Sunday, April 13, 2008

Kismet Kate

The release of the movie version of Kismet on DVD is just another sad reminder that what could have been a terrific movie musical, done right, turned out to be a very weak one. I love the stage Kismet musical, but its tongue-in-cheek, bordering-on-parody operetta style is very difficult to bring off, and Vincente Minnelli, a director who didn't have much sense of self-parody and reportedly hated the show to begin with (and did it only so MGM would let him direct Lust For Life), was not the man to do it. And though you can get a sense of what Jack Cole's Broadway choreography was like, Cole's bawdy, showy style did not fit with the overly-tasteful Fred unit style; the sets, costumes and photography are not backing him up, and the numbers that were probably knockouts on Broadway just seem a little under-powered. Maybe this project would have been better at a studio like Fox, whose less tasteful photography and sets fit better with Cole's style (remember, Cole choreographed and directed the gloriously tasteless musical numbers in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). You could say that Arthur Freed's relentless good taste did this project in. Though speaking of taste, one thing to be said for the movie is that -- due to the post-Moon Is Blue collapse of the Production Code -- none of the lyrics had to be cleaned up for the screen; even "Rahadlakum," a song about an aphrodisiac, was able to be recorded and filmed (the first part got cut, but for time, not content).

Of the principals, only Ann Blyth is really right for her part: Howard Keel just doesn't have the charisma and style for an Alfred Drake part. (Drake, interviewed about why MGM kept passing him over for movies, said: "They had a guy they used for my parts. He wasn't very good." I think Keel was good, but not for this part, or even for Kiss Me Kate.) Vic Damone was a terrible idea, Dolores Gray is good but doesn't really have the right kind of voice for "Not Since Nineveh" -- it was written for Joan Diener, a performer who had both a belt and a high soprano voice, and Gray can't do the soprano parts of the song -- and casting non-singer Sebastian Cabot as the villain forced them to cut the wonderful quartet that precedes "And This Is My Beloved."

One thing the DVD release enables me to do, though, is to do a side-by-side comparison of some of the original Alexander Borodin music and the songs that Bob Wright and Chet Forrest created for Kismet. Wright and Forrest's specialty was making pop songs out of classical music, something they'd been doing since the '30s when they were at MGM. Instead of just taking the classical tune and putting lyrics to it, they would take the main theme from the original piece and then compose a new "B" section, re-do the ending, and turn the whole thing into an actual pop song with an A-A-B-A structure. This is what they did with all three of the big hits from Kismet, "Stranger in Paradise" (from the Polovtsian Dances in Borodin's Prince Igor), "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" (second movement of Borodin's second string quartet) and "And This Is My Beloved" (third movement of Borodin's truly awesome second string quartet). As you can see in the video below, each of the songs has new material that wasn't in Borodin's original pieces, and that's how the songs become true hit songs instead of just classical music with new words.

There were a few songs in Kismet that didn't follow this pattern; "Rahadlakum" is a completely original composition by Wright and Forrest, and two or three songs are taken directly from Borodin with no newly-composed music. The passage that precedes the "Gesticulate" number (that song, by the way, is based on Borodin's first symphony) is just Konchak's aria from Prince Igor with English lyrics.


Bill Peschel said...

Are you getting this version from the multi-pack set that combines "Kismet" with other musicals? Amazon had offered (and I had ordered) the standalone version, but it was pulled for reasons unknown.

Edward Hegstrom said...

I'd quibble with your suggestion that Minnelli didn't have much of a sense of humor about himself--the glimpses we get of the disastrous "Faust" show in "The Band Wagon" resemble a typical Minnelli dream ballet, all billowing smoke and deep, rich colors.

That said, yeah, he clearly hated the material in "Kismet" and brought nothing to it. But I don't think the problem is Minnelli's, or Freed's, tastes in design so much as MGM's cost-cutting measures. It just looks cheap.