One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that "sincerity" is not enough.
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"
Hollywood and Haight-Ashbury collide over Olde Baghdad in this clip. Dietrich wasn't much of a dancer (although the gams, in their celebrated four coats of gold paint, do look terrific), but somehow with Grace Slick setting the tone, one doesn't mind it as much as one does when faced with the ponderously arabesque original Stothart score.
Later, Dietrich claimed the gold-legs gimmick was a last-minute inspiration that she and designer Irene came up with only after the intended costume, which involved trousers made of delicate networks of gold chains, fell apart as she went into her dance. I suppose it's possible. Irene, after all, was having a busy year in 1944, and while one sees little of her stellar work on Meet Me in St. Louis in Kismet, I have to believe there was some crossover with Lost in a Harem. Maybe it was just all too much for her.
My touchstone, Leo Lerman, met Dietrich during the summer of 1944, after she had finished up her few scenes in Kismet and embarked on the beginning of the USO work that over the next couple of years would take her into the heart of her ravaged homeland. Reflecting later on the first months they knew each other, Lerman wrote it was then he realized "that she knew when people laughed at her and she knew when people laughed with her, and that she exercised, at all times, total control."
In this case, I'll have to take his word for it. Kismet is not a high point of her career, and while within a couple of years she would be back in full stride in pictures like A Foreign Affair and Stage Fright, her misstep here (literal and metaphorical) hints at worse to come. The downside of total control is, that when it fails, its inflexibility leaves few alternatives. When she could no longer control the audience - as she manages, against all odds, to do even here as a highly teutonic haremista - and the laughter turned cruel, the only path she saw led to a darkened Paris apartment, and a life, as Lerman wrote, of "bed and a bottle."
But all of that's in the future in 1944. For the moment, she's Jamilla, the Vizier's favorite, and goddammit she's got a dance to do. That's she's doing it to music from twenty-odd years in the future only puts it all that much further past the outer reaches of sincerity; as Sontag knows, that only clarifies the Camp...