Kismet is an Arabian nights musical- spectacle, spectacularly stretched in CinemaScope and spectacularly drenched in bold Eastman Color.
It was based on a highly successful Broadway show, which in turn was based on Edward Knoblock’s 1911 play. This play inspired several film versions, including a Marlene Dietrich Technicolor MGM vehicle in 1944. You can watch that trailer here.
This Kismet was born when a songwriting team took Knoblock’s story and composer Alexander Borodin’s music and transformed them into a Broadway musical. It was a smash hit, and won Tonys for Best Musical and Best Actor (Alfred Drake as the poet.) Fun fact: Howard Keel, who plays the poet in the film, was Alfred Drake’s understudy for “Oklahoma” and “Carousel” on Broadway.
MGM began negotiations for the film rights before “Kismet” even opened on Broadway, and gave the project to musical-producer-extraordinaire Arthur Freed.
Fun fact: Freed had planned to make an original musical of “Kismet,” written by Alan Jay Lerner and Arthur Schwartz, when he heard about the Borodin version heading for Broadway.
Freed enlisted Vincente Minnelli to direct, though it took some coaxing. At first Minnelli refused to take the project, but then MGM said that if he did Kismet he could make Lust for Life (1956), a Van Gogh biopic that Minnelli was extremely passionate about. So Minnelli agreed.
Minnelli wanted to make Kismet as a highly stylized fairy tale, and he poured a lot of effort into pre-production and the stunning sets. Unfortunately, he was less invested in the actors or the film as a whole…critics were not very kind to this movie, and it’s definitely not the greatest musical ever.
Minnelli was preparing Lust for Life during production of Kismet, and many suspect that he did not give the Arabian musical his full attention. For example, when Kismet ran slightly over schedule, Stanley Donen directed the last three days of the film, and one day of re-takes, because Minnelli was already in Europe working on Lust for Life.
But the sets are glorious!
Kismet stars Howard Keel as “the poet,” a flamboyant pauper who tries to sell rhymes and poems in ancient Baghdad. Ann Blyth is Keel’s daughter, Marsinah, Dolores Gray is the Wazir’s wife, Lalume, and Vic Damone is the Caliph. It will all become clearer shortly.
Howard Keel is over-the-top in every way in this movie, which kind of works. He’s a big guy, and he uses his massive form to great effect. His costumes are wild, his gestures are comically large, his voice is booming and grand, and his expressions are visible from the moon.
Costume designer Tony Duquette, who also designed sets, interiors, and jewelry (and whose clients included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor), gives Keel some excellent sleeves, capes, and headdresses to play with. Keel only wears three costumes in the film, but his “rich guy” clothes are outstanding, and his facial hair is almost another character.
Keel was thirty-six when he made this movie, and Ann Blyth was twenty-seven, so their father-daughter relationship is a bit of a stretch, but they’re cute together.
The poet and Marsinah are very poor so they sleep in a camel stable under half a blanket, and they wake up hungry. Each day they head to the marketplace where Keel tries to entice people to pay for rhymes.
It doesn’t work. Obviously. So Marsinah goes off to steal some breakfast, as she often does. Note the whirling dervishes in the background of the last image. The wide, wide, wide CinemaScope frame allowed Minnelli to pack in loads of extras, color, movement, and sets.
While Marsinah is off stealing food, the poet sits and thinks and accidentally becomes a really good beggar. (He’s essentially a silver-tongued con man who worms a bunch of money out of a rich man.) After his successful begging venture, the poet sings about fate (“kismet” means “fate”) as the background whirrs with textured activity.
After the song, fate immediately deals the poet a harsh blow; he is dragged out of the city and into the desert by bandits.
They think he’s the beggar Hajj, which really isn’t totally their mistake because he told some people he was Hajj so he could use Hajj’s prime begging spot. The poet has no problem lying, none at all, which will serve him well later on.
