Son of Ali Baba

Son of Ali Baba
Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1952
Director: Kurt Neumann
Source: Universal Vault DVD

Son of Ali Baba

Universal decided to do another Arabian Nights-style adventure starring Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie, but this time around they got a dud. Thanks to his ex-thief father Ali’s vast wealth, Kashma Baba (Curtis) is enrolled with the sons of the nobility as a cadet in Bagdad’s Military Academy—which, except for the dark Curtis, is entirely filled with WASP-looking frat boys straight from the country club. (As usual, only merchants, thieves, and the caliph’s goons look like actual Persians or Arabs.) Kashma throws himself a rowdy birthday party in his opulent Bagdad house in which the caliph’s boorish son gets thrown into Kashma’s indoor pool. Uh oh! Vengeance is sworn, and the next morning Kashma is embroiled in a plot to ruin him and his father by foisting an escaped slave girl, Kiki (Laurie), upon him, only she’s really a princess who’s been promised to the shah unless she can find Ali Baba’s treasure for the caliph to save her mother but it’s impossible to care because this thing is a mess, okay?

I always hate to blame the writers, they’ve got it hard enough, but in this case I feel obliged to point the finger of shame at Gerald Drayson Adams, who concocted this goofy story and wrote all the terrible, terrible dialogue. There’s a definite high style to the classic Arabian Nights stories, and adapting that poetic diction to a movie script can be done, and well, but based on this clunker Adams had no idea how to do it. These poor actors are only human, and no one can say a line like, “I sense an evil hand has wrought this chain of circumstances!” without looking at least a little embarrassed. Poor Tony Curtis has it the worst, having to utter junk like, “Perished I would have, had not the princess dragged me from the flames,” all with a pronounced Noo Yawk accent. Yeesh. (“This is the palace of my fadda, and yonda is the Valley of the Sun” is actually from this film rather than the later Black Shield of Falworth.)

The only real point of interest in this otherwise dull and derivative exercise is the character of Tala (Susan Cabot), a bow-wielding huntress and friend of Kashma’s youth. At first it seems her only purpose is to make Princess Piper jealous of her connection to Kashma, but then she saves the day several times in succession with her deadly talents at archery. Tala is genuinely intriguing and capable, and how she wandered into this fiasco is anybody’s guess. The rôle should probably have been combined with the princess’s so Laurie would have something to do other than look ornamental, because as it stands, her considerable talents are wasted. Skip this one and watch The Prince who was a Thief a second time instead.

Black Shield of Falworth

Black Shield of Falworth
Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1954
Director: Rudolph Maté
Source: Amazon streaming video

The Black Shield of Falworth

The Victorian children’s novel Men of Iron (1891) by the American author and artist Howard Pyle was influential in solidifying the tropes of the “knights in shining armor” medieval adventure tales popular right up through the 1950s. Pyle’s story was a simple morality play in which Myles, a young Englishman whose father was betrayed by an ambitious noble, trains as a squire and then as a knight, finally avenging his father’s betrayal. Pyle’s vivid depiction of would-be knights training with sword, shield, armor, and lance was recycled countless times in tales of medieval chivalry over the next three-quarters of a century. Men of Iron also established in popular fiction the conventions of trial by combat (“And may God defend the right”), the favorite climactic plot device of the lazy knight-pulp writer.

All of these tropes are on display in classic fashion in Falworth, Universal’s adaptation of Men of Iron. Concocted as a star vehicle for Tony Curtis, in his first big-budget epic, Pyle’s simple tale is simplified even further for the screen, while its romance aspect is fleshed out to provide additional screen time for the radiant Janet Leigh, Curtis’s wife, in the rôle of the female romantic lead, Lady Anne. Curtis’s nimble athleticism serves him well in the part of the hot-headed and energetic Myles, though when reading his lines his delivery is still sometimes embarrassingly amateurish. It doesn’t help that a lot of the dialogue is in the highfalutin elevated diction considered appropriate for tales of medieval chivalry ever since Sir Walter Scott (e.g., “Have you not had your fill of buffoonery?”), but thankfully it’s toned down considerably from the language in the novel.

