Tuesday, August 22, 2017

KISMET 1955: PART 3 - CIRCLING THE OASIS



                Film it fast. This seems to have been the guiding directive behind “Kismet” from very early on. Minnelli wanted to be in Europe for “Lust for Life” by late July, 1955. Since “Kismet” didn’t begin shooting till near the end of May,  that meant every bit of it would have to be in the can within nine or ten weeks. A tall order for an expensive MGM musical ostensibly meant to dazzle eye, ear and – hopefully - imagination.  Charles Lederer and Luther Davis, co-authors of the stage libretto, had been engaged as part of the initial story buy.  And little pressure was put on them to change or adapt their work into something more cinematically adventurous. The plot:  a beggar-poet in old Baghdad, using his quick wits and nimble tongue, negotiates a series of coincidences that take him on a dangerous course from rags to riches - and possibly back again. I, for one, like the story and most of the dialogue as it is.  But surely a bit of exciting action, a sword fight or two, a wild desert chase, camels racing over moonlit dunes wouldn’t have been that hard to shoehorn in. And certainly the finished film – much of which seemed to be operating under a flat enter stage left, exit stage right strategy, could have used  some extra energy.
                MGM already had a full complement of craftsmen qualified to give “Kismet” dazzle on every level. The Metro music department was fully mobilized –Conrad Salinger and Alexander Courage (orchestrations), Jeff Alexander and Robert Tucker (vocal arrangements), young Andre Previn (conductor) . And on the musical level, the film really did deliver quite beautifully. There were omissions from the original stage score; also additions, elisions and revisions. But what emerged was outstanding. MGM had pioneered the movie soundtrack album – and the cast LP  (MGM  E3281) that arrived late in 1955 added considerable adornment to an already impressive catalogue.
                Some important outside help was also contracted to work on the picture. Jack Cole, choreographer of the stage musical, was brought in to oversee the dances. And famous designer Tony Duquette signed on to do costumes. Duquette’s  skills actually went far beyond costume design. He was in demand as a creator of furniture, jewellery, decorative artifacts of all kinds. When upper crust types wanted an exotic ambience conjured up for one of their shindigs, Duquette was the go to guy.   His phantasmagorical style provided many a high society event with a distinctive hyperbolic charge. Minnelli’s decorative tastes were definitely attuned to Duquette’s   They’d worked together before. Though often assumed to be pure Minnelli , it was Duquette who designed the spectacular set Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer glide through and around in “This Heart of Mine” from“Ziegfeld Follies”. The mise-en-scene for another Astaire-Bremer teaming, the “Coffee Time” number (from “Yolanda and the Thief”) was also a Duquette creation. He designed a surreal black and white patterned floor surrounded by imposing statues and elegantly weightless drapery.  Minnelli and choreographer Eugene Loring made the most of the space, splashing it with dancers in strange renaissance meets swing outfits.  They whirl to complicated syncopations, adroitly timed hand-claps adding delicious punctuation.  Bremer and Astaire join in with some of the most beautiful dancing ever filmed, weaving in and out of the group, ultimately taking the spotlight in an explosion of grace and magical lighting. Definitely one of those moments when a Minnelli film gave substance to dreams. Some wonderful coffee table books have been devoted to  Duquette’s  beyond sumptuous creations. Check out the one simply called “Tony Duquette” (by Hutton Wilkinson and Wendy Goodman) , an immersive visual trip if ever there was one.  Duquette created spaces that, inch for inch, out-Xanadued any Kubla Khan decree. Infusing a multitude of influences into one visual space; locating the harmony in diversity, the eloquence in overstatement, the pleasure and the pattern in apparent pandemonium. Certainly, in a perfect 1950’s universe, Tony Duquette had to be part of any MGM “Kismet”.  Minnelli, pressed for time, felt the need to delegate costume design to someone and saw in Duquette a kindred spirit, someone whose work would complement his own high-intensity aesthetic.
                Some have dismissed the casting of “Kismet” as merely a matter of convenience, sticking firmly as it did to the MGM contract list. I think that statement tends to ignore the fact that, when it came to musical comedy talent, no studio had a roster anywhere near as rich as Metro’s. That illustrious stock company, though fated soon to disburse, was still largely intact when “Kismet” went into production.
                Virile, confident, handsome, with a tall commanding figure and a voice to match, Howard Keel was certainly – at the time - the screen’s leading baritone. The role of Petruchio in “Kiss Me Kate” was not actually Shakespeare but it did require a kind of Shakespearean authority  (MGM had briefly considered Laurence Olivier for the movie ). Keel grabbed the role with both hands and delivered on all fronts.  Close in type to Keel were Alfred Drake and Richard Kiley, both of whom had starred in the stage “Kismet”, Drake as Haaj, Kiley as the caliph. But neither ever pursued film stardom with any  vigour, achieving their real glory on the stage. It’s doubtful either was seriously considered for MGM’s “Kismet”.  Their names on a marquee would have meant little to movie audiences in 1955. Keel, on the other hand, was coming off  “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, possibly the biggest in his string of movie musical hits. So casting him as Haaj was a no brainer. He was also eager to do it.
