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The big Hollywood musical was on the decline when MGM produced Kismet, the lavish 1955 musical fantasy. On stage, Kismet had succeeded on the strength of its memorable music, a whimsical plot and the star presence of Broadway legend Alfred Drake. For the screen they kept the original score and trusted much of it to their own resident baritone, Howard Keel. But though his acting was more than enough to sell the material, something in the screen translation didn't click, turning whimsy into elephantine spectacle. Only Keel's scenes, particularly with leading lady Dolores Gray, suggest what a distinctive musical Kismet could have been.
Edward Knoblock's Arabian Nights fantasy about the beggar poet who uses his wits to rise to a position of power and influence in ancient Bagdad had provided star vehicles for Oscar Asche in London and Otis Skinner on Broadway in 1911. The play was filmed five times, twice with Skinner (a 1920 silent and a 1930 talking film). The most recent version had been an MGM production with Ronald Colman and Marlene Dietrich in 1944. The studio's top musical producer, Arthur Freed, was actually planning an original musical version of the material, with script and score by Alan Jay Lerner and Arthur Schwartz, when he discovered a musical drawing on the compositions of Alexander Borodin was being readied for Broadway.
Songwriters Bob Wright and Chet Forrest had scored a hit in 1944 with the operetta Song of Norway, whose score was adapted from the music of Edvard Grieg. They had had less success with musicals adapted from the works of Johann Strauss, Victor Herbert and Heitor Villa-Lobos. Then their friend, composer Vernon Duke, suggested they use Borodin's music as the basis for an adaptation of Knoblock's play. Before Kismet even opened, MGM began negotiating for the rights, eventually paying $125,000 for them. When the show became a hit, playing 584 performances and winning Tonys for Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical (Alfred Drake), that seemed like a sound investment. An added boost was the popularity of its biggest hit, "Stranger in Paradise," taken from Borodin's "Polovetsian Dances." The melody was already popular before the musical opened, having also inspired "My Fantasy," a hit for Artie Shaw and his Orchestra in 1940.
Freed signed the show's book writers, Charles Lederer and Luther Davis, to adapt the script, then turned to his top director Vincente Minnelli. To his surprise, however, Minnelli declined the film, claiming to have hated the stage version. Production head Dore Schary tried to pressure Minnelli and finally got him to make the film by agreeing to film a pet project of his, the Vincent Van Gogh biography Lust for Life (1956).
At one point, Freed had spoken of casting Ezio Pinza, but the studio went with Keel, who was already under contract. Keel had earlier followed Drake into the role of Curly in Oklahoma! on Broadway and had demonstrated that he had the acting chops for the flamboyant role, having scored in the film version of another Drake hit, Kiss Me Kate, in 1953. But at 36, he was a little too young for the role, particularly with the 27-year-old Ann Blyth cast as his daughter. Blyth's youthful love interest was to be Vic Damone, a pop singer who scored with many top forty hits, even if he lacked the acting skills needed for the stylized script. At least Keel got a powerful leading lady in Dolores Gray, who had recently signed a studio contract after a string of stage successes, including heading the London company of Annie Get Your Gun.
For choreographer, Freed turned to Jack Cole, who had won acclaim staging the dances for the play's stage version. Ironically, he had also staged Marlene Dietrich's seductive dance in MGM's earlier version of the story. Cole's problems started when it came time to stage "Not Since Nineveh," Gray's big number and one of the most complicated dance pieces in the film. Cole and arranger Johnny Green quarreled over the number, leading them to turn to Freed, who sided with the known quantity, Green. When the film was edited, Cole was disappointed to see some of his best choreography left on the cutting room floor.
Minnelli also had problems. After agreeing to make the film he had developed some enthusiasm by conceiving it as a fairy tale, with stylized sets and lighting. But during the actual filming, he was preoccupied with preparations for Lust for Life. As a result, he spent more time working on the set design than directing the actors. As production ground on, it became clear that what was turning up on screen was not some whimsical fantasy but a leaden comedy-drama. Only Keel and Gray had the proper tongue-in-cheek attitude to give him what he wanted, and their big numbers were clearly the film's highlights. When Kismet ran over schedule, Stanley Donen had to take over direction for the last three days and one day of re-takes because Minnelli was due in Europe to start Lust for Life.
The reviews of Kismet were mixed to dismal. Although they praised the film's opulence, the score and Keel's and Gray's performances, critics found the rest of the film lacking. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther said it was staged "...as though it were the marching orders for the Macy parade. It is brought forth with vast deliberation, it is full of much talking back and forth and it moves at a ponderous tempo, as though it is meant to give all the spectators a chance to see it fully as it goes by." Made for an estimated $2.6 million, Kismet only brought in $2.9 million worldwide, signaling the decline of the big studio musical. Following Brigadoon (1954) and the unjustly neglected It's Always Fair Weather (1955), it was the third Freed production in a row to under-perform at the box office.
In later years, Kismet has attracted attention among auteurists, who have studied it for signs of Minnelli's directorial personality, even while ranking it among his lesser works. The film also provides a footnote to entertainment history thanks to the presence in the cast of future television producer Aaron Spelling in an unbilled bit as a beggar. After making Kismet, the aspiring actor decided that he had no future in that field and moved behind the camera. In later years, Minnelli would joke that he was responsible for Spelling's spectacular career.
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay: Charles Lederer & Luther Davis
Based on the musical by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis and the play by Edward Knoblock
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction: E. Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons
Score: Andre Previn, Conrad Salinger
Principal Cast: Howard Keel (The Poet), Ann Blyth (Marsinah), Dolores Gray (Lalume), Vic Damone (The Caliph), Monty Woolley (Omar), Sebastian Cabot (Wazir), Jay C. Flippen (Jawan), Mike Mazurki (Chief Policeman), Jack Elam (Hassan-Ben), Ted de Corsia (Police Subaltern), Ross Bagdasarian (Fevvol), Barrie Chase (Harem Showgirl), Jamie Farr (Orange Merchant), Aaron Spelling (Beggar), Bruno VeSota (Wholesaler), Mel Welles (Beggar).
C-114m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller