One shouldn't be too hard on this piece of wartime diversion; after all, the nation was in total mobilization. Everythign was subject to the War Effort -- something we can hardly imagine now -- and people were working night and day for not much money, and it needed some fun. Though KISMET looks foolish to contemporary movie purists, this movie was a big hit at the time. It tantalized the nation into a frenzy.
Don't forget, this movie was made at a time of national rationing, and many shortages. Not only was gas rationed, but also rubber, food, light and energy in all forms. Everything that wasn't military and dedicated to the War Effort, was incredibly expensive. Hollywood suffered. There was a shortage of talent. There were virtually no young men anywhere in the country, certainly no photogenic ones, except possibly in prisons. That's why in this movie and in most of those produced in wartime, by most studios, most of the extras are old men. Even the secondary characters here, are old. There were virtually no available stars: Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, both were in uniform, along with all the best or top drawer American leading men. Ronald Raegan was notoriously civilian, and only wore uniform in OSS propaganda movies advising boys on ways to avoid giving away strategic information, or getting VD. And so, in this movie the men are old, the costumes with one exception are dull; the scenery has been rescued from back lot storage and carpentered together from earlier pieces from other exotic films. The story itself was a resurrection of an Edwardian hit and vehicle for Otis Skinner, KISMET, that played on stage for decades and spawned many versions on stage and screen. But the country was so hungry for anything that would help us get our minds off that damned war, we went wild when we saw the enormous billboards along the highways and over the downtown buildings, of Dietrich reclining on cushions, stretched out thirty feet long and eighteen feet high in fantastic, spangled semi-nudity, in a Petty Girl pinup pose, displaying those long, barbarously gilded legs. Sex!
So, to make it short, KISMET is a curiosity piece. Ronald Coleman was long in the tooth, but he was still popular on the Radio though his film career was virtually over. He wasn't sexy, but he could muster a kind of avuncular charm. Probably he was the best the producer could find.
From start to finish the movie was a vehicle for Dietrich, and she was an expert in hokum sales. She learned from Mae West. She knew that the impression of beauty is more vivid that beauty itself, and knew how to create that impression and to animate it. As Jamillah, the jewel of the harem, she knew the story must focus on her beauty and its ability to provoke erotic desire. So, she began by having created for herself, a series of quasi-oriental hair-dos that would be more amazing than any ever seen in Hollywood. These coifs virtually defy description, and their principal feature is that they spring away from her hairline in such a way that from any and every angle, her skin can be seen as perfectly free of freckles, wrinkles or blemishes; flawless. She shows that there are no surgical scars behind her ears, or any sign that she has ever undergone cosmetic surgery. And remember, in 1944 she was 44. Her body was trim and her belly flat. She was able to wear a bare midriff costume that dramatized her figure without falsifying it in any way. Her upper-body with its splendid [...] was clothed in a series of magnificently designed and sewn and constructed semi-transparent brassiers or boustiers, essentially, that appear to have been made by Karinska, the Russian costumier. (Please forgive me if I'm mistaken.) And then there's the Dance itself, the central fold-out piece in this magic box of a Persian tale. It was written about often in all the Hurst newspaper supplements and most movie magazines; it was a spectacle with dansing girls featuring herself as soloists in a kutsch modeled after Ruth St. Denis' INCENSE, and appeared to have been choreographed by Tilly Losch for her. Sure, it was the old nightclub interpretive slither as practiced for years from St. Denis to Valerie Betis, but it worked. For five minutes it made her look like the most beautiful woman in the world, dancing in a state of narcissistic sexual arousal for the pleasure of a short-tempered and voluptuous potentate, in his sumptuous palace. That was enough.
The trick is to see how she did it. Not just the dance itself; how it was staged and choreographed, but how Dieterlie built the story around it as a pedestal for that sole performance, using a second rate cast -- including (for contrast) a second lead female as virginal and drab as any sparrow -- a hackneyed story and some painted flats. It's an exercise in how to create anticipation. You need good lights and a professional cinematagropher, at least. Tantalization. That's why its so sexy. As everybody knows (everybody but the young and inexperienced) anticipation is always more exciting than fulfilment. And, of course, you need a performer who knows what she's doing.