There are certain celebrities who don’t just play unique characters…they ARE a unique character. Take someone like Jack Nicholson…the crazy eyes, the distinctive voice, the sunglasses at the Oscars. In some ways, he’s like a cartoon character. I guess much of my experience with Marlene Dietrich is actually with cartoon character versions of her. Her look and voice were so often parodied in golden age cartoons, so watching her in the 1944 film “Kismet” felt a bit like I was watching a cartoon.
The story concerns Hafiz (Ronald Colman), Baghdad’s king of the beggars. He is a beggar, magician, and occasional thief, who also spends some of his time disguised as a prince. One day, while in his royal disguise, he meets Lady Jamilla (Dietrich), head wife of the Grand Vizier (Edward Arnold). Jamilla is the most pale, German-sounding, middle-eastern woman there ever was, and she starts to take quite a liking to Hafiz…who doesn’t exactly look like a native himself. Actually, let’s just get this out of the way, none of the cast would have to worry about racial profiling…but what did you expect for 1944 Hollywood.
Meanwhile, Hafiz’s daughter, Marsinah (Joy Ann Page), lives her life hidden away from most of the world. Hafiz intends to make sure she will marry royalty. But, unknown to him, she has fallen in love with a gardener’s son. Unknown to everyone, this gardener’s son is actually the young Caliph (James Craig) who likes to disguise himself and mingle about his subjects.
Unfortunately, there have been attempts on the Caliph’s life. Agents of the Grand Vizier are responsible and Hafiz figures this out. Theorizing that eventually the Grand Vizier will succeed in eliminating the Caliph, thus moving to the throne, he decides to arrange for his daughter to marry the Grand Vizier. He steals some fancy clothes and does his Prince of Hassir act to get an audience with the Grand Vizier.
The Grand Vizier treats Hafiz to food, wine, and brings out the dancing girls…including Jamilla. Marsinah is brought to the palace, and Jamilla decides to run off with Hafiz…all is going great, until Hafiz is arrested for stealing. Rather than get his hands chopped off, he agrees to kill the Caliph for the Grand Vizier. But the Caliph intends to find Marsinah and marry her. Will true love win the day?
“Kismet” is a great movie to look at. Both the cinematography and the art direction were nominated for Academy Awards, and I would say deservedly so. The costumes are also incredible. However, I’ve got to be completely honest here, “Kismet” bored me. For a film that involves assassination plots, there is very little suspense. But the film’s biggest stumbling block is how horribly out-of-place it’s cast is. I realize this was a different time in Hollywood. When making a movie that takes place in the middle-east, no thought was spent on making sure the cast looked the part. But this cast is not just out-of-place, they are distractingly out-of-place. Ronald Colman is about as British as they come! As for Dietrich, I won’t deny that she is a hypnotic screen presence (her dance number here is a prime example of this), but her famously strong accent has a way of instantly taking the viewer out of the story in this particular case.
“Kismet” was based on a popular play from 1911, and there have been several film versions. It’s obviously been popular and has the makings of a good story. This version, however, suffers from some poor choices by the filmmakers with the casting, even while doing many things right in the technical departments.