Kismet (1955) was a big flop when it was new, earning $1.8 million against a $3 million production cost, one of a handful of costly financial failures for MGM that year (It's Always Fair Weather, Jupiter's Darling, and Hit the Deck all lost money), though Kismet appears to have been the biggest financial loser. Previously filmed twice by Warner Bros., first as a 1920 silent film then as a 1930 early talkie, and then by MGM with better success in 1944, its Arabian Nights-type romance this time is an adaptation of the popular (583 performances) 1953 Broadway musical.
The movie version isn't bad, but it pales when compared to MGM's run of great ‘50s musicals: Royal Wedding, An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, etc. Virtually nothing about the film stands out. The cast is serviceable but everyone seems slightly miscast; the songs offer clever lyrics but with one or two exceptions aren't memorable; there are no outstanding dance numbers; the sets are colorful but the action within them is blandly photographed. It may be the only MGM musical where the costumes far outshine the musical numbers.
Warner Archive's Blu-ray of Kismet, filmed in CinemaScope and Eastman Color, looks about as good as it's ever going to get. The color is bright and the image is as sharp as the limitations of early ‘scope lenses will allow, while the 5.1 remix is robust. Included is a big batch of extra features, though many of these are disappointing as they source dated, technically inferior video masters.
In an only-in-Hollywood-imagined Baghdad, a Beggar Poet (Howard Keel) is kidnapped, whisked out into the desert and taken before brigand Jawan (Jay C. Flippen). Jawan, mistaking the Poet for a rival beggar named Haji, demands that a curse placed upon him 15 years before be lifted, a curse that separated the thief from a beloved son. The Poet, unable to convince Jawan that he's not Haji, finally agrees to reverse the curse, for which Jawan pays the Poet 100 pieces of gold.
Meanwhile, the Caliph (Vic Damone), wandering the city incognito with adviser Omar (Monty Woolley), meets the Poet's daughter, Marsinah (Ann Blyth). With her mistaking him for a gardener, the two fall instantly in love but are soon separated. Elsewhere, the evil Wazir (Sebastian Cabot) and favored wife Lalume (Dolores Grey) plot to instead have the Caliph marry one (or perhaps all three) princesses of the King of Abadu.
The Poet returns to Baghdad a rich man but is just as quickly arrested as a thief when the gold turns out to have been stolen. However, the Poet convinces the none-too-bright Wazir that he, the Poet, is a magician to avoid getting one of his hands chopped off. Further, Lalume is impressed by the Poet's ability to fool her foolish husband. But can the Poet escape the Wazir's determination to execute him, and thwart his efforts to stand between the Caliph and Marsinah's True Love?
Produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minnelli, Kismet plays much like a filmed stage performance, partly because of its faithfulness to the original Broadway source more than most MGM musicals (On the Town, for instance), despite several obvious concessions to the strict Production Code (i.e., material that had to be left out/altered from the stage version), and probably also because of the limitations of early CinemaScope. For instance, Joseph Ruttenberg's cinematography is completely dominated by wide and medium shots with few close-ups, but also there's a dearth of purely cinematic moments. The movie version clearly could have used some Thief of Bagdad-type doses of all-out fantasy and derring-do which Kismet lacks utterly.
The entire film was shot on the MGM lot. Even the desert scenes were obviously filmed there, with painted sky backdrops for all the exterior scenes, aided by a few matte shots. Much of this is effectively done, but other than obvious lavishness there is little to distinguish Kismet from other films of this type.
Alfred Drake had played the Beggar Poet on Broadway and Keel, who'd understudied Drake in the original Broadway production of Oklahoma!, was the obvious choice for the role in the film version. Keel had a fine singing voice but lacks the rascally charm the part requires, and the age difference between him and Ann Blyth (nine years) doesn't convince. Clearly, the film needed either a younger ingénue or older leading man.
Sebastian Cabot, in an early prominent role, inexplicably replaced Henry Calvin for the film version, but Cabot couldn't sing and the role had to be reworked slightly to accommodate him. He, too, is lacking something, neither as funny nor as menacing as the character ought to be. Dolores Gray, so wonderfully scene-stealing in the final act of It's Always Fair Weather, is better if amusingly out-of-place and resolutely ‘50s in appearance as Cabot's unlikely wife. A brassy and amusingly seductive performance, her singing voice is aptly described by one critic as "a freight train slathered in honey." Gray's costumes are equally outrageous, she looking like the Queen of Venus in Abbott & Costello Go to Mars. (I'm not certain of this, but I suspect several Kismet costumes turn up in the later Queen of Outer Space, a semi-remake of the Abbott & Costello picture, along with others originating with MGM's Forbidden Planet.)
The songs by Robert Wright and George Forrest, adapted from music by Alexander Borodin (most famously "Stranger in Paradise"), are clever in terms of their lyrics but few stand out; scenes from Kismet aren't prominently featured in any of MGM's later That's Entertainment! films.
Video & Audio
As a rule, MGM's CinemaScope films from 1954-56 tend to be pretty ugly pictorially. Even the studio's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) suffers mightily under the process. Kismet looks better than that in terms of the color (garish Agfa was used on Seven Brides) and the image is reasonably sharp if imperfect. Regardless, this Blu-ray presentation is probably the best Kismet has ever looked, and perhaps ever will. It's not clear if this was originally released in four-track magnetic stereo or merely with Perspecta Stereophonic Sound, but the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is good if lacking in directionality. English subtitles are offered.
Supplements are hit and miss. On the plus side are black-and-white outtakes from the beginning of "Rahadlakum" and audio for an entirely deleted song, "Rhythms Have I." Trailers for both MGM versions are included, as well as excerpts relating to the film on the studio's misbegotten MGM Parade TV show featuring George Murphy.
Disappointing though are two short subjects: the Tex Avery cartoon The First Bad Man and the epic CinemaScope three-reeler Gettysburg, both badly presented in standard-def. The latter, in 4:3 letterboxed format, is particularly unwatchable on today's generation of 16:9 high-def monitors.
Despite all these complaints about the film and the extra features, I'm still glad Warner Bros. saw fit to release this to Blu-ray. It was nearly the only ‘50s MGM musical I hadn't seen till now, owing to its poor reputation, something I suspect true of a lot of fans of the genre. The Blu-ray format puts the film in the best possible light and, though ultimately disappointed, I'm still grateful for the opportunity to see it this way and for what it is, with reservations, it's Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.