Wednesday, June 11, 2014

KISMET: Blu-ray (MGM 1955) Warner Archive Collection

In the mid-1930’s Hollywood hungered for exoticism; discovering it in the remotest regions of the world; a lot of fanciful accounts made by adventurist and author, Rudyard Kipling. India was a favorite of Hollywood’s then (Egypt too); the elixir of mystery lingering to a lesser extent throughout the 1940’s before being rekindled in full flourish throughout the mid-1950’s; only then, with a more critical re-examination of British colonial imperialism. Vincente Minnelli’s Kismet (1955) isn’t particularly concerned with such critiques, owing its aegis to an even older chestnut dangling off the vine; the musical operetta. Loosely, Kismet – the movie – is based on the Broadway smash, co-authored by Robert Wright and George Forrest who, in adapting the legendary orchestrations of composer, Alexander Borodin, also cribbed heavily from the 1944 non-musical adaptation made by MGM from a book by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis; itself, based on Kismet - a play by Edward Knoblock, dating all the way back to 1911. Whew…a hand-me-down history, indeed!
Alas, for this version of the time-honored war horse, kismet was decidedly against Kismet; the Lederer/Davis screenplay beginning to creak at its narrative joints with ennui, exacerbated by Vincente Minnelli’s dire lack of interest in the project. Minnelli had been promised Lust For Life – the biopic of Vincent Van Gogh; a project he desperately wanted to do. At the last possible moment, production chief, Dore Schary delayed Minnelli’s start to have him helm this weighty tome instead. Belligerently pushing on, Minnelli attacked Kismet with fervor (though no passion), simply to get the damn thing done. In retrospect, Kismet is emphatically a rush job on Minnelli’s part; his sloppiness masked by E. Preston Ames’ lavish production values. It’s a shame too, because Howard Keel has never been better, flanked by Vic Damone, Ann Blyth and the delectable Dolores Gray, the latter cast as the sultry she-wolf in lamb’s clothing, Lalume.
MGM afforded Kismet more time, money and talent than any two of its musicals put together in 1955. Sadly, Kismet had everything it could possibly need, except a director’s indulgences and personal touch to make even a competent stab at generating luscious sparks of cinematic excellence. Minnelli knows better and has proven he could do better – even at a moment’s notice. The fact, he chose to undercut his responsibilities on Kismet, simply to expedite his next project into pre-production, speaks rather badly of his commitments to MGM; unless, of course, one equally regards how the studio took advantage of Minnelli’s desire to make Lust for life by bribing him with this movie project first. Perhaps it is of little value to debate the issue. For all its accoutrements, or perhaps because of them, Kismet is a colossal disappointment; failing to recapture and bottle its Arabian nights show magic in any sort of palpable way.
The songs - all lovely - are lovingly rendered by the principle cast; with Howard Keel’s rich baritone magnificently benefiting ‘Rhymes Have I’ and ‘Fate’; also Dolores Gray’s electrifying rendition of ‘Not Since Nineveh’ – bawdy and delicious. In retrospect, it is Minnelli’s disenchantment with the material that proves the distraction; Kismet’s perplexingly leaden and incongruous blend of comedy/drama unraveling the entire show; robbed of its Arabian nights’ exotica or even Minnelli’s own initial aspirations to transform the stage show into a lavishly appointed fairy tale. Only Howard Keel manages to escape the movie’s tedium, his performance every bit as nuanced as Broadway’s Alfred Drake – perhaps even more so – and something of a revelation for Keel, whose promise had yet to be fulfilled, despite appearing in such stellar musicals as Lovely To Look At, Show Boat and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers – among others.
After Kismet ran over schedule, Minnelli willingly handed over the reins to Stanley Donen who could do little except wrap up the odds and ends: also, re-shoot a few key scenes.  Viewing Kismet today is a bittersweet occasion. For all its discernible treasures, the film is a vacuous box of goodies, lacking the essential whimsy to buoy its musical fantasy. It should have worked; Edward Knoblock's intriguing tale of a sly beggar/poet rising to affluence within the ancient court of Bagdad’s Grand Wazir, the stage hit had many admirers along the way, and even more successes, beginning with Oscar Asche’s London debut, almost immediately followed by Otis Skinner’s Broadway incarnation (both in 1911). Filmed no less than five times, MGM’s glossy 1944 escapist Technicolor yarn was played as straight melodrama, costarring Ronald Colman and Marlene Dietrich. Yet here too, MGM had only marginal success with the property – hardly the anticipated box office dynamo. Still, the studio’s wunderkind producer, Arthur Freed believed in the story’s potential, enough to begin preparations on an original musical adaptation for the screen to be scored by Alan Jay Lerner and Arthur Schwartz. Unluckily, Freed was to learn too late such plans were already underway on Broadway, using Alexander Borodin’s compositions. Hence, even before the stage musical opened, Freed entered into negotiations to produce Kismet as a movie. Again, it might have worked – particularly if Freed had acquired the rights earlier – or rather – had the opportunity to pursue Kismet in the late 1940’s; the last hurrah of MGM’s grand musical extravagances.
