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KISMET

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Howard Keel, Ann Blyth, Dolores Gray, Vic Damone, Sebastian Cabot
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Audio: English 5.1 or 5.0, Portuguese
Subtitles: English, French, Portuguese
Video: Color, widescreen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: The Battle of Gettysburg documentary, The First Bad Man cartoon, two excerpts from The MGM Parade, song outtakes, trailers
Length: 113 minutes
Release Date: April 8, 2008

Take my hand, I'm a stranger in paradise...

Film ***

The tale of Kismet is a well-worn one that, while not exactly as old as time, at least has its origins in a 1911 stage drama by playwright Edward Knoblock.  The story, about a very resourceful thief of Baghdad, proved to be a popular one and led to a 1920 silent film as well as a racy pre-Code 1930 talkie starring Loretta Young.  Kismet would even receive the deluxe MGM Technicolor treatment in a 1944 remake starring Ronald Colman as the thief and Marlene Dietrich as a seductress.

By 1953, a song-and-dance twist had been added to the story, and Kismet was re-incarnated as a highly successful stage musical.  MGM quickly saw the new show’s potential as a project for its charismatic singing star, Howard Keel.  Younger generations may recall the older Keel from his recurring role in the nighttime soap opera Dallas, but in his youth, Keel was a dashing basso cantante and the star of such MGM musicals as Annie Get Your Gun, Showboat, Kiss Me Kate, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  In fact, if there was an 1950's MGM adaptation of a Broadway musical, the chances were good that Howard Keel would be in it!

MGM’s 1955 Kismet adaptation would again receive the five-star treatment.  The studio's top musical mastermind, Arthur Freed, would produce the film.  Its top musical director, Vincent Minnelli, would direct.  And given Kismet's plethora of hit show tunes, this shimmering Arabian Nights-style spectacle would pull no punches with its fantastic tale of intrigue, seduction, romance, and perhaps even a touch of magic!

In the film, Howard Keel portrays a poet-beggar with the lovely Ann Blyth as his daughter Marsinah.  Together, father and daughter live in the squalor of ancient Baghdad and survive by daily begging and stealing.  One day, Keel's character is mistaken for the beggar Hajj, wanted by the infamous desert thief Jawan and his gang.  When this faux-Hajj is abducted, only through cunning and trickery does he save his own neck and even con the master thief out of 100 gold pieces!

Such guile!  With his new-found wealth, our newly-renamed Hajj acquires new clothing for his daughter, new admirers in a small harem of slave girls, and even a new home.  His luck nearly runs out, however, when Hajj subsequently is arrested by the Wazir on suspicion of thievery.  But again, through the exercise of his quick wits and song, Hajj gesticulates his way into the clear and soon convinces the Wazir that he is a even powerful wizard.

Nothing makes a man more attractive to a woman than power.  The Wazir’s lusty wife Lalume (Dolores Gray) certainly thinks so and has her keen eye on the agile-tongued Hajj.  Whatever Lalume wants, Lalume gets!  And in this case, that would be the would-be wizard.

Even as Lalume begins to seduce Hajj right under the Wazir's nose, Marsinah soon attracts a suitor of her own.  The Caliph (Vic Damone), ruler of all Baghdad, having wandered the streets incognito, is smitten at first glance by the beautiful Marsinah in her new clothing.  He follows her into the garden of her new home and courts her, unaware that she is a beggar’s daughter just as Marsinah is unaware that her handsome young suitor is more than just a simple gardener.  Naturally, these star-crossed youngsters fall in love with one another and agree to rendezvous later in the evening, when the Caliph plans to reveal his true identity and to propose marriage.

However, a sudden marriage by the Caliph would interfere with the Wazir’s own devious schemes for power and money.  So, the Wazir commands his newly-employed wizard Hajj to sabotage the wedding plans secretly with some magic, not realizing that in effect he is pitting a father against his own daughter!  But really, minor detail, right?  Such is the set-up for the inevitable collision of secret lovers and plots that is Kismet’s wild finale, one involving a harem of lovely ladies, a succession of dancing princesses, some pseudo-magic, and naturally all those wonderful tunes.

Kismet boasts many showstopping musical numbers.  Among the standouts, Ann Blyth sings the charming marketplace song “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” while Blyth and Vic Damone court one another in the famous melody “Stranger in Paradise.”  Howard Keel’s “Gesticulate” is a hoot during Hajj’s trial for thievery, and Dolores Gray vamps things up in the seductive “Bored” and then again in the steamy harem number “Rahadlakum.” 

As with most musicals, Kismet will eventually find its way towards an inevitably happy ending.  The Wazir’s dastardly deeds will surely be dashed, Hajj and Lalume will surely run away together, and how can Marsinah and the Caliph not but wed?  Such is fate, or as the Persians call it, kismet!

Video ***

The Cinemascope film Kismet, printed in Technicolor, is a feast for the eyes, thanks to Vincente Minnelli’s reliable eye for glorious cinematography.  The video quality is crisp and fairly clean.  Some age-associated marks remain, but nothing particularly intrusive.

Audio ***

Choose between a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, a 5.0 presentation of the original 4-track theatrical mix, or a Portuguese dub.  The original mix is the safest best.

Music and lyrics are by Robert Wright and George Forrest, adapted from music by Alexander Borodin.  While most of the stage songs are retained, a few are missing in the film version, including “Was I Wazir” and “He's in Love.”

Features ** ½

Kismet is available as a stand-alone disc or as part of the Classical Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 3 box set.

The bonus features include two short films.  One is The Battle of Gettysburg (29 min.), a Cinemascope documentary about the famous Civil War conflict; this film is narrated by Leslie Nielsen with modern footage of actual historic sites.  The other film is The First Bad Man (6 min.), a Tex Avery cartoon about Texas caveman cowboys.

There are two black & white television excerpts (15 min.) from The MGM Parade, both hosted by George Murphy.  One provides an excerpt of the “Rahadlakum” number, while the other focuses the hilarious “Gesticulate” number.  For anyone wanting more of the lusty “Rahadlakum” musical number, two minutes of censored footage is also included.  Apparently, the Censor Board was nervous about anything suggestive, musical or otherwise, in a harem.

Howard Keel performs in an audio-only outtake (3 min.) of  “Rhymes Have I,” another song which does not actually appear in a completed form in the film.

Lastly, one can compare the theatrical trailer for the 1944 version (3 min.) of Kismet starring Marlene Dietrich and Ronald Colman with a trailer (4 min.) for this 1955 musical version.

Summary:

Kismet is a entertaining screen adaptation of a popular stage musical and boasts some spectacular sets and musical numbers done in the classic MGM style.

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