As Warners dig deeper into the MGM musical catalogue, the pickings get slimmer....

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

When Warners acquired the rights to MGM's early films, they got some of the most-famous musicals in Hollywood history. In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, MGM studios were making the biggest, splashiest musicals around, so it's no wonder that WB are on their third volume of MGM productions. "Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory," Volume 3, offers up nine more MGM song-and-dance films, available in a big box set on six DVDs, with three of the discs offering double features.

As Warners dig deeper into the MGM musical catalogue, the pickings get slimmer, I have to admit, and the selections in Volume 3 may not be the greatest films of all time. Still they are lighthearted musical extravaganzas, and for musical-comedy fans, I don't suppose there is ever such a thing as too much.

First, let me tell you what the box set contains, and then I'll concentrate the remainder of the review on the most-lavish production in the collection, "Kismet." In more-or-less chronological order, we have the double-feature discs "Broadway Melody of 1936" (1935) and "Broadway Melody of 1938" (1937); "Born to Dance" (1936) and "Lady Be Good" (1941); and "Nancy Goes to Rio" (1950) and "Two Weeks With Love" (1950). Then we have the single discs of "Deep in My Heart" (1954), "Hit the Deck" (1955), and the subject of today's review, "Kismet" (1955), which I chose to watch again after almost fifty years. I remember liking it when I was a youngster, and I wanted to see how well it held up.

When MGM bought the musical rights to "Kismet," the project didn't look as though it could possibly fail. They choose a surefire Broadway hit, filled with themes by classical composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), with a screen adaptation by Robert Wright and George Forrest. They persuaded Arthur Freed ("Ziegfeld Follies," "Easter Parade," "Annie Get Your Gun," "Show Boat," "An American in Paris," "Singin' in the Rain") to produce it. They got Vincente Minnelli ("Meet Me in St. Louis," "The Pirate," "An American in Paris," "Band Wagon," "Brigadoon") to direct it. They got Howard Keel, Ann Blyth, Dolores Gray, and Vic Damone to star in it. And they filmed it in widescreen CinemaScope color, with a multichannel soundtrack.

I'm not sure what went wrong.

Maybe it was just me. Maybe I had changed after all these years. In any case, "Kismet" seems lifeless and dull to me now, with only occasional glimpses of pluck in the performances of Howard Keel and Dolores Gray.

The story is an Arabian Nights tale of a penniless poet and his beautiful young daughter who get mixed up with court intrigue in the palace of the handsome young Caliph of Bagdad. On the one hand it's a story of love at first sight, and on the other hand it's a story of fate (or "kismet"), coincidences, mistaken identities, and evil doers.

The idea Broadway writers Charles Lederer and Luther Davis had was to add the music of Borodin to a non-musical stage play, "Kismet," by Edward Knoblock. They filled the story with passages from Borodin's Symphony Nos. 1 and 2, "In the Steppes of Central Asia," the String Quartet No. 2, and the overture and "Polovtsean Dances" from "Prince Igor." Then, Robert Wright and George Forrest adapted the stage play to the screen for Minnelli to direct. However, somewhere in the translation, something got lost.

In part, I would hold Minnelli to blame for filming the movie as though it were still a stage play. His camera is much too static, pretty much shooting everything in medium shots, with little change of direction and an unvarying pace. I'm not one to suggest quick edits or oddball camera angles, but a little variety and imagination might have done wonders for this production.

In another way, I would hold the original Broadway musical to blame for placing songs and dances in the story that seem to spring out of nowhere. As musicals became more sophisticated over the next decade or so, the musical numbers evolved naturally from the plot and characters; here, they seem to be pleasant afterthoughts. So we wait patiently through the thin story line for the music to come, and if you don't like the music, you're in real trouble.