By 1955, MGM was hardly in a position to haggle or produce this sort of sumptuous screen spectacle that, only a few years earlier, had been the studio’s main staple. Nevertheless, Freed pursued the property, perhaps out of ego or even naiveté, the public’s appetite for such diversions having already moved on. This all-pervasive and very malignant reluctance to change with the times would remain problematic for Metro, particularly after Dore Schary’s ousting just one year after Kismet’s release and the ever-revolving line of executives who came and went without any genuine understanding of the studio’s formidable resources or how to utilize them best. The Hollywood musical was equally in a bad way and MGM’s top-heavy cavalcade of seasoned musical stars seemed destined for a fall.   
On the screen, Kismet remains big and bloated, with only Howard Keel and Dolores Gray offering veiled hints as to how unusual and captivating it all might have been. Ambitiously, producer Arthur Freed briefly contemplated hiring Ezio Pinza, before settling on Keel as his star; a decidedly solid second choice.  At thirty-six, Keel was perhaps too young to be believed as the father of Marsinah (played by twenty-seven year old Ann Blyth). Still, in his curled moustache and goatee, Keel manages to convey paternal love, leaving the more robust love-making to Vic Damone – the studio’s latest talent acquisition and a fetchingly handsome Caliph besides. Arthur Freed entrusted Jack Cole to choreograph the numbers; the decision only partly motivated by the fact Cole had staged Marlene Dietrich’s memorable veil and gold-legged dance of seduction in 1944’s Kismet. Regrettably, conflict arose when Cole and musical arranger, Johnny Green clashed over Dolores Gray’s ‘Not Since Nineveh’; Freed siding with Green, leaving Cole utterly deflated to discover most of his intricate choreography left on the cutting room floor.
As reconstituted by screen scenarists, Charles Lederer and Luther Davis, the plot remains as convoluted as it is wafer thin; woefully undernourished; beginning with an impoverished and nameless beggar/poet (Howard Keel) trading his gift of rhymes for food in the market square. Begging in a spot usually reserved for the mysterious poet, Hajj, the beggar is given alms by Omar (Monty Woolley), advisor to the Caliph (Vic Damone), before being forcibly removed by men loyal to Jawan (Jay C. Flippen). A case of mistaken identity develops whereby Jawan believes the beggar to be the real Hajj, responsible for placing a curse on his house that resulted in the disappearance of his only son. Seizing upon this opportunity for exploitation the beggar lies to Jawan, pretending to remove the curse before instructing Jawan to return to the city of Baghdad to search for his lost child. As recompense for his mercy, the beggar is paid a handsome stipend in gold.
Meanwhile in Baghdad, Lalume (Dolores Gray), favorite wife of the Wazir (Sebastian Cabot), returns to inform her husband the King of Ababu has agreed to make necessary financial provisions to sustain their kingdom; that is, provided the Caliph marries one of the King’s three daughters. Is the Caliph made to be traded like a prized bull in the market square? For the honor, sanctity and preservation of the family’s heritage – apparently, yes. By a gracious whim of…well… ‘fate’, the Caliph, who has been traveling incognito, accidentally meets the beggar’s daughter, Marsinah (Ann Blyth), who is fair beyond compare. Naturally, he is struck by her beauty and the two begin to fall in love, though she mistakes him for a gardener. Using the gold given by Jawan to feather his daughter’s prospects for a rich husband, the beggar is arrested and charged in the Wazir’s court for thievery. When it is revealed Jawan is actually the Wazir’s son – a new threat, since the Caliph has announced he will marry Marsinah (thus depriving the kingdom of its dowry from the King of Ababu) – the Wazir imprisons Jawan and begs the beggar to remove this ‘latest curse’ from his household; a request the beggar is only too happy to oblige…for a fee.
The central theme of Kismet is inherent in its title; the inescapable ‘fate’ that meddles in all our lives – an invisible power, often benevolent, though occasionally ruthless in its dictates, cursed and/or blessed by its ethereal sway. Brought before the Wazir on another charge, Jawan is forced to confirm the beggar’s story, recognizing the amulet worn around the Wazir’s neck. It belonged to his long lost son. In the meantime, the Caliph announces he will marry Marsinah that evening. Knowing this will put an end to the badly needed loan from the King, the Wazir agree to make the beggar an Emir if he will release the family – again, from ‘the curse’.  Lalume begins to realize she and the beggar share the same temperament. Alas, in order the spare his own life, the beggar must force his daughter to give up the only man she has ever loved. Fleeing into the night with her father, Marsinah breaks the Caliph’s heart.
