutting the number out. That decision was probably made fairly early on - as the sequence doesn’t seem to have been filmed. Keel and Blyth did, however, record the vocals with full orchestra. So their version does turn up on the Rhino restoration recording. No showstopper, but pleasant enough to make us regret we can’t actually see them do it.
The film rejoins them as they enter the bazaar - one of the movie’s main sets. Again, this one’s a total sound-stage creation - small indoor mall posing unconvincingly as large open air market. Though, to Minnelli’s credit, he really knows how to arrange and move his extras. How to infuse a smallish space with teeming life. Optimizing that effect is the presence of six continually whirling dervishes, employed to mounting effect as the scene proceeds. Our poet’s unable to sell even a line of his verse. But when a passerby mistakes him for a beggar named Haaj and gives him a coin, he suddenly twigs to the fact that here may be a more effective way to grab a little money. The beggars around him (including future TV mogul Aaron Spelling - in those days both struggling actor and lucky husband of Carolyn Jones) warn him against impersonating the real Haaj (who’s away on a pilgrimage). But our poet is too intrigued by present possibilities. “Never have I seen a profession more keenly in need of new blood”. He uses his gift of gab to cajole a couple of substantial donations out of passers-by, then suddenly begins to ruminate (in song) about the turn in his fortunes. Making a decision that will soon bring him equal cause for rejoicing and regret , he resolves to hold on to this new identity as Haaj. And that’s the first and only name we’ll know him by. Reviews and plot summaries often identify the character as Haaj or Haaj the Beggar, but – in actual fact - the protagonist of “Kismet” has no real name beyond just Poet.
Howard Keel’s rightness for the role becomes ringingly apparent when he starts to sing “Fate”. The voice is deep and muscular, the whole performance buoyed by Keel’s trademark balance of authority and approachability. In spite of the nuance-free lighting, staging of the number is quite good. The camera moves with agility, following the actor as he leaps from one level of the set to another. But the Cinemascope lens also captures the action swirling behind him. The spinning dervishes form a visual counterpoint to Keel’s foreground performance- not a distraction but an organically connected intensifier. A neat expression in dance of fate’s relentlessness. The song‘s climax is broken off in mid phrase when Haaj is seized and abducted by a pair of desert intruders. Jack Elam’s one of the culprits, his Arizona twang not entirely compatible with the flowery desert dialogue. Keel puts up a terrific struggle but, eventually overcome, he’s carried off by camel. With painted backdrops and soundstage sand dunes playing spoilsport atmosphere-wise, they arrive at the camp of the bandit chief, played by Jay C. Flippen, of all people – fresh from belting out “The Farmer and the Cowman” in the same year’s “Oklahoma!”. But the scene does provide one genuine visual kick in the form of Flippen’s tent, an exotically shaped creation in black and gold. Maybe the only tent I’ve ever seen that could tempt me to go camping. It seems the real Haaj, something of a magician, once put a curse on Flippen and - mistaking Keel for the McCoy - he demands the curse be lifted. After some nimble fast talking, Keel winds up not just free - but in possession of a hefty bag of gold coins. As the bandits ride away , Keel, overcome with relief and dawning elation, launches into a rousing reprise of “Fate”. A performer of more sheer physicality than most singing actors, he even manages an impressive backwards somersault down a sand dune in mid-song. Then runs full-tilt toward Baghdad, happily flabbergasted over this latest twist of fate.
