THE BOOTLEG FILES: “KISMET”

Back in 1967, the world was a very different place. For starters, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney weren’t racing recklessly into war. In fact, they were racing in the opposite direction to avoid military involvement for themselves: Bush used his family’s political connections to secure a cushy National Guard spot while Cheney cynically manipulated the deferment process to stay out of uniform. The war of the time, of course, was Vietnam. Back in 1967, no American gave a flying fuck about Iraq.

Actually, that’s not entirely correct. In 1967, Iraq managed to gain some attention. Not for its genuine self, but for a fanciful interpretation of a musically extravagant old-time Baghdad. This was the made-for-TV production of the musical “Kismet,” which took place in a Baghdad populated by shapely women in belly-dancer/showgirl costumes, muscular shirtless men in Ali Baba pants, and a cast of performers who commented on their situations in songs ripped off from the Russian composer Alexander Borodin.

Confused? Let’s backtrack into the story behind the story. “Kismet” was based on an early 20th century play by Edward Knoblock. That play was actually filmed four times: once as a silent movie, twice as a straight drama, and once as an MGM adaptation of the Broadway musical version of the text. Robert Wright and George Forrest created the musical, basing their compositions on Borodin’s classical compositions (which had nothing to do with Iraq, but that’s another story). While the Broadway musical production was a commercial hit, the stale MGM film version was considered a flop. Thus, it was theorized that no harm would be done in trying another take on that property.

“Kismet” was presented on ABC as part of the “Armstrong Circle Theatre,” a mid-1960s offering which previously broadcast made-for-TV versions of “Brigadoon,” “Carousel” and “Kiss Me Kate.” Since Armstrong heavily advertised its line of floor tiles and wall panels as part of the show, the musicals wound up being truncated to fit the two-hour time slot. In the case of “Kismet,” three songs from the original score were dropped and a subplot involving brigands was jettisoned.

What remained was this: Hadji is a beggar and self-styled poet who wanders the streets of Baghdad trying to raise funds by selling his anemic rhymes. His lovely daughter Marsinah follows him and tries to keep him out of mischief. It is not easy: Hadji is mistaken for a crime chieftain and winds up in the palace of the evil (but dumb) Wazir and his too-sexy wife Lalume. For no clear reason, Lalume gets the hots for Hadji. For obvious reasons, he returns the favor. Meanwhile, Marsinah catches the eye of the handsome young Caliph. He falls madly and tunefully in love with her and wants to marry her. Will the young couple tie the Iraqi knot, even with the Wazir trying to topple the Caliph and get Marsinah for his own harem? Will Hadji gets the Wazir’s wicked wife, either as an on-the-side diversion or as his own significant other? Now what do you think?

“Kismet” has one major asset in its favor and it’s Barbara Eden as Lalume. If you only know Barbara Eden from that dum-dum sitcom with the genie bottle, forget it – in “Kismet,” she is the ultimate in drop dead gorgeous. Looking sleek and hot-to-trot in revealing costumes that would make the average mullah shit bricks, Eden is the sexiest woman on high heels. Not only that, she can belt out a song like the world depends on it. Her rendition of the vibrant and sassy “Not Since Nineveh” is a show-stopping force of nature, showing Eden was more than capable of holding her own with the sex symbols of the 60s. In fact, watching “Kismet” makes one wonder how it was she didn’t go beyond being a sitcom genie into being a sex symbol on the level of a Raquel Welch or a pre-liberated Jane Fonda.

“Kismet” also has a nice surprise in George Chakiris as the Caliph. Chakiris has been stuck as a Hollywood footnote via his Oscar-winning “West Side Story” performance – he is not remembered for anything else. Yet “Kismet” showed he shared Barbara Eden’s dilemma: he was nice on the eye and he had a great singing voice. In fact, he literally overpowers soprano Anna Maria Alberghetti (playing Marsinah with a distracting Italian accent) in their duet of “Stranger in Paradise,” the hit tune of the show, with the power and drive of his voice – plus he is also much prettier than Alberghetti. Watching him as the Caliph, it is hard to reconcile why Chakiris never got roles that played up his assets.

Alas, “Kismet” has one major mistake: Jose Ferrer as Hadji. Ferrer’s forte was not comedy and he failed to locate the mirth and mayhem of the character. Hadji is given several songs that thrive on nutty wordplay and wry humor – the prime turf for the likes of a Danny Kaye or a Bing Crosby, but alien territory to Ferrer, who cannot put a punchline over and who is strangely strident in his attempts at being funny. It is hard to see why Eden’s Lalume would go ga-ga for him (Ferrer’s unattractive bushy beard doesn’t help make him more attractive). In fact, his jousts with Hans Conried’s Wazir leaves the Wazir with the real laughs, even though Hadji is allegedly the one we should be rooting for.

“Kismet” is not (and never was) a great show. But it is flashy, brassy and self-loving in an old-fashioned way. Some of the songs are quite memorable, including the aforementioned numbers and the lilting “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” which Alberghetti performs in a captivating mix of rue and awe (she was no actress, but her singing was marvelous). It is the rare show which is fondly recalled today strictly for its score and not for its book.

“Kismet” was broadcast on October 24, 1967. The audience reaction to the show was an overwhelming display of pure indifference. Perhaps it was too old-fashioned for the hippie-dippie era. The lack of enthusiasm cancelled plans for a soundtrack release and it also put Armstrong off the TV cycle – this was the last made-for-TV musical the company would broadcast.

Today, “Kismet” is available on bootleg video only. However, it is only as a black-and-white copy; the original color production is not in circulation. The monochrome edition is a bit dreary to watch, especially since the elaborate sets and intricate costumes are not being shown to their full glory.

Truth be told, it is difficult to view this old-fashioned fantasy version of Baghdad without thinking of the less-than-musical state of today’s Baghdad. Who in 1967 could ever have imagined that the city that inspired the cheeriest of make-believe musicals would become home to grimmest of military realities. Personally, I’ll take Barbara Eden over George W. Bush any day – a bombshell is always more fun than a bomb dropper.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on December 8, 2005 in Features by
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