Nothing would give the Wazir greater relief than to see the beggar dead. However, Lalume convinces her husband to pursue the beggar’s rumored supernatural powers to his own advantage. Meanwhile, the beggar confides in Lalume his concerns for Marsinah’s safety and she agrees to harbor her in the Wazir’s harem for her own protection. Instead, the Wazir realizes Marsinah is the Caliph’s beloved. However, as she is in his harem she now belongs to him and cannot marry. Instead, the Wazir intends to wed her for himself. Confiding his intensions to the beggar, who realizes the Caliph and Marsinah are desperately in love, the beggar performs a trick and the Wazir is held under water in his pool.
As he struggles for air, the beggar asks the Caliph what manner of sentence the law would ascribe to a murderer who had cost him his bride. When the Caliph answers ‘death’, the beggar tells him such a sentence has already been carried out. Alas, the Wazir is still very much alive, ordering his guards to apprehend the beggar and sentence him to death. Lalume reveals all to the Caliph, who – as the future sovereign - puts the Wazir to death, though equally, is forced by the law to exile the beggar from his court. The beggar agrees, his bittersweet separation from his only child softened slightly by his arrangement to marry the newly widowed Lalume, knowing the Caliph will take good care of Marsinah.
Properly executed, Kismet might have lived up to its namesake as an ethereal fable. Instead, the movie is grounded by the severity of its pedestrian plotting; also by Minnelli’s interminably static master shots. We are never drawn into the story, primarily because of Minnelli’s failed staging. What is particularly distressing about Kismet is its abundance of stellar production values. These have been inexplicably squandered by Minnelli. E. Preston Ames' art direction isn't so much flawed as underexposed by Minnelli's inability to move his camera in precise and meaningful ways. In some instances, it is as though we are viewing the action from the proscenium of a live theater, while at other equally as inexplicable instances, Minnelli cuts to a close-up. Upon its release, Kismet was excoriated by the critics, its visual tedium and Minnelli’s ponderous tempo alienating all of its finely crafted artistry.
At a cost of $2.6 million, Kismet barely grossed $2.9 million; its marginal success the first shot off the bow Metro chose to ignore. Alas, Hollywood musicals had suddenly fallen out of favor, not altogether, but with increasing regularity. They would continue to become more of a gamble than profit center for the studio. Kismet was swiftly followed by Brigadoon (1954) and It's Always Fair Weather (1955); Freed’s hat trick of three under-performing musicals slowly drawing his galvanic reign at MGM to a close.  The real golden years had ended without anyone even realizing it. Over the years, auteurists have tried to lump Kismet into Minnelli’s body of work, hoping against hope for any sign of the director’s trademarked brilliance. Sadly, Kismet defies such classification. It utterly lacks the beguiling qualities of Minnelli’s other masterworks; the undisputed red-headed stepchild in Minnelli’s formidable canon of classy, classic musical offerings.
MGM, the studio once boasting ‘more stars than there are in heaven’ hastened its own decline on the heels of Kismet’s failure by continuing to pump out musicals that failed to capture the popular zeitgeist and imagination. Costs were up and production decidedly down. Worse, 1955 marked an end to the studio’s star system. Expiring contracts were not renewed; talent now underused, being hired on a picture-by-picture basis.  The musical - the most costly of all genres to produce, had suddenly become precariously unstable and a liability rather than an asset. Today, Kismet seems like a textbook example of all that was wrong with the Hollywood musical in particular and studio system in general back then. However, it is important to remember it was begun with higher aspirations; handcrafted by artisans who – apart from Minnelli – were toiling at the top of their game. That the outcome failed to gel is entirely Minnelli’s cross to bear, for he never embraced the project with his same level of commitment that had made his name in the genre. Bad timing, lousy directing and changing audience tastes all conspired to deprive Kismet of its legacy. It ought to have been a triumph for MGM. Alas, Kismet – t’was not to be.
To see Kismet arrive on Blu-ray is a minor curiosity. Several years ago, WB’s V.P. George Feltenstein was quoted as saying creative types should never be in charge of deciding home video output, for they would choose personal favorites over guaranteed moneymakers and thus bankrupt the enterprise. In light of Kismet’s hi-def debut, however, I am left wondering whose personal favorite Kismet is; for there could be no other reason for its’ arrival ahead of such regularly requested musicals as High Society, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Band Wagon and Anchors Aweigh. If Kismet is remembered at all today it is as an artistic lemon.
But wait: there’s good news for fans. Kismet looks ravishing on Blu-ray. Warner’s archive division has given us another superior 1080p transfer. It positively sparkles. The Eastman color looks glorious; contrast, bang on and with an exquisite amount of accurately reproduced grain to boot. Better still, the image exhibits startling clarity and hardly a hint of age-related damage. While Kismet’s entertainment value remains questionable, I cannot deny this is a very fine looking visual presentation. Kismet’s audio is even more impressive. Sourced in DTS 5.0 from original six track magnetic stereo elements, the film’s sound field is astonishingly aggressive. Wow!  Warner pads out this disc with the same short subjects and deleted musical sequence that accompanied its 2003 release on DVD.  Bottom line: highly recommended for quality.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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