powered by AFI
According to information in the M-G-M and Arthur Freed Collections at the USC Cinema-Television Library, M-G-M first became interested in adapting the Broadway musical version of Kismet as early as December 6, 1953, a few weeks prior to the musical's Broadway opening. Memos in the files indicate that by mid-December 1953, M-G-M sought to secure the rights to the musical and make certain that the studio retained all rights to the original Edward Knoblock play, which the studio had adapted in 1944.
Hollywood Reporter news items in February and April 1953 noted that Freed was intending to produce a new version of Kismet that would potentially star Ezio Pinza and Cyd Charisse, with a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner and Arthur Schwartz. Although Lerner and Schwartz were initially involved in story conferences for what became the 1955 musical film, Charles Lederer and Luther Davis, who wrote the libretto for the Broadway show, were hired to adapt their work for the screen on September 29, 1954. File memos seem to indicate that the February and April 1953 Hollywood Reporter news items refer to an earlier attempt by Freed to base a new Kismet film on the Knoblock play, but as word of the Broadway musical spread, he decided instead to use the Lederer-Davis libretto as the basis for the film.
File memos confirm that Cesare Siepi tested for the role of "Poet" and that Robert Morley was sought for the role of "Caliph" but was unavailable due to scheduling conflicts. A Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Sono Osato tested for the role of "Zubbediya" and that Ned Packer would be in the cast, although his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. A Hollywood Reporter news item noted that actress Tina Louise was to have made her motion picture debut in Kismet, but information in the M-G-M files indicate that she left the production by mutual consent and did not appear in the released film.
Although Robert Wright and George Forrest's music for the Broadway show was based on themes by Alexander Borodin, two of the songs in the film, "Bored" and "Rahadlakum," were not based on Borodin's work. "Bored" and "My Magic Lamp" were new Wright-Forrest songs purchased by M-G-M for the picture, although "My Magic Lamp" was not in the released film. One song from the Broadway show that was mentioned in publicity for the film, "Rhymes Have I," was to be sung by Howard Keel as Poet and Ann Blyth as "Marsinah," but was not in the released film. Instead, some of the lyrics are spoken by Poet while strains of the music are briefly heard in the background. A few other songs from the Broadway show, including "Was I Wazir" and "Zubbediya," were not in the film.
The song "Stranger in Paradise" became the musical's biggest hit. Its origins were from the "Polovetsian Dances" in the opera Prince Igor, music and libretto by Borodin, and completed by Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov after Borodin's death. The piece was first performed at the opera's St. Petersburg, Russia premiere on November 4, 1890. The melody also became the basis for the 1940 hit instrumental "My Fantasy," performed by Artie Shaw and his orchestra.
Jack Cole, who staged the dance numbers for the film, also created the dances for the Broadway musical. Dancer Reiko Sato recreated her role as one of the princesses from Ababu. In addition, male dancers Jack Dodds and Marc Wilder, whose dancing was featuring in various numbers in the film, were also principal dancers in the Broadway show.
As noted in the New York Times review, the name of the main character, known as Hajj in the earlier versions of the play, musical play and films, was somewhat altered in the film. In the 1951 film, the main character is only known as "Poet," although a running theme is that he is mistaken for the beggar poet Hajj. According to memos in the Freed collection, Hajj was the name that Arabs gave to the pilgrims [as well as the pilgrimage] to Mecca and it was thought that the name would give offence to audiences in "Near Eastern countries." Other file memos indicate that several lines of dialogue, prayers and character names were changed to avoid offence to Arab audiences.
According to memos in the Freed Collection, when M-G-M production head Dore Schary submitted the story to the PCA, PCA head Joseph I. Breen found it to be generally acceptable but pointed out two areas of the Broadway play that would not be approved for the film: First, "Of primary importance is the manner in which the Poet disposes of the Wazir during the closing scenes of the play. The killing of the Wazir is, in fact, a justified and unpunished murder..." The second point concerned "the light manner in which they [Poet and Lalume] are considering an immoral relationship." In the final film, the Wazir does not drown, as he did in the play, but is revived, leading to a threatened punishment of Poet. The potential physical relationship between Lalume and Poet is always prevented in the film by the appearance of other characters at critical moments. A final warning from Breen was that any rendition within the film of the song "Gesticulate," "should not have any vulgar or unacceptable gestures."
According to the files, the production cost $2,692,960, $9,100 over its first estimated budget. Because the production also ran a few days beyond schedule, director Stanley Donen had to take over for the last three or four days of the production, plus one day of additional shooting, when Vincente Minnelli had to leave for Europe to begin work on his next film, Lust for Life (see below). According to an M-G-M press release, the first preview for the film was held at the Fox Theatre in Riverside, CA, on September 29, 1955. Most of the preview audience rated the film either "Excellent" or "Very Good." Although the film received generally favorable notices, it received no Academy Award nominations and was not among M-G-M's box office hits of the year. According to a Daily Variety news item, in 1989, the Frank Music Corp. and Robert Wright sued M-G-M over the studio's licensing of portions of Kismet for the stage show Hallelujah Hollywood, stating that their original agreement only authorized use of the material for the film Kismet. According to the item, the plaintiffs won the suit.
Kismet was the last film made by actor Monty Woolley (1888-1963), who did not begin his screen career until 1937 and is most famously known for his Broadway and film portrayal of the lead character in The Man Who Came to Dinner (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50 ). For information on other adaptations of Knoblock's play and the Lederer-Davis musical, please consult the entry for M-G-M's 1944, William Dieterle-directed film Kismet, starring Ronald Colman and Marlene Dietrich in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50.