One of the great highlights from last year's extended foray into classic Hollywood for me was my conversation with Jacqueline about her Ann Blyth biography. It has gotten good reviews, and it must be selling decently for a self-published indie because Jacqueline's expanding into the realm of audio books. Ann Blyth: Actress Singer Star will soon be available in this format, complete with a legitimate Hollywood actress to do the reading!
Outside of her star-making turn in Mildred Pierce, I doubt if Blyth would be an actress I'd be aware of if not for Jacqueline, but then, this is hardly unprecedented. I've written before about how she got me interested in another little-known Golden Age actress, Alexis Smith, and that was just one blog post. Blyth required a whole year devoted to her! So I figured I should take the time to check out some of her other films.
I had started watching Kismet once before and was unable to finish, but this is one that TCM plays a lot, so I knew it was only a matter of time before they played it again. It's a musical, directed by Vincente Minnelli, set in old Baghdad. Howard Keel stars as a petty beggar and con man who gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity and is drawn into some palace intrigue in the court of the caliph. Blyth plays his daughter, who falls for a dude who is not what he seems.
The whole thing is as fluffy as you can imagine, and to be honest, I started losing interest halfway through, but the exquisite costumes and set design make for terrific eye candy, especially in CinemaScope, and some of the songs are decent. Keel had a powerful baritone voice and he gets many opportunities to show it off. Also, pre-MASH Jamie Farr in a bit part.
One of the things about Blyth's career I found interesting was how she was able to avoid being typecast as the bad girl, only to have the pendulum swing in the opposite direction. Jacqueline told me that the studio publicized her as a good girl to the point where it was difficult to imagine her in any other kind of role:
...she was praised for her work as Veda Pierce [in Mildred] at the age [of] sixteen when nobody knew anything about her. A decade later, she was mocked for wanting to play the alcoholic [singer] Helen Morgan (despite the fact of Morgan's being demure, soft-spoken, charitable, and a Catholic convert).... Even when she won the Helen Morgan role, she wasn't allowed to sing in the movie because by that time, she had done a few lightweight operetta-type musicals and the press smirked at the thought of her being a torch singer with that type of trained voice. The studio caved.I can see how someone could make that mistake. Blyth's voice was in the tradition of cinematic sirens like Jeanette MacDonald, very well suited for Broadway or for an old-fashioned, European-style movie musical. It's great, but if I were a producer, I doubt she'd have been my first choice for Helen Morgan either.
Kismet is really more of a vehicle for Keel. Blyth's role isn't as big as I expected, but she gets her moments. In her post on the movie, Jacqueline does a nice analysis of the scene where Blyth performs "Stranger in Paradise" with Vic Damone, noting the color scheme and the staging. I was pleasantly surprised to realize I recognized the song; apparently it has become a standard. Jacqueline says "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" is a famous number also. I liked that one too.
Kismet isn't among the greatest musicals I've ever seen, but for what it was, it was a pleasant enough way to spend two hours. I can see why Blyth was a star. It couldn't have been easy to overcome the shadow of her great performance in Mildred, especially as a teenager, but she did it.
If I had to compare Blyth to a modern actress, I might go with Anne Hathaway: former teen starlet; breakthrough role in a dramatic film (Brokeback Mountain); alternates between heavy drama and light comedy; finally given a chance to sing and she shines (Les Miserables), although unlike Blyth, Hathaway hasn't had a lot of singing roles since. Then again, movie musicals these days are not as popular as they used to be.