Meanwhile back in Baghdad, the Wazir (Police Chief) and his men - highly unpopular judging from the number of grumbling, fist-shaking onlookers - ride through the marketplace. To play the Wazir, Sebastian Cabot summons up a kind of paint-by-number peevishness. Adequate but nothing more. It’s the role Minnellli wanted Robert Morley for. And one suspects Morley would have played it, if nothing else, more distinctively. Wazir and company ride through a gate leading to a set-up that’s – wonder of wonders - actually outdoors. Enjoy it while you can - it’s a one-off. Yes, there’s a painted screen in the rear to illustrate the distant vista (and hide evidence of studio buildings). But suddenly - because we’re really outdoors - there’s a sense of honest-to-goodness sunlight. And breezes to blow a little life into fabrics, pennants, plumes - invigorating the whole proceedings. The Wazir’s there to welcome back Lalume, his wife of wives. She’s been off on a diplomatic mission.And once Lalume emerges from her palanquin, it’s clear to see she’d make a pretty persuasive ambassador, whatever the cause. Decked out in swanky golden glad rags, Gray carries off the look handily, even the out of control welding project serving as head-dress. The outfit – with its golden leggings - is an obvious homage to Marlene Dietrich’s gold spray-painted legs in MGM’s 44 version. They’d been a great talking point in that film’s publicity. Only to be displayed onscreen in a truly ridiculous production number. Marlene’s veiled double performed (in long shot) any moves that might possibly be construed as dance. All we got of Dietrich were intermittent close-ups of her striking absurdly uncomfortable looking poses. Dolores Gray comes with no such mobility issues. She’s a blonde dynamo, obviously ready – in two shakes of a Lamb’s Rum cocktail – for just about anything. And glamorously comfortable in her every move. Lalume’s brokered a deal with the kingdom of Ababu that will bring the Wazir “all the gold ten camels will carry”. In return for which, he must arrange for the three princesses of Ababu to becomes wives # 1, 2 and 3 of the young caliph. The Wazir knows that’ll be a tall order as this caliph is an incorruptible idealist with no inclination toward intrigue or marriage. The princess trio are actually in tow – emerging as human projectiles from a butt-ugly, spike-covered box. From the looks of them, Ababu must be pretty close to China or Japan. They’re all in red and they’re fierce. The aggressively synchronized surliness they project has always been a slight turn-off to me. I get that it’s supposed to be amusing. But I’m mostly a no vote on that. The three are unenthused about the prospect of remaining in Baghdad, where onlookers seem anything but happy. And the Wazir’s a washout at selling its charms to them. Enter Lalume, who snatches a bag of coins from him, throwing its contents out into the crowd. Result: much energetic scrambling and many happy faces. Gray then launches into one of “Kismet”’s most spirited showpieces, “Not Since Nineveh” and - for my money - it’s never been done better. The melody’s resourcefully adapted from Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances” and given an undulating, urgently propulsive arrangement by Conrad Salinger. Peerlessly performed by the MGM Studio Orchestra and Chorus. And then there’s Dolores Gray. A class A Broadway belter for sure – but there’s a warm liquid sensuality coursing through that voice, tempering it with beckoning intimacy. She was the last of MGM’s great musical finds.
The rendition I grew up on with on the soundtrack album ends when Gray’s vocal does. It’s the fully formed, baked to perfection version that eventually became part of my DNA. When I finally saw the film many years later, I was shocked that, onscreen, the number continues – and with a radical shift in musical tone. Seeing the Ababu still unimpressed, Gray urges the crowd into a steadily mounting chant: “Stay in Baghdad, stay in Baghdad”. Then, as added inducement, summons a pair of hunky male dancers from the sidelines to strut their stuff in front of the girls. Suddenly the music switches to pure, blasting Count Basie style jazz. We’re light years away from Baghdad – even Broadway Baghdad – and plunged down into the middle of a big band jam session. With a lifelong attachment to the smooth, swaying perfection of Gray’s vocal section, this musical U-turn was frankly a shock to my system. When I bought the expanded version of the soundtrack in the 90’s, I was initially sorry they included the dance section as part of the “Nineveh” track, rather than making it separate so I could just skip it.
In the movie, the Ababu antennae start to quiver when the trio gets a load of that Baghdad-style Chippendale action. And the princesses are soon strutting along right beside them. This dance number was apparently part of Jack Cole’s original stage choreography. It s built around a Cole specialty – the fusion of ancient Asian classical dance techniques with big band jazz. Some call the style Hindu Swing. Even critics who don’t have much fondness for the rest of the film tend to cite this segment as a highlight. Over the years, I must say I’ve come around. The dancing really is spectacular. If there’s little action elsewhere in the movie, the Ababu/Nineveh sequence does provide a real adrenalin blast. The three princesses leap from one dramatically exotic pose to the next with lightning quickness and explosive geometric precision. Princess #1(mainly in the middle) is played by Reiko Sato, who several years later got a major role - and her own number, the moving “Love Look Away” - in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song”. Her singing there is dubbed by Marilyn Horne, no less - a classy voice double if ever there was one. But the acting and (above all) the dancing are gloriously her own. Can’t end discussion of the “Nineveh” dance without some sort of appreciation for those two male dancers – they’re spectacular. Great looking – and completely breathtaking in their command of Cole’s complicated, razor-sharp routine. Minnelli and Cole couldn’t have picked two more convincing inducements to make resistant princesses “stay in Baghdad”. Can’t figure out their names from existing cast lists – but my hat’s definitely off to these two. They also, by the way, sport fantastic costumes – mainly in Duquette’s favourite color, green. The outfits are exuberantly accessorized and – especially as displayed in the incredible dance workout - another of the film’s standout visual fillips. The one-two punch of Gray’s musical salesmanship and the dazzling Cole dance routine, all enhanced by open air shooting, lift the picture momentarily into the pow zone.
