Well, Kismet sure is pretty.
An Orientalist fantasy that never quite commits to its Orientalism, a musical whose musical numbers are mostly fine, Kismet’s not quite a bad movie, much less a fun-bad movie, but it can’t quite make it to the level of a good movie. Oh, there are some standouts — Dolores Gray, who was clearly underserved by Hollywood, is a charming delight in the Christine Baranski mold, and a young Vic Damone is bright-eyed and innocent in the best possible way. The lovers have chemistry, and the plot is simple enough (think A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by way of Aladdin, or maybe the other way around). There are comedic mix-ups and a charming rogue who loves poetry and…
It sure is pretty.
Kismet was a flop, the kind of colorful boondoggle that is unloved by contemporary critics and never gains, or deserves, reappraisal. (It kept reminding me of Elizabeth Taylor’s infamous Cleopatra.) The pacing isn’t quite right, the songs are heavy and over-sung, and it sure doesn’t look any less racist in 2018 than it did in 1955. It’s hard to tell at times what’s deliberately anachronistic and what just indicates that no one cared very much. The script itself has an uneasy balance between fantasy-Baghdad and real-Baghdad that also doesn’t help. (Lebanese-American Jamie Farr appears in a small part as a merchant, one of the few people with lines who fits in with the ‘vaguely Middle Eastern’ setting.)
There are reasons for this: Vincente Minnelli didn’t want to do the movie in the first place and only agreed as a condition to do Lust for Life, the production schedule was about half the time for a typical Minnelli musical, and even then Minnelli left the production early to work on the Van Gogh biography of his dreams. The songs aren’t great, and the plots have been done better before and since. It all shows, except in a few good song and dance numbers, Dolores Gray’s wry smile, and in the production design and costuming, which are better than they have any right to be. This is the kind of movie you should project on the wall of the club to a banging Cornershop remix and hope that no one notices that all the white people are wearing weird vaguely mideastern shit in wacky pastel colors.