How gorgeous is the CinemaScope/Eastman color in these desert scenes?
Keel is brought to Jawan, the most feared bandit in all of Arabia. Many years ago, the real Hajj placed a curse on Jawan, and shortly thereafter Jawan’s son was stolen away. He’s been looking for his son ever since, and now he’s decided that the only way to find him is to force Hajj to remove the original curse.
The quick-thinking poet manipulates Jawan into paying (a lot!) to remove the curse, instead of following Jawan’s original plan of torture. So Jawan gives the poet big bags of gold and sets him free.
Framing note: Often in this movie the tops of heads or feet will be cut out of the frame. It seems that CinemaScope’s dimensions made it tricky for the filmmakers to keep what’s normally visible in frame. Once I noticed this, it was all I could see…everybody loses feet or turbans at some point.
The poet hurries back to Baghdad to tell his daughter of their good fortune, and to buy some stuff.
Meanwhile, the Wazir’s wife, Lalume, returns from a diplomatic mission. The Wazir (Sebastian Cabot) greets his wife’s shimmering pink and gold litter, but he’s discomfited when one of her dogs receives his bow instead of her…
It’s clear fairly early that Lalume does not love, or even like, her husband. But she’s smart and powerful, and she can wear gold and sparkles like nobody else. (I’m not sure how many blondes in gold tights were wandering around ancient Baghdad, but no one ever claimed this movie was the least bit realistic. In any way.)
Dolores Gray was an extremely talented musical-theater actress with a voice like “a freight-train slathered in honey.” She had just come off of a highly successful run as Annie in “Annie Get Your Gun” in London when she was offered an MGM contract. She’s dynamic, and mesmerizing, and the best thing about this movie, I think.
Anyway, Lalume has arranged for the King of Ababu to give the Wazir “all the gold ten camels can carry,” but only if the Caliph marries the king’s three daughters.
But there is a problem! The princesses, who arrived in a scary, furry box with wavy swords and an aggressive dance, don’t like Baghdad and don’t want to stay.
So Lalume steps in, big, with “Not Since Nineveh,” where she sings the praises of Baghdad.
She struts and works her gold outfit like a pro as the princesses watch, spellbound. Kismet is worth watching just for Dolores Gray’s performances and costumes. You can watch “Not Since Nineveh” here.
After her song, the princesses dance with two random guys. They have such a nice time that they decide to stay in Baghdad, after all. Well done, Lalume, and green-pants-men. See what I mean about losing parts of feet or heads to the top and bottom of the frame?
In another part of the city, this handsome young man in green and cream catches a glimpse of Marsinah as she models/steals oranges. Strains of “Stranger in Paradise” waft through the air, so we know it’s love.
We also know that the young man is the Caliph (Vic Damone), supreme ruler, but Marsinah has no idea. She doesn’t even see him watching her. And it seems that they might never meet, because the Caliph loses her in the crowd!
Meanwhile, the poet returns from the desert. He finds his daughter being chased by the orange seller, who happens to be Klinger (Jamie Farr) from “M.A.S.H.!”
The poet pays him off for the stolen oranges, and then the poet explains his sudden possession of a fortune to his daughter. At first she assumes he stole it (she’s under no illusions as to his morals), but eventually she believes him.
The fact that he pays the clothing and jewelry sellers a generous sum to outfit his daughter probably helps her overcome her worries…
The poet goes off to buy beautiful slave women (yikes) and Marsinah stays to shop, and sing. Her song is “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,” a pretty tune that has been covered by just about everyone since it premiered in 1953. Gorgeous fabrics, and of course baubles, bangles, and beads, are displayed for Marsinah’s pleasure as she serenades the marketplace with her beautiful soprano.
If you’ve only seen Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce (1945), you’ll be amazed at her voice. (I saw Kismet and some of her other musicals first, so I was amazed at her Academy Award-nominated portrayal of Joan Crawford’s evil daughter, Veda.)
