Kismet (1944) by matthew c. hoffman

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The first film series I ever programmed was the William Dieterle retrospective at the LaSalle Bank Theatre revival house in Chicago. One of the films of his I wanted to show was Kismet (1944). Dieterle had made an earlier German version of it in 1931 for First National. But the 1944 version was unavailable and it wasn’t until years later that I saw it on video. It didn’t make an impression on me until I saw it again recently. Last week TCM played it as part of their month-long look at how Arabs are portrayed on film. At the time, MGM consciously tried not to offend Muslims by instilling a “new world awareness” into the production. Though it’s relevant today for being one of the few Hollywood films to present a positive image of Arabs, its greater relevance is that it offers one of Colman’s most enjoyable performances in the 1940s. He dominates this visually-striking, Arabian Nights-type fairy tale.

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Colman plays Hafiz, the King of Beggars, who disguises himself at night as a prince– a prince of liars. He keeps his daughter Marsinah (Joy Ann Page) walled in so that one day her prince can batter it down. “The fairy tale always comes true” is his golden promise to her. Meanwhile, the Caliph (James Craig) disguises himself as a gardener’s son so that he can seek out truth in the streets of Bagdad. Unbeknownst to Hafiz, the Caliph has fallen in love with Marsinah.

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Hafiz romances Jamilla (Marlene Dietrich), his “lady of the moonlight’ who dances in a harem of the Grand Vizier (Edward Arnold). The Vizier is an enemy of the Caliph and has already made one assassination attempt on the Arabian ruler’s life. Hafiz is determined not to allow his young rose to bloom for a mere camel boy, so in the Vizier he sees an opportunity to “tie his chariot to such a star” and keep his promise to his daughter. Hafiz poses as a prince in the hope of offering Marsinah to the second most powerful man in Bagdad. However, when Hafiz is exposed as a thief and threatened with mutilation and death, he makes a desperate offer to the Vizier. He will kill the Caliph himself… if his daughter is made Queen in the Vizier’s court.

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Kismet is uplifting entertainment made all the more enjoyable by the lively performance of Ronald Colman. (His good friend, William Powell, was first cast in the role.) Colman really seems to enjoy playing a beggar/magician. His enthusiasm for the role, in turn, makes us feel good. This was his first film since Random Harvest, and at this time in his career he did not want to make any war films. (He was already doing his part for the war effort on radio as well as touring for the war bond drive.) He wanted to instead do something that was pure escapism. Though some suggest he was miscast in the role, his characterization reminds us of the poet-vagabond Francois Villon in If I Were King (1938). It’s really not that much of a stretch for Colman. The ending to Kismet recalls Villon’s fate in the earlier (and superior) film.

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Colman took over a role made famous by another actor, Otis Skinner, who had appeared in Kismet on both stage and in film. But today no one remembers Otis Skinner. We’re grateful people remember Ronald Colman, as when TCM devotes a whole day to his work. It’s Colman’s presence in this film that makes this version the one to seek out. There was a musical Kismet a decade later starring Howard Keel, which I have no interest in seeing. But it would’ve been interesting if the 1944 film had allowed Colman the opportunity to sing. Though he performs no songs, he does speak wonderful, witty dialogue that allows for humor. The screenplay, based on Edward Knoblock’s original 1911 play, was written by John Meehan and has many light-hearted moments which Colman takes full advantage of.

This was Colman’s first film in color– and what a brilliant use of it. The film was photographed in lush Technicolor by Charles Rosher. The cinematography would be nominated for an Academy Award. There is a richness in its color scheme with deep blues and reds. There are strong contrasts of blue and gold, gold and black, black and red, and red and blue. The women in the Grand Vizier’s court wear an assortment of yellow, orange, and pink.

The sets were by the legendary set designer Cedric Gibbons, who designed the sort of fantasy world that’s reminiscent of The Thief of Bagdad. Though obviously studio-bound, its artificial quality conjures a dream of Old Arabia. The busy marketplace is one of many sets that stand out. This is the kind of production that was meant to be seen theatrically– not in piecemeal on youtube. Films like this take on a whole new dimension when they are bigger than you. The art direction was nominated as well for an Academy Award.