The guy who gets the best lines is Torin Thatcher—you know him as the sorcerer in 7th Voyage of Sinbad—appearing here as Sir James, the surly one-eyed master-of-arms-cum-drill-sergeant who trains Myles in the knightly martial arts. His is easily the film’s most enjoyable performance, clichéd though it may be, and when he barks a threat to hurl Myles from the battlements if he gets into another brawl, you believe him.

Falworth is Universal’s first Cinemascope extravaganza, and no expense was spared on the colorful costumes and expansive sets, with absurdly spacious castle interiors and grand courtyards where platoons of men-at-arms ply their medieval weaponry. The romance is familiar stuff, the villains’ plots are all too predictable, but the fight scenes are tight and well-choreographed, the whole thing is a pleasure to look at, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything but a simple tale of pluck and virtue triumphant over mean-spirited wickedness. (Oh, and by the way, persistent movie myth notwithstanding, Curtis never says,”Yonda stands the castle of my fadda”—for that, see “The Son of Ali Baba.”)

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
Rating: ***
Origin: USA,1944
Director: : Arthur Lubin
Source: Universal DVD

Ali Baba

After the success of the dumb Arabian Nights, Universal decided to give the genre another go with substantially the same cast—and we’re glad they did, because the second movie is 100% less dumb than the first. It starts out with an actual historical event, the 1258 siege and sacking of Bagdad by the Mongols of Hulagu Khan, and scenes of the massacre of the Bagdadis immediately set this film’s more serious tone. The Caliph is betrayed by his Grand Vizier and killed in a Mongol ambush (note to self: if Sultan or Caliph, do not have Grand Vizier), but the Caliph’s only son, Ali, escapes. Though historically the boy was captured by the Khan, here he gets away into the desert, where he stumbles upon the secret hideout of a band of forty thieves. And yes, the magic words “Open, sesame,” do open the lair’s stone doors, the only fantasy element in this film. To the bandits, Ali reveals his identity as the Caliph’s son, and their leader, Old Baba, adopts him as his own, hiding him under the new name Ali Baba. Old Baba appoints his aide, Abdullah—squeaky-voiced Andy Devine, here in brownface, best known for playing comic sidekicks in Westerns—to be Ali’s guardian and also, inevitably, his comic sidekick.

Ten years pass, and Ali, now grown (and henceforth played by Jon Hall), has emerged as the leader of the gang, which he’s re-forged into a band of freedom fighters conducting a guerilla war against the occupying Mongols. The Forty Thieves now wear red and blue uniform robes, and they even have a theme song they sing while galloping across the desert! “We riiiiide … plundering sons, thundering sons, forty and one for all, and all for one.” Hmm, that part sounds familiar. Wait, so does the next part: “Robbing the rich, feeding the poor….” Okay, got it: the Forty Thieves are the Merrie Men. Robin, I mean Ali, is scouting a Mongol camp when he meets Lady Amara (Maria Montez) swimming fetchingly in the water of the oasis. The daughter of the treacherous vizier, she’s on her way to Bagdad to be married to Hulagu Khan—but as a little girl, she had been the boy Ali’s childhood sweetheart, so this marriage must be stopped! Swashbuckling ensues, with raids, abductions, and captures, in all of which Amara is aided by her loyal knife-throwing servant, young Jamiel (Turhan Bey—the rôle had been written for Sabu, but having become a naturalized citizen, the teen star had joined the Army Air Force to serve as a tail gunner in B-24s). Ali decides it’s time for full-scale revolt against the Mongols, but gets captured himself, and to save him the thieves have to get smuggled into the palace inside forty man-sized oil jars—the only other nod, besides the cave doors, to the original Ali Baba story in The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment. In the end the uprising rises up in the nick of time, and—spoiler!—Lady Amara doesn’t have to marry Hulagu Khan. It’s not bad.