Cut back to the marketplace, as the Wazir’s party heads home, riding roughshod over all and sundry. From under the resultant debris emerge two men – one old, one young. The old one’s Monty Woolley, advisor to the caliph – the young one (Vic Damone) is, naturally, the caliph. He’s been doing one of those staple Arabian Nights things – traveling incognito among his people. Good-looking in an understated kind of way, Damone delivers his lines with polite simplicity. Hardly dynamic – but he’s probably saving that for the songs. Best thing about him at this point, though, is his costume. A marvelous green and white confection – chic but business-like – if it’s Arabian Nights business. Most impressive part of the ensemble: an ingeniously designed unisex turban. And though it strikes just the right note as raiment for a prince on the prowl, the whole ensemble would need very little alteration to look smashing on Hedy Lamarr in 1940. Damone actually scores more costume changes than anyone else in the film. But he gets to hang on to this one for a scene or two. Suddenly the caliph catches sight of a face across the marketplace. It’s Marsinah, casing out the stall of a fruit vendor (MASH’s Jamie Farr sticking out like a particularly sore thumb), hoping to snatch a few oranges. And – for the caliph – it’s fairy-tale love at first sight. He rushes through the throng to get a closer look. But doesn’t make it quite fast enough. Cinderella’s vanished – without even leaving a slipper behind. Now the caliph’s on a mission. Find that girl. And marry her, of course.
Meanwhile back at the bazaar, Keel returns to share news of his good fortune with Marsinah. At first she can’t believe him. But when he shows her the bag of gold and urges her to buy some beautiful clothes she – albeit in a daze – starts to believe him. The tradesmen have also spotted Haaj flashing his money and quickly surround Marsinah, splashing out their wares to entice her. All of which leads into a lovely enactment of one of the show’s most famous songs, “Baubles Bangles and Beads”. The arrangement’s to die for, harps, tinkling fairyland instruments, masses of strings and brass - plus some of the best choral work I’ve ever heard. And right at the beginning, Blyth demonstrates one of her greatest gifts, the ability to invest a simple line of dialogue with a trembling emotionalism both personal and poetic. “So many beautiful things ... what shall I buy?” I defy any other actress to deliver those words to quite the same magical effect. It makes a magnificent spoken bridge into the song. As for Blyth’s singing, it’s marvelous . But beyond the beauty of her instrument, she fully communicates the fact that she loves to sing. Some people are excellent vocalists but stop short of conveying this sense of joy in the act. With Blyth it’s palpable–a perfect mirror image of Marsinah’s wonder at the situation. A couple of the tradesmen get brief, melting vocal solos. They’re probably dubbed but the effect is seamless. An angelic tenor voice emerges from one old man. And I’d have sworn the young singing pearl vendor was Greg Morris from the “Mission Impossibe” TV series. But I guess it’s not – because he apparently didn’t make it to Hollywood till the 60’s. Whoever it is, he gets to sing one of the show’s most exotically memorable phrases. “Think about the Macedonian oyster having indigestion in his watery cloister ... so that Marsinah could have a pearl”. Yes, the song might have been more effective filmed outdoors. And some shadow-play would’ve been a better option than the endless high key lighting (never the best choice for fairy-tales), maybe some dreamy tints. But – as it is – the number’s presented and performed superbly. Every extra’s perfectly integrated into the whole, each of them believably caught up in the operetta-style reality of the moment. A bolt of yellow cloth is thrown across the Cinemascope screen – caught with split-second timing by Blyth. And soon that material’s being held up by the ladies of the bazaar to partially shield Blyth as she sheds her pauper’s garb and slips into a mustard colored desert princess number. Yes, the tradesmen are happy for the business. But also genuinely lost in admiration for the now beautifully adorned young girl. As the song softly fades to a dreamy ripple, a still entranced Marsinah wanders through the market gates and disappears from view, the tradesmen gazing after her, the atmosphere a perfect hush. Ending a sequence that comes very close to capturing “Kismet”’s full glorious potential.