powered by AFI
In 1943 while the country was in the middle of World War II, MGM spent the large sum of three million dollars on a lavish production of Kismet. The story about a beggar magician and his daughter had been filmed several times before, including a German version in 1930 directed by William Dieterle. By coincidence, Dieterle was also chosen to direct this new version, which reunited him with an old friend. Twenty years earlier, Dieterle was one of the first to see a promising future for a young Marlene Dietrich. While others thought she lacked talent, Dieterle saw her strong personality shine through. Years later he commented, "Many people have their dreams behind them, many before them. Marlene carried hers with her, and wore them like a halo."
Dietrich has only a small role in Kismet (1944), but her image and her legs helped draw in audiences. Ronald Colman had top billing over Dietrich for his role as Hafiz, a Baghdad con man posing as a prince to help his daughter marry royalty. Neither he nor his daughter realizes the gardener's son she is in love with is actually a prince in disguise. Hafiz's schemes also involve romancing Jamilla (Marlene Dietrich), the wife of a corrupt government official.
Dietrich knew her main purpose in the film was to provide decoration, but that didn't matter. Roles were beginning to get fewer and fewer for the forty-two-year-old actress. According to author Steven Bach in Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend, "With the instinct for survival and focusing attention on herself that she had displayed since adolescence, she accepted reality, hiked up her nerve and her skirts, and told Dieterle, 'If it's legs they want, it's legs they'll get!'" Dietrich's longest scene consists of her attempting a kind of dance. In reality, the actress merely moved from one posed position to another. Shots of Dietrich were then intercut with long shots of a double.
Representatives from the Hays Office, the official censors at the time, were very concerned about Deitrich's costume for the dance. Bangles covering parts of her body were not enough. She had to also wear a skin-colored outfit under them and her belly button couldn't be shown. In addition to the revealing outfit, Deitrich's legs were painted with four coats of gold paint. Since the wood alcohol needed to remove the paint turned Deitrich's legs green, the actress decided to leave the paint on during her evening visits with servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen. A young Roddy McDowall was working there as a busboy and later recalled the impact of Dietrich's appearance with gold legs, "She leveled the place and popped the eyes of every serviceman there."
Dietrich was so dedicated to the American cause and entertaining troops that on the day filming ended for Kismet, she auctioned off most of her belongings to help the war effort while she was on USO tours. In the summer of 1944, Dietrich returned to the states for the premiere of Kismet after a ten-week USO assignment. But she soon discovered there were no other film roles available for her at the time and so she continued performing for USO shows.
Critics generally praised the artistic merits of the 1944 version of Kismet. Variety reported, "The rich Technicolor under the lavish art direction of Cedric Gibbons and Daniel B. Cathchart is an eye-filling cinematic easel throughout the entire 100 minutes. They have given the Baghdad saga size and stature." The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best Cinematography and Art Direction.
Producer: Everett Riskin
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: John Meehan. Based on play by Edward Knoblock.
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Daniel B. Cathcart, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Harold Arlen, E. Y. Harburg, Herbert Stothart
Cast: Ronald Colman (Hafiz), Marlene Dietrich (Jamilla), James Craig (Caliph), Edward Arnold (Mansur, the Grand Vizier), Joy Page (Marsinah), Florence Bates (Karsha), Yvonne De Carlo (Handmaiden).
C-101m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Deborah Looney