Monday, February 1, 2016

Ronald, King of the Beggars

Kismet (1944) is a fable.  It is the story of Hafiz (Ronald Colman), who calls himself the King of the Beggars.  Hafiz is always plotting - he hopes to find a good marriage for his much-beloved daughter, Marsinah (Joy Ann Page), while he is having a romantic liaison with the wealthy Jamilla (Marlene Dietrich).  What Hafiz doesn't know is that Marsinah has already found the love of her life, a young man who she believes is the son of the gardener for the royal palace, but who is actually the Caliph (James Craig) and that Jamilla is the courtesan of the Grand Vizier (Edward Arnold), who is plotting the Caliph's death.

As always, Ronald Colman is excellent as Hafiz, and the film, in fact, gives him an opportunity to show his range - for comedy, drama, romance and even a bit of farce.  His rapport with Marlene Dietrich is obvious; their interplay is really what makes the movie.  And while the script isn't exactly suspenseful - it is, after all, a fairy tale - it's fun getting there.  Colman, superb storyteller that he is, never lets us forget the fantasy aspects of the storyline, and revels in the experience.
It seems obvious that Colman is having a good time in this production;  Marlene Dietrich also seems to be enjoying the experience.  Always a striking actress, she is more so here, with costuming that emphasizes her fantastic legs and exotic beauty.  According to this TCM article, Dietrich was well aware that she was the decoration in the story, and went with the concept.  It was her only appearance in an MGM film (according to this AFI Catalog entry, they never found another film worthy of her). She had to wear 4 coats of gold paint on her legs, which were a horror to remove.  So, she would leave the paint on at the end of the day, and arrive at the Hollywood Canteen with golden legs!  Dietrich's devotion to the troops is the stuff of legend.  My father, an Army Corporal in the Engineers, often spoke of her with affection.  Her hatred of the Nazis was well known - though offered a carte blanch to return to Germany (She was Hitler's favorite actress), she not only refused the offer, but became an American citizen and spent most of the war entertaining the troops in areas in which she was in extreme danger of capture and execution. She spent so much time in the European Theater of Operations that Billy Wilder is said to have quipped that "she was on the front more than Eisenhower" (Some Like it Wilder, 2010).  As one of the actresses on the notorious 1938 "Box Office Poison" list (Glamour in the Golden Age: Movie Stars of the 1930s, 2011), Dietrich was having problems getting film roles around this time (she was 42 when production on the film began), but some of her best films were ahead of her:  A Foreign Affair (1948), Touch of Evil (1958, a small but meaty part), Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957).  As her film career petered out, Dietrich performed on stage and in cabarets, but following a fall onstage, she was forced into retirement.  In her later years, she refused to be photographed, preferring that her public remember her in her youth.  She died in 1992, at age 90.
Joy Ann Page, who here appears as Marsinah, is best remembered as the young bride in Casablanca. Her role in this film is minor - Marsinah gets little to do except be admired and lusted after.  Her career was short, and she really never got a part as memorable as the one in Casablanca again, despite the fact that she was stepdaughter of Jack L. Warner.  Warner, in his usual curmudgeonly way, refused to give her a contract at Warner's (she had auditioned for, and landed, the role in Casablanca without his knowledge.  Once she had it, he agreed to her being in the film, but it was with reluctance).  She had a total of 22 film and television credits, and ended her career in 1959 after appearing in The Swamp Fox for Walt Disney.  She married William Orr in 1945 (her stepfather actually hired Orr after their marriage, and advanced his career steadily).  The marriage ended in divorce in 1970.  She died in 2008, at the age of 83.
Edward Arnold plays the part of the Grand Vizier with great relish.  His strong voice and powerful laugh only serve to emphasize his evil intentions.  His scenes with Dietrich are especially wonderful - Jamilla is the only human being who actually intimidates him.  It's interesting that no one else seems to have been considered for this part.  William Powell was at one point talked about for the role of Hafiz, Richard Carlson tested for the role of the Caliph, and Vera Zorina, Virginia Bruce and Marilyn Maxwell all tested for Jamilla.  In hindsight, it is difficult to see anyone but Arnold in the role.

Kismet is a story that is a popular one in Hollywood.  Based on a Broadway play from 1912, it was filmed twice as a silent film - in 1914 and 1920.  In 1930, it was filmed with sound (and starred the actor who had done the 1920 silent version, Otis Skinner - the father of Cornelia Otis Skinner, of The Uninvited fame)After a successful Broadway musical version of the story opened in 1953, the story was again filmed, this time with Howard Keel and Ann Blyth singing the leads.  Finally, on 24 October 1967, Jose Ferrer appeared in a television special of the musical.

We'll leave you for this week with the trailer for the film - note the glorious technicolor (but Dietrich's golden legs are nowhere to be seen!  I guess you had to pay your admission to see them!)

1 comment:

  1. A timeless story with these outlandish characters, and the musicalization only adds to its mystique.

    I appreciated your take on the film and the performers in this well-written article.


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