I like how everything is so clean in this movie. Even Marsinah and her father’s tattered rags are spotless, and everyone looks as though they just took a bath. No gritty realism here: thank you, MGM!
Eventually Marsinah chooses some baubles and changes into a new dress behind a curtain of the same fabric.
You can watch the lovely performance here. It’s a fun number.
Marsinah heads for her new house in her new duds. She’s exploring the garden when the Caliph finds her. She’s not as alarmed as I would be if a stranger found his way into my home, but he does have a trustworthy face…
He’s already head over heels for her, and although he’s formal, stiff, and humorless, she falls for him, too. A duet cannot be far off! Fortunately, Vic Damone was a pop star with a big voice, so he can keep up with Ann Blyth. And so begins one of my favorite songs, “Stranger in Paradise.”
They stroll through the garden, passing random birds in a crazy-wide image that Minnelli stuffs with plants, structures, and flowers. And more birds.
The Caliph acts as though falling in love with a stranger at first sight, following her to her home, declaring his love, then singing a soaring duet, is completely normal. Marsinah seems confused and a little scared, though she eventually accepts it. She’s surprisingly earnest and naive for the daughter of a conman.
You can watch “Stranger in Paradise here. I love it in all of its stylized, epic glory. It’s over five-minutes long with figure and camera movement, but it’s filmed in just two long takes with one cut about halfway through. Well done, Minnelli.
Fun fact: The melody of “Stranger in Paradise” was a popular tune even before the musical. Like all of Kismet‘s music, it was from Alexander Borodin’s music, (“Stranger” came from “Polovetsian Dances,”), and the same melody had been a hit for Artie Shaw in 1940 as “My Fantasy.” You can hear that version of Borodin’s melody here, and you can hear “Polovetsian Dances” here.
Anyway, the Caliph never tells Marsinah that he is the Caliph, and she never tells him her name, but he asks her to meet him in the garden that night. She agrees, with stars in her eyes. “Stranger in Paradise” will do that to you.
As Marsinah is falling irrevocably in love, her father is getting in trouble. And it’s not for buying slave girls to tote him around Baghdad in a litter…
…No, he is seized by the police for possessing stolen gold. The poet is taken to the Wazir in his new ivory-and-hot-pink suit.
His hands are nearly cut off before Lalume, who’s quite taken with him, begs the Wazir to let the poet explain.
So Keel goes into action with a comically-exuberant number about why he needs his hands. As a storyteller and poet, he must be able to “gesticulate!” And boy, does he gesture in this song. He almost throws out his shoulders and sprains his wrists.
You can watch the insanity here.
The song doesn’t convince the Wazir, but guess who is brought in just as the executioner is about to cut off the poet’s hands? Why, it’s Jawan!
Remember how the poet told Jawan that he would lift the curse and let Jawan find his long lost son? Turns out the Wazir is that long lost son, which they discover due to a conveniently broken amulet. The poet is stunned, and the Wazir is suddenly much more interested in this pink-turbaned weirdo.
If the poet really is a wizard capable of such powerful curses, perhaps the Wazir should keep him around, happy, and handy. Lalume knows the poet is not a wizard, but she’s very, and I mean very, attracted to him. So she manipulates her stupid husband into letting her play with the poet in the name of keeping him content.
Here’s Keel, Gray, and Minnelli on the set, plotting their next move:
Their scenes together are the best in the movie. Here’s one fabulous number where Lalume blasts out a song about how at least with the poet she’ll never be bored! She really uses that settee.
Gray and Keel are both powerful performers who go all out. They inhabit the crazy sets, wear the wild costumes, and sing the insane songs with a gusto and humor that the rest of the cast can’t match.
I get the feeling that they are winking at the audience; playing unscrupulous scoundrels in ridiculous clothes with a twinkle in their eyes that makes this monster-musical seem a little less clunky and stiff.
