Wednesday, September 20, 2017


                Now back to Marsinah’s father, currently being dragged into the Wazir’s palace. And what an eyesore of Mysore it is!  Supposedly gouged out of the side of a mountain, the interior’s a cacophony of mismatched shades, each combination heading in the direction of clinical depression. I think they’re going for a look of sinister luxury. But the Metro art department seems to have consulted blueprints from some Roger Corman drive-in quickie. They’ve spent more money than Corman – but to equally downmarket effect. Jagged walls are constructed from what looks like papier mache and vulcanized rubber. You can almost smell the unpleasant shades of bruise-purple and charcoal spewed all over them. Wooden props have been given a quick once over with gold spray paint, then strewn around willy-nilly. I realize the Wazir’s meant to be a brute.  But even if we’re to assume his design sense is barely Neanderthal , one expects the art department to express that with some sense of subversive fun. This set’s just glum.  And costumes for the Wazir and his men needn’t have been quite so ugly. Accessories are haphazardly chosen and applied. The top of the Wazir’s helmet erupts with a mini-fountain of feather dusters. The resident executioner sports an inverted punch bowl on his head. Red streamers shoot out sideways while fragments of black netting droop below, the effect - at best - a sense of wilted festivity. The sheer trauma of having to wear the thing in public might explain the look of lobotomized vacancy on the actor’s face. I’ve read that Steve Reeves played this bit in the Broadway version. If he was forced to wear a similar get-up, it’s no wonder the man fled to Italy.
                Prominent among the Wazir’s goons are a couple of gangster movie vets. Mike Mazurki  operates in his one Runyonesque key – thuggish and vaguely punch-drunk. But Ted de Corsia’s actor enough to handle the sandal and scimitar dialogue with flair, even when announcing another defendant’s inability to appear, having broken both legs “falling off a cushion while being questioned”. Haaj is charged with theft and the trial promises to be short. When it comes to sentencing, the Wazir’s default mode seems to be “off with his head”, although – in this case – it’s amended to “off with his hands”. The poet’s understandably upset. And – as an interested Dolores Gray peers from behind a  sort of golden cobweb – he leaps up to explain why this particular punishment’s entirely too harsh.  For a storyteller, hands are essential tools of the trade. A story worth telling needs gesticulation. And “Gesticulate” ‘s the name of the song he then hyper-delivers. Though based on Borodin themes, this one sidesteps the romantic vein mined by the rest of the score. Staccato intensity and rapid tempo changes are more the order of the day here. And Wright and Forrest dress up the music with clever, tongue twisting lyrics.
Sample:  “Should Sche-her-a-za-dee
                    Undulate her body
                    That can be expressed if you just
                    Can be assessed if you just
                    She’ll be undressed if you
All to be accompanied by a jet-propelled display of hand and body gestures.  A significant challenge for any performer.  And Howard Keel remembered “Gesticulate” as perhaps the single most difficult film number he ever had to tackle. It took weeks of painstaking rehearsal to coordinate the complicated vocals with the rapid-fire barrage of body language. But he carries it all off sensationally; the man had panache.  
                The Wazir, however, remains unimpressed and refuses to commute the sentence. And though Haaj rains curses down on his head, signals for the deed to be done. Then all at once soldiers drag Jay C. Flippen into the room. This is the bandit for whom our Haaj had earlier pretended to reverse a curse. Said malediction had involved Flippen’s lost-since-babyhood son. Haaj had promised a speedy reunion and since that didn’t happen, Flippen roundly denounces the false magician. Until, that is, he spots a trinket dangling round the Wazir’s neck.
“That amulet... where did you get it?", he cries
“This amulet’s been with me since childhood”.
Proof, it seems, that Flippen and the Wazir are father and son.The promised reunion has happened.
And though the Wazir remains decidedly uninterested in his new parent, he is impressed that prisoner Haaj might indeed have genuine magic powers.
“We can use this man”, he mutters to Lalume, who answers “Yes ... yes, I rather think so”, though the twinkle in her eye suggests ulterior  motives for sparing the strapping, 6 foot 2 Keel. At which point the caliph makes an out of the blue appearance to announce he’s found the girl of his dreams and will marry no other. When Prince Lovestruck exits, the Wazir goes into hysterics. This means there’ll be no Ababu marriage - so there goes “all the gold ten camels will carry”. Lalume sees a solution that will satisfy almost everyone.  Convince the poet to work for them. Using magic to prevent the caliph from wedding his intended. The villain’s all ears. The three repair to Lalume’s private chamber and greedy Wazir Cabot showers Haaj with promises of riches and high position. Then scurries off to find a suitably gaudy crown for his new sorcerer in chief. As noted, this bargaining frenzy all takes place in Lalume’s chamber, a restfully alluring space decorated top to bottom in cool mint green. It’s the film’s most beguiling interior. Every wall, every knick-knack, every stick of furniture, every nook and cranny is the same soothing color. A  pleasant change from the interior decoration nightmare down the hall. With the Wazir out of the room, Lalume and Haaj are free to enjoy the erotic charges shooting back and forth between them. Each recognizes the other as a kindred spirit. Two clever adventurers caught in constricting situations. Together they may be able to plot their way out of their problems. And while they do, why not enjoy each other’s charms to the fullest? It’s clear Gray's Lalume is in the mood to be pleasantly Keel-hauled. And she signals it with a song. As it happens, it’s one of the movie’s only completely non-Borodin numbers. It’s called “Bored”, an original Wright and Forrest wrote just for the movie– and it’s lush. Gray and Keel are semi-snuggled together on a wicker settee as she starts to sing, slowly winding herself round him in one provocative pose after another, oozing seduction.