Furthermore, there's another problem, this one in the casting. Veteran stage performer Howard Keel ("Annie Get Your Gun," "Show Boat," "Kiss Me Kate") is quite good as the glib con-artist poet, with a strong voice and a mischievous manner, and Dolores Gray is up to par as the conniving wife of the Wazir with an eye for the poet, but they alone cannot carry the show. As the poet's daughter and as the sneaky Wazir, Ann Blyth and Sebastian Cabot are merely adequate; and as the Caliph, Vic Damone is downright wooden. In fact, it is Damone more than anyone who brings the show to a halt almost every time he's on screen. Damone was just coming into his own as a successful pop singer of the day, and one cannot blame MGM for wanting to capitalize on the man's popularity. Moreover, Damone would mature into a fine actor in time; this just wasn't the time.

"Kismet" does provide a few things of interest to watch and listen for, though. The songs "Stranger in Paradise" and "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads" stand out; the settings and scenery are sometimes spectacular; and Jamie Farr has a bit part as a fruit peddler early on that reminds us that he's older than a lot of us probably realized. 5/10

The earliest movies in the set, "Broadway Melody of 1936," "Broadway Melody of 1938," "Born to Dance," and "Lady Be Good," are in standard-screen and black-and-white; the early 50's films, "Nancy Goes to Rio" and "Two Weeks With Love," are in standard-screen and color; and the later films, "Deep in My Heart," "Hit the Deck," and "Kismet" are in widescreen and color. Now, let me tell you about "Kismet." WB's anamorphic widescreen reproduction of the 2.40:1-ratio CinemaScope image is quite clean, free of age marks or transfer noise. However, the hues seem slightly veiled, looking a little tired. One always wishes for a frame-by-frame restoration in these things, with color correction and all, but, of course, that would be far too costly for a film like this one that is only a part of a larger collection. What we get is natural enough, if not always so vivid as it could be, given how colorful the production is. Definition is a bit on the soft side, too, so let's say the picture is inoffensive at best.

The first six earliest films have Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtracks, "Deep in My Heart" has a Dolby Digital 5.0 track, and "Hit the Deck" and "Kismet" sport 5.1 tracks. With "Kismet," Warner Bros. offer two soundtracks in English: the original four-track theatrical mix in Dolby Digital 5.0 and a newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1. I have to admit that the DD 5.1 rendition sounds pretty good for its age, a little hard and metallic in some areas, though generally smooth. It displays an excellent left-to-right stereo spread, with a pleasant ambient bloom in the surrounds. The sound is not especially realistic, but it is appealing.

Each of the movies in collection contains a number of extras, which vary from disc to disc. Among the items you can expect are vintage short subjects, classic cartoons, deleted or alternate musical numbers, outtakes, radio programs, ample scene selections, original theatrical trailers, and spoken languages and subtitles in English, French, and sometimes Portuguese. Each disc comes housed in a Super Slim translucent case, the cases further enclosed in a handsome metalized cardboard box.

Specific to "Kismet," things begin with the thirty-minute short subject "The Battle of Gettysburg" (1955), written and produced by Dory Schary, narrated by Leslie Nielsen, and filmed at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Next, we have the MGM Technicolor cartoon "The First Bad Man" (1955), directed by Tex Avery. Following that are two excerpts from the black-and-white "MGM Parade" television show (1955) previewing "Kismet," with George Murphy and Howard Keel. After that is a two-minute deleted harem scene from "Kismet" in black-and-white and an audio-only outtake, "Rhymes Have I." The bonuses conclude with a trailer for this 1955 "Kismet" as well as another for the 1944 version with Ronald Colman and Marlene Dietrich; thirty-one scene selections but no chapter insert; English and Portuguese spoken languages; and English, French, and Portuguese subtitles.

Parting Shots:
Fans of musical comedies will find a good deal here to entertain them, given the sheer number of films involved in the collection. Yet I'm afraid only a couple of the movies held much interest for me personally, those exceptions being "Born to Dance" and "Lady Be Good," which at least contain some good tunes and plenty of spirit. "Kismet" in particular disappointed me because I hadn't seen it since I was kid, and somehow it seemed a lot more fun back then. Different age, different time.


Film Value