A bit of gaudy Technicolor escapism fashioned in the middle of WWII, William Dieterle‘s Kismet takes place in a never-never-Bagdad that crosses the Arabian Nights with Hollywood. The always excellent Ronald Colman plays the self-styled King of Beggars with as much magnetic swagger and light charm between turban and goatee as could have been mustered by Errol Flynn—and we might as well mention Douglas Fairbanks since Kismet seems to be channeling bits of The Thief of Bagdad.
Marlene Dietrich doesn’t have that much to do, but she does it with enough high camp to become a spectacle within the spectacle; in other words, she comes across like Marlene Dietrich. Her high point is a bit of interpretive dance that looks like a light exercise routine as she’s decked out in gold paint like the unfortunate damsel in the James Bond film Goldfinger. The viewer can only stare as she leans backward and lays her head on the dais. Perhaps the laziest gal in town is about to nap, but her audience is at full attention.
Edward Arnold plays the crooked Grand Wazir. James Craig is stiff and unprepossessing (and in need of lessons from Colman) as the young Caliph who falls for the beggar’s daughter (Joy Ann Page) in a plot of masquerades so complex that a narrator needs to spell it all out for us at the beginning. Fortunately, the audience doesn’t need to pay attention.
Scriptwriter John Meehan’s clever, erudite, self-mocking dialogue is adapted from Edward Knoblock’s 1911 play, previously filmed in 1914, 1920, and 1930 (the latter also had a German-language alternate version helmed by Dieterle). That’s how creaky this vehicle was, and audiences hadn’t seen the last of it yet.
The 1944 version isn’t quite a musical, despite Dietrich’s dance and a couple of lullaby-esque songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Broadway revived the property as a full-blown musical in 1953, with Robert Wright and George Forrest revamping classical themes by Russian composer Alexander Borodin. This yielded the hits “And This Is My Beloved”, “Stranger in Paradise”, and “Baubles, Bangles and Beads”, plus the deliriously campy “Not Since Nineveh” (“not since Tyre, not since Babylon turned to mire for a sin of a kind we never mind here… not since that village near Gomorrah got too hot for Lot”). That little number is knocked out in the 1995 film by Dolores Gray in the Dietrich part; she is considerably livelier than Dietrich could ever be, thanks to her athleticism and Jack Cole’s choreography.
Shot in Eastmancolor, this Cinemascope effort from director Vincente Minnelli feels more static and less personal than most of his widescreen affairs. Kismet boasts his sense of color and spectacle, but it doesn’t feel like one of his more neurotic outpourings. Dieterle’s 1944 version has a heady, drugged feeling, as though we’re too close to our scalawag’s hookah. Minnelli’s approach feels sedate, as though it is content to show off its huge sets while Howard Keel carries the tongue-twisting lines with grand gestures and basso voice. Vic Damone gives us a much smoother and more swoon-worthy Caliph this time around, with Ann Blyth as the daughter, Sebastian Cabot as the Wazir, and Monty Woolley as the Caliph’s wise aide. (For what it’s worth, Colman’s rogue gets away with murder while Keel’s doesn’t.)
Both are extravagant MGM productions. The 1944 film is available on demand from Warner Archive as a DVD-R, and the print is clearly in need of restoration to bring the image to its original glossy burnish. No such problems are evident on the perfect spotless Blu-ray of the 1955 version, which reissues the contents from the 2008 DVD box set Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 3 : a Tex Avery cartoon; an Oscar-nominated short, The Battle of Gettysburg, which recreates the battle through sound effects and narration over present-day shots of the area; two promo segments from the TV series The MGM Parade; an outtake from one song sequence; an audio-only song outtake; and trailers of the 1944 and 1956 films.
We’ll never complain about meticulous restorations, but consider that the 1956 film was a flop while the 1944 film was a hit with four Oscar nominations. You’d think it would rate the meticulous treatment too. While they’re at it, I’d love to see Warner release all incarnations of their 1930 version, though it seems to be lost. Perhaps we should rub the lamp and make a wish.