“Bored by the night and the day was I
Seldom gay was I
Till you”
As the camera circles, panther-like, around the pair, she Julie Londons him into submission, though, truth be told, he’s hardly inclined to resist. The song’s so good, such a neat fit with the rest of the score - and Gray’s rendition sells it so powerfully that it’s no surprise “Bored” made it into most future stage productions of the musical.  A clear case of MGM’s “Kismet” actually improving on the original Broadway show.
                Song and tete-a-tete are rudely interrupted when a blast from the caliph’s trumpeters alerts everyone to big doings in the street below. The whole household rushes to the balcony, pretending to marvel at the  cardboard sets and dodgy matte paintings that represent the outdoors. The eventual center of attention turns out to be a long procession the caliph’s organized. It's headed toward  Marsinah’s house. That moonrise meeting he arranged earlier is actually an excuse to pop the question, then whisk her away into immediate matrimony.  A no in front of all these witnesses might be embarrassing. But he seems pretty confident. I guess caliphs don’t get turned down that much.
                The Wazir’s immediately in freak-out mode. He demands that Haaj perform some magic to stop the caliph’s wedding plans. It’s either that or a trip to the Room of 29 Fires. Thinking on his feet, Keel begins to thunder out incantations. Gray gets into the act with him. Drums begin to pound on the soundtrack and soon Keel’s launched into the most turbulent version yet of “Fate". Member after member of the court surrenders to the bogus spell, swaying and chanting around him. The Ababu, all the ladies of the harem, the guards, even Mike Mazurki. The whole scene builds into a cauldron of frenzied, swirling activity. And under cover of this mayhem, Gray helps our man escape over the wall. As the uncanny rhythms keep pounding, the Wazir suddenly notices that Haaj is gone, Gray points skyward to a convenient bird flying past. Implication being that our magician has changed form and soared away on his mystical business.
                In the meantime, we return to the caliph’s procession. Which calls for a song -  in this case “Night of My Nights”, my personal  favorite from the score. It’s based on “Serenade” from Borodin’s “Petite Suite”. And for sheer, lilting exoticism this one takes the cake, then  lights it up with a thousand and one candles. The original Borodin melody’s one of the great classical ear-worms.  Wright and Forrest give it lyrics that pile image upon image, all carried via Spice Road caravan to a place “where the rose and the jasmine mingle”
“Let peacocks and monkeys in purple adorning
Show her the way to my bridal chamber
Then get you gone till the morn of my mornings
After the night of my nights”
I’ve heard many versions of this song over the years. But nothing – absolutely nothing – matches the
arrangement Conrad Salinger created for MGM’s production. Orchestral waves sweep forward. Urgent. Undulating. It's a musical marriage proposal no one could turn down. Vic Damone never sounded better – which is saying something. And the choral work is perfection. Especially the female voices, billowing like acres of silk behind him. When Elmer Bernstein conducted an album of Conrad Salinger’s MGM arrangements (in 1990), he had a vast amount of marvelous material to choose from. The song he picked to lead off the album was “Night of My Nights”. That’s how good it is.
                Now the bad news. This wonderful song, performed as part of a colorful parade sequence, was the perfect chance for MGM’s “Kismet” to finally go for broke with the visuals.  In an ideal world, it would have been shot at night - and outdoors. Cameras weaving and darting to capture each shimmering leg of the journey as it sweeps up and down hills and byways, people spilling in from every side-street. All edited to mirror the sumptuous lilt of the melody. Splashing out the unlimited resources of Hollywood and of a storybook caliph bent on expressing his love to the limit. This is the number that should have and could have made up for the picture’s other shortcomings. But it’s not what we got.
                It was apparently Minnelli’s idea to have the procession pass by a pool so it could be reflected in water.  A fine idea – and one that could have been used to great effect once or twice during the sequence. For some reason, head office suddenly got extra stingy about the budget.  Do the whole thing with an eye on cost-cutting. Or maybe scrap the scene entirely. As far as I can understand, Tony Duquette offered to round up the necessary props himself and rent them to the studio at bargain rates. Just so the sequence might happen. The top brass agreed. But – though the costumes and props might have wowed with proper cinematography and staging –that didn’t happen. The scene opens with a close-up of sparklers (where we should have had fireworks). Then a slow right to left procession across the screen.  Yes, there are horses and monkeys. Plus fancy costumes, pennants, plumes, tassels and tinsel. But most of the people wearing them just trudge along chain gang style. There’s not a whiff of joy to the whole thing. Reflecting it all staidly in a pool does little to help. “Night of My Nights” plays gloriously on the soundtrack – but without visual payoff. There’s no sense of progression, of climax, of mounting splendor. Each part of the parade should top the one that preceded it. Instead it’s all just a slow motion plod of sameness past a long, dull painted backdrop. Remember when Liz Taylor made her jaw-dropping entry into Rome in “Cleopatra”? In comparison Vic Damone sneaks into Baghdad on the 5 a.m. bus. I’m probably going too far. But with the opportunities, the talent involved and the musical inspiration on hand, why, oh, why did  MGM choose to settle for the merely presentable?

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