Another Fine Mesopotamian

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Minnelli’s KISMET — for some reason Fiona was reluctant to watch this, despite being a confirmed fan of ¬†choreographer Jack Cole and having enjoyed a ton of Minnelli recently. Maybe because she generally prefers his melodramas to his musicals. About ten minutes in she pronounced this “great” — maybe by the end it isn’t quite up there with the very top films of the Freed unit, but the witty lyrics, zesty playing, strong plot based around improbable reversals of fate, and some bracingly disrespectful use of Borodin results in something very enjoyable.

Weirdly, it starts out looking kind of cheap — interior exteriors often have that effect, however lavish they may be. The “Not Since Ninevah” number is a riot, and a moving mass of gaudily coloured costumes make the eye rattle around like a pinball, but it’s all happening against a Star Trek cyclorama in a sand pit.

What makes the film start looking suave is the slow fade to dusk and night — the story has an unusual 24 hr runtime and Minnelli takes the gradations of the day seriously — the later it gets, the more beautiful Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography becomes, and the better E. Preston Ames’ sets look.

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13 Responses to “Another Fine Mesopotamian”

  1. I know what you mean about interior exteriors looking inadvertently cheap, but one film that exploits the whole interior/exterior thing brilliantly is Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (particularly the 2nd and 3rd sections) which aims for a wholeheartedly stylised and theatrical effect, shot on huge soundstages, and somehow is more real because of it.

  2. Oh, absolutely. Some people have used it brilliantly, including Minnelli on other occasions. The problem can be overcome with lavishness, with realism or with stylisation. My first frame grab shows an effectively unreal approach.

  3. Minnelli wasn’t as crazy about the material as you might expect. He was contracturally obligated to do it but he was into pre-production on Lust For Life at the time. According to Ann Blyth he wasn’t even around for a lot of the shooting, with other directors stepping in for him from time to time. Still —

  4. Who can resist Dolores Gray? Certainly not I.

  5. According to the IMDB, Stanley Donen was brought in. But Ann Blyth recalls Richard Thorpe.

    I say the principal director was the great Jack Cole (see above number for proof.)

  6. Anyone else love Ethan Mordden’s autobiographical stories? He has a fantastic sequence somewhere in BUDDIES about being taken to the Civic Center production of KISMET by his mother when he was five and being completely enraptured.

  7. It would be interesting to know who directed what. Not as revelatory as a rundown of the scenes in Casino Royale, maybe, but interesting.

  8. That screengrab looks sumptuous, as does the rest of the film. I’m becoming a huge fan of the unabashed artifice of this sort – maybe it’s a reaction to the way much CGI these days makes everything look somehow the same.

  9. I agree that artifice is often best when it doesn’t try to look real. CGI tends to be used for photorealist effect — I would think once the audience gets tired of that, we may see more creative approaches, building on Suzuki’s Princess Raccoon, one of the loveliest examples of modern effects usage — by a director in his eighties.

  10. david wingrove Says:

    Judging from the stills, you really need to see this movie in its original Cinemascope – which I don’t think I ever have.

    I remember preferring the 1944 William Dieterle version. It has Marlene Dietrich dancing with gold legs – and is less likely to be ruined on TV!

  11. I would HATE to imagine this movie pan-and-scanned.

    Had a look at the Dieterle-Dietrich Kismet on a very bad Mexican DVD recently. An off-air recording from TCM is infinitely superior. It’s pretty cheap-looking, but does burst into lurid life on occasion. Is the plot recognizable? I was only chapter-hopping through.

  12. david wingrove Says:

    I think it’s basically the same story. Though any appearance by Marlene constitutes a plot point in itself!

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