29 July 2014

Seeing Double in Kismet

Some of the gold paint used in Kismet is still doing the rounds at the museum in Berlin housing Dietrich's collection, seventy years after the film was made. It's fitting, as her gilt legs – in that Jack Cole-choreographed dance – and the loopy wigs she wore in it, are what the movie is remembered for.

Marlene with designer Irene.
At that point in her career, an Arabian detour seemed fated for Marlene. She'd already done Scheherazade on radio (playing the title role and the slave girl and the monarch), and producer Edward Small announced that he was preparing an Egyptian-set film romance, Bella Donna, for her, to be released by United Artists.

The latter didn't materialise, but Kismet did – at MGM, where stars were “flattered and spoiled”. She thought her role (as Jamilla, in Baghdad by way of Macedonia) was “impossible”, but her star salary would cover expenses back home during her upcoming overseas USO tours. Marlene “couldn't be happier,” Screenland gushed about the star's new two picture deal at Metro, before wondering aloud if it was “true that she wasn't invited to the wedding when her daughter married recently. 'Tis rumored.”

While MGM was putting the final pre-production touches on its piece of exotica, Marlene divided her time between duties as Orson Welles' assistant in his Mercury Wonder Show on Cahuenga Boulevard – where she had replaced Rita Hayworth – and doing shifts at the nearby Hollywood Canteen.

Mind reader Orson Welles' assistants, Rita Hayworth (soon-to-be Mrs Welles) and Marlene Dietrich using the power of suggestion.

Principal photography on the film started in late October 1943. Costume designer Irene devised golden chainmail harem pants for Marlene to wear during her big dance number. These would “jingle” and “glitter” as Marlene lolled around on black lacquer floors (with the actual dancing provided by an uncredited contract dancer).

Marlene and her dance double.

On the first day of shooting of the number, Stravinsky boomed on loudspeakers on the sound stage and Marlene went into her dance. She later remembered: “Suddenly all one heard was crack, crack, crack, the sound of the chainlets breaking, one after the other, then two, six at a time, until I stood there without pants . . . General panic.”

Marlene, aware of schedules and budgets, went into practical mode. “'Gold,' I thought, 'how is a golden effect achieved on the screen?' It occurred to me to paint my legs with gold paint.”

This was done and – although the paint starved her legs from oxygen, causing hypothermia – she thought it looked “simply fabulous” on-screen.

They looked “fabulous” on Broadway too, where they dominated the huge billboard of the Astor Theatre. Kismet opened there on 22 August 1944 (replacing Bathing Beauty) and set a house record when it grossed $310 000 in its 11 week run in New York. Film Daily in its review thought Marlene was “stunning” and “definitely something for the boys.” 

Betty Grable also has Kismet on her mind.

Abbott and Costello's Lost in a Harem recycled sets and costumes  from Kismet.