Edward Knoblock’s famous old play about Hajj, the beggar Prince who schemes his way thru life, has just about always worked on stage and just about never worked on screen. And this big M-G-M version is no exception to the rule, with a production that’s less THIEF OF BAGDAD than redux WIZARD OF OZ/’39. Note all the similar design elements & painted storybook backdrops, even some OZ sets show up (redressed, but easy to recognize). Same music masters, too, a score from OZ vets Herbert Stothart, with familiar motifs, and a few unmemorable tunes from Arlen/Harburg. KISMET’s grisly old plot has been refashioned into a two-way CINDERELLA romance, yet the simple story is remarkably hard to follow. Maybe if director William Dieterle had found some unifying element to pull things together we wouldn’t mind. (Dieterle had already filmed a German language version in 1931 that must have been made in conjunction with the WideScreen early Talkie flop Warners released in 1930, now considered a 'lost' film.*) This 1944 version is still worth checking out for its colorful opening reels (lensed by Charles Rosher) with Ronald Colman’s Hajj (here called Hafix) taking us on a tour of this storybook mock-up of old Baghdad. If only the rest of the cast & crew could get equally comfortable. Alas, he has few worthy partners. Marlene Dietrich, made up like a prize poodle, makes heavy weather of her sexy lady routine; Edward Arnold’s laughing villain quickly wears out his welcome; and a horribly miscast James Craig makes the glamorous, sensual Caliph into a hearty All-American lineback. Ugh. The one nice find is Joy Page as Colman’s loving daughter. (She was the sad-eyed bride in CASABLANCA/’42 who almost gave in to Claude Rains for a visa.) And she pretty much dropped out of the biz after this disappointment.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *That lost 1930 Talkie version, shot in 70-mm, with 2-strip TechniColor sequences, is probably better off imagined than seen, though its star, Otis Skinner, can be seen, if not heard, in a silent 1920 edition. Then, there’s the disappointing Vincente Minnelli/Arthur Freed musical of 1955, the one with the marvelous Borodin-based score. Skip ‘em all and go for a real Ronald Colman classic, IF I WERE KING/’38, with its clever Preston Sturges script and many similar plot elements, including a nearly identical ending. (Not out officially yet on DVD, but soon . . . ?)