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The musical score by Herbert Stothart was nominated too. One can tell this was the same man who had composed The Wizard of Oz. There are a couple musical cues that are fleetingly similar to compositions in the 1939 film. There’s enough there to suggest a connection. Kismet would also be nominated for sound.

If Kismet is remembered at all today it’s for Marlene Dietrich. Its most famous scene is the one in which she dances with gilded legs for the court. The choreography, however, is far from golden, and her overall performance as Jarmilla is rather cold. She’s a weak leading lady for Colman as she’s more decoration than anything else– especially in the wake of Greer Garson. Author Sam Frank points out that except for one scene, Dietrich never looks at Colman directly!

Joy Ann Page portrays Hafiz’s daughter, Marsinah. She was actually Jack Warner’s step-daughter. Her career was never very distinguished, and she is perhaps best known for her role as the young wife in Casablanca.

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The weakest casting link is James Craig as the “yahoo” Caliph. His character has a strength in that he does not fear the Vizier, but as soon as Craig opens his mouth with that modern, Southern drawl the illusion is shattered. (Richard Carlson was first cast in this role.) Craig had been much better as Jabez Stone in William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). This truly great American film remains my favorite of all of Dieterle’s work. Interestingly enough, it also stars Edward Arnold as Senator Daniel Webster. Dieterle reunites both in Kismet. There are also fine character actors in the MGM film such as Harry Davenport, Hugh Herbert, and in a smaller role, Charles Middleton. Though he’s uncredited, that’s the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan, narrating the “Once upon a time” prologue.

I wouldn’t rank Kismet as one of Colman’s top films– not even in the Top 20– but it deserves more exposure than what it’s received. It’s really a beautiful film to watch, and if seen theatrically, it would be all the more magical. One of my favorite moments is the shot of Colman’s eyes as he sadly reflects upon a problem he doesn’t have an answer for. Imagining moments like that on a screen 20 feet tall in front of you is to know the power of film. Actors who have been gone a long time suddenly are alive in a way that can’t be duplicated anywhere else. Suddenly the film’s power to captivate and take you to another world of imagination is on a level with any summer blockbuster out right now. The difference is, the memory of the summer blockbusters fade after a week or two, but the Colman films are truly immortal, even these lesser ones.

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~ by mchoffman on August 8, 2011.

2 Responses to “Kismet (1944) by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. Dixon Smith here, author of Ronald Colman, Gentleman of the Cinema (1991). A member of the society once asked under what circumstances a picture is officially declared lost. I would like to address this issue. A film is considered lost when the studio that produced it no longer has a copy, and, more importantly, when none of the world’s film archives possess a copy. When my book was in press, making it impossible to add newly discovered information, it came to light that several lost Colman pictures had in fact been rediscovered. I had already known that Raymond Rohauer owned Constance Talmadge’s 35mm copies of both of the 1925 comedies that Colman had made with her, but as Rohauer was known to be litigious, I was urged not to reveal the fact that he had promised to screen Her Night of Romance and Her Sister from Paris for me but then failed to do so. The copies used to produce the Kino double feature of these two comedies came not from the Rohauer estate, but, rather, copies that had surfaced in New Zealand. Additionally, shortly after it became impossible to add new informnation to my book, I became aware of the fact that the British Film Institute had acquired one reel of The Toilers (1919), the very reel in which Colman made his brief appearance; that all but one reel of The Magic Flame (1927) had surfaced; and that most of The Rescue (1929) had also turned up. Kevin Brownlow also told me that The Dark Angel (1925) apparently existed in 35mm in a private collection, but that its owner consistently refused to make it available for scholarly research. There is always the hope, therefore, that additional lost Colman films may well turn up in the years to come. One can but hope. All best wishes to all members of the society, Dixon Smith.

  2. Lovely review. Did colman look directly at dietrich? He also tended not to look at others for too long. Thats why some of the scenes in random harvest are so strong-because hes actually staring at greer garson. (btw the wizard of oz was frank morgan; harry morgan was in m.a.s.h.)

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