Lalume and the poet have barely finished their sexy song before the Caliph arrives with an announcement: he’s found a bride and will marry her that very evening. This is news to everyone, including Marsinah, who remains entirely ignorant of just about everything.
The Caliph’s marriage plan is a problem for the Wazir, as he needs the Caliph to marry those three dancing princesses. So he tells the poet that if he stops the wedding, the Wazir will make him an Emir. But if the poet fails, he’ll be executed…This isn’t good news for Lalume and the poet. They watch the Caliph’s impressive wedding procession head out of the palace and try to think of a way out of this mess.
Now, that’s a glorious use of Cinemascope! You can watch it here, though the quality is not great.
The poet decides to flee, since he has no idea how to stop the wedding. With Lalume’s help, he stages a magic ritual and incites the entire court into a dancing frenzy, which allows him to slip away unnoticed. You can watch it here.
He heads for his house to collect Marsinah. She’s waiting in the garden like a good lovesick girl, and she begs her father to let her stay. But he pulls her away. They flee to their old camel barn and prepare to escape from Baghdad.
Pause a moment and think about what just happened: the Caliph was going to fetch Marsinah but she wasn’t there, so now he can’t marry her…the poet stopped the wedding after all, even though he had no idea what he was doing!
Marsinah and the poet hear the crowds shouting that the Caliph’s bride is gone, so the poet decides to return to the Wazir’s palace. He wants to be an Emir, he wants money, and he wants Lalume. As he explains to his terrified daughter, who just wants to escape, “why have an olive when you could have the tree?” It’s a very greedy song, sung very tenderly by Howard Keel. You can watch it here.
The poet returns to the palace and we get a fairly pointless but awesome number in the Wazir’s harem (watch Keel and Gray go for it here):
Meanwhile, Marsinah is brought to the palace. She’s pretty sad because she misses her new love. She tries to explain her feelings to her father, which segues into another beautiful song called “This is My Beloved,” which then becomes a duet with the Caliph.
I love how Minnelli chose to transition from Marsinah to the Caliph: Marsinah sings, gazing at the moon, and we track forward towards the moon until Marsinah disappears from the frame. Then we track back away from the moon to find ourselves with the Caliph on some other terrace in Baghdad. It’s a beautiful way to move between spaces, and it’s a nice thought–they’re both singing to the same moon!
Adorable, and so different from Lalume and the poet’s bold, highly sexual (for a 1955 musical!) songs. You can watch it here.
The Caliph begins searching Baghdad for his vanished beloved (this is why one should always introduce oneself when one falls in love with a stranger). The Wazir invites him to his harem for a pleasant distraction, and guess who the Caliph sees being fitted for a new dress?
The Wazir thinks fast and claims that she is one of his many wives. The Caliph is devastated. His love is already married! In his sorrow he agrees to choose another bride that very night. This gives the Wazir his chance! And it gives the filmmakers another excuse for a shiny Howard Keel costume and a princess dance party.
The poet is master of ceremonies to the Caliph, presenting him with his various options for a wife. Each princess is dramatically revealed from behind a curtain:
Just as the Wazir ordered, the poet tries to persuade the Caliph to choose the princesses of Ababu. At least they left their swords and shields in their furry box this time.
Some other things happen, there’s a drastic change in tone for a few minutes, someone dies (shock!), and all seems lost.
But we end on this gorgeous image with Howard Keel singing directly to us, so it can’t be all bad. You can watch the final song here.
Kismet is bright and garishly entertaining, with dynamic performances, stunning visuals, and some wonderful music. Plus, it’s one of the last big MGM musicals, as the form was on the decline by 1955.
Fun fact: TV producer Aaron Spelling is an extra in the film; he plays a beggar. After filming this movie, Spelling gave up on acting and began working on the other side of the camera. Vincente Minnelli later joked that he was therefore responsible for Spelling’s marvelous career in television!