by A.J. Hakari
Where musical theatre is concerned, broad is usually the name of the game. There isn’t much room for nuance when the stage is jam-packed with so many actors whose costumes are as loud as their voices. The visual and vocal bang you get for your buck often trumps such trivialities as subtlety, and if you’re dealing with a play steeped in a foreign culture, you can expect accuracy to jump ship, as well. To be fair, I wouldn’t go so far as to brand stuff like 1955’s Kismet as insensitive, not by a longshot. Sure, nowadays, it’s a touch iffy to see a whitewashed cast parade around in a jaunty riff on the “Arabian Nights” motif, but the overall tone is innocent to a tee, with not a hint of malice to be spotted in any of its doofy little frames. Of course, this doesn’t mean Kismet is any good either, for it finds itself ineffectually piling on as many eye-catching accoutrements as it can think of to make a story that’s been told countless times seem like something more.
Once upon a time in old Baghdad, there lived a poor poet (Howard Keel) and his daughter, Marsinah (Ann Blyth). Day in and day out, the wordsmith takes to the streets in hopes of someone buying his rhymes, but more often than not, he resorts to thievery just so he and his child can have breakfast. But on one extremely eventful day, fortune smiles upon the poet in the strangest of ways, as a case of mistaken identity leads him from getting shanghaied by desert brigands to being declared a wizard and awarded a small fortune. As our man gleefully indulges in his newfound riches, young Marsinah becomes smitten with a gardener (Vic Damone) who returns her affections. But unbeknownst to her, this lad is none other than the town Caliph, who proclaims that Marsinah will become his bride. This doesn’t jibe well with the Wazir (Sebastian Cabot), who needs to convince the Caliph to marry a trio of princesses in order to fill his own coffers. Everyone has something to hide in this world, and no one is who they seem, leading to a snowballing series of complications that makes sure that all these players take the long way around to get the happy endings they desire.
Fate and the many funny ways in which it can futz with our lives has been a dominant theme in theatre virtually ever since the medium came to be. You can plug it into any number of scenarios, be they of large-scale or small, humorous or dramatically-inclined. The makers of Kismet undoubtedly chose the former in both of these cases, and they reeled in as much talent as they could score to get it to work. Produced by Arthur Freed, directed by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Keel (the baritone-boasting headliner of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), this isn’t so much a movie as it is a convention for some of the greatest figures the MGM musical’s golden age had to offer. With all this experience behind the project and a hit Broadway show serving as its basis, there didn’t seem to be any way that Kismet could lose. But even with a confectionary visual palette and a perfectly well-composed soundtrack, the movie is hopelessly shackled to the very conventions that audiences of the era began to tire of seeing in their song-and-dance flicks. With so many plot conveniences to bail out characters when they’re in a fix and shove the narrative along, viewers never get a chance to experience anything close to suspense; if all present problems will be a memory in five minutes anyway, why even bother caring?
One could argue that this is the entire point of Kismet, that anyone’s fortunes can change for the better or the worse at any given moment. That everything on the film’s sizable docket of events take place within a single day further hammers home the joke, forcing you to loosen up that good old disbelief a bit more when it comes to accepting subplots like the Caliph and Marsinah’s whirlwind romance. The fairy tale-style setting definitely helps in this department, as does the fact that everyone looks like they’re having a grand time prancing about in some of the boldest colors that MGM ever conjured on the screen. Keel is big, boisterous, and heartfelt as our nameless hero, who uses his gift with words to sweet-talk his way out of imminent danger on more than a couple occasions. Blyth and Damone are an appealing pair of young lovers, and Cabot gets some laughs as the greedy Wazir. But as high as the cast’s collective spirits are, concern for what comes of their characters rarely lasts beyond however long they’re on screen, with the pleasant but utterly disposable tunes they’re tasked with performing failing to help them leave an impression.
Kismet was part of a dying breed when it came out, and it showed in its box office returns. Costing the tidy sum of $3 million, it brought in a little over half as much from theaters, signaling the start of peoples’ growing taste for musicals with increased substance and more modern twists. In the end, Kismet killed no careers (Minnelli would win an Oscar for directing Gigi three years later) and isn’t an unbearable watch in the least, but even in a genre notorious for letting its head get lost in the clouds, there is such a thing as being too much of a trifle.
(Kismet is available to purchase on Blu-ray through the Warner Archive Collection.)