                Ann Blyth had joined the MGM family in the early 50’s. She’d been a kind of junior sweetheart at Universal since her teens when, on loan out to Warners, she suddenly transformed her brand as Joan Crawford’s vicious daughter in “Mildred Pierce”. The accompanying acclaim (including an Oscar nomination) suddenly made her a hot property. But aside from a smoothly viperish role in “Another Part of the Forest”, the excellent prequel to “The Little Foxes”, most of what Universal offered her was inconsequential. Fans liked her, though; she was one of those actresses with her own hot-selling paper doll book. So when the Universal contract expired MGM hastened to sign her. Among other things, they exploited a facet of her talent Universal had barely used, a beautiful soprano singing voice.  “The Great Caruso”, “Rose Marie” and “The Student Prince” all consolidated her standing as a musical film star. MGM had kept its other sopranos, Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell , strictly in musicals.  But they happily cast Blyth – a genuine value for money acquisition - in straight dramas and costume films as well.  “Kismet” required a soprano for the role of Marsinah,  Haaj’s daughter.  And in the early 50’s, there were only three sopranos with any real standing as movie stars. Jane Powel’s sunny blondeness was perhaps considered a mismatch with old Bagdad. And Kathryn Grayson had recently left the studio. So, as third member of the trilling triumvirate, Blyth seemed a natural and happy choice for the part.
                The other main female character in “Kismet” is Lalume, glamorous wife of wives to the villain. Lalume gets to wear drop dead fashions, while developing some sizzling chemistry with Haaj. A couple of years earlier , the part would’ve probably gone by default to MGM’s resident other woman in a musical, Ann Miller. In which case, Lalume would’ve morphed into a dancing role with at least one mandatory tap routine. Character-wise, she’d have undoubtedly been the same uncomplicated type Miller played in all her films, all surface, zero interior life. By  ’55, Metro had a far more intriguing candidate on the lot. Dolores Gray had been entertaining since childhood. But her big show business break came in 1947 when she won the title role in the first London production of “Annie Get Your Gun”. She was a smash in the show, headlining it for three years. When Judy Garland dropped out of the MGM film version in ’49, Arthur Freed asked the London producers to release Gray for six months so she could replace Judy.  Much to her disappointment, they refused – and Gray missed her first chance at MGM stardom.  It’s odd that Dolores Gray’s breakthrough role was as backwoods Annie Oakley. Because in the next few years, the persona she perfected onstage and in nightclubs was full-on urban sophisticate. Freed liked the new Gray even better than the old one and dangled another MGM contract. This time she was able to grab it. Her notices as a big city siren in “It’s Always Fair Weather” were stellar. And aside from the glamour girl appearance, this was clearly a woman with a wonderful, wide-ranging singing voice, able to belt  but glowing with nuance when she toned it down. “Warm Brandy” was the name of an LP she made in ’57 and that phrase nicely captured the intoxicating feeling her vocals conveyed – smouldering fires, barely banked. Stage Lalumes tended to be mezzo-sopranos ostentatiously letting their hair down by deigning to swing. Gray was a genuine Broadway baby and Freed thought that might be just what the role needed to make it work for movie audiences. As far as “Kismet” was concerned, casting Dolores Gray was possibly the best decision he ever made.        
                Vic Damone was MGM’s choice to play the caliph, romantic stranger in Marsinah’s paradise. In the early 50’s, when standard singing crooners were still viable hit parade regulars, he was one of America’s  top-selling artists.  MGM signed the good-looking Damone in 1950 but after a pleasant pairing with Jane Powell in “Rich, Young and Pretty”, he was called up for army duty. When he returned, late in ’53, MGM quickly reteamed them three more times. As a singer, Damone was world-class, his voice permanently suffused with a kind of interior elegance . Sinatra once hailed him as possessor of “the best pipes in the business”.  When rock’n’roll  reared its head, he serenely ignored it, continuing to record big band and standard material as the decades moved on. And during every one of those decades, that voice of his endured beautifully. As an actor, however,  Damone was never what you’d call forceful. He tended to deliver his lines with polite earnestness, something of a deer in the headlights but an agreeable one.  Onscreen, he came off as the kind of gentlemanly type 50’s mothers would want their daughters to date. Not realizing how dangerous these quiet types can sometimes be.  In real life, Damone certainly attracted plenty of feminine admiration. Pier Angeli and Diahann Carroll were among the accomplished beauties he married. MGM could hardly have been counting on Vic’s winning an Oscar for “Kismet”  but they could rest easy that, with him performing them, the show‘s most romantic songs were in good hands.
                Beyond the four principals, there weren’t many substantial roles in “Kismet”. For the main villain, MGM wanted Robert Morley but he said no. At least it’s fun to imagine the look of blowfish disdain on his face as he pooh-poohed the idea.  So utility player Sebastian Cabot  was hurried into the role. There was a small part for the caliph’s adviser. And somebody at Metro apparently thought there was still mileage left in Monty Woolley’s sneering curmudgeon act. So he, too, joined the throng being fitted for turbans and kaftans. Like Cabot, at least he brought his own beard. The rest of the cast was soon assembled. Now all they had to do was make a movie.