Thousand and One Nights

A Thousand and One Nights
Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1945
Director: Alfred E. Green
Source: Amazon Streaming Video

This is a tongue-in-cheek Arabian Nights fantasy that falls somewhere between send-up of and homage to The Thief of Bagdad, especially the 1940 version. Aladdin of Cathay (?), played by Cornel Wilde, is a vagabond street singer whom we first see crooning an ode to the desirability of a row of women for sale at a slave auction. This is tasteless by current standards, but it does serve to inform us that in this film, the rôle of women is strictly ornamental—with one exception which we’ll get to shortly. This singing Aladdin has a sidekick, a pickpocket named Abdullah played by Phil Silvers—yep, it’s Sgt. Bilko, black-framed glasses and all. Everyone calls him crazy because he says he was born 1200 years too soon, makes jokes about television and gin rummy, and tells the palace guards their turbans are “groovy.”

In a scene lifted right out of Thief of Bagdad, mounted guards clear everyone from the street at the approach of the princess’s elaborate sedan chair, because “No man may gaze upon her and live.” That, of course, makes Aladdin determined to see her—and one daring intrusion and two songs later, the vagabond and the princess (Adele Jergens, strictly ornamental) have fallen in love. He serenades her in a palace garden that, like many of the sets, is a virtual duplicate of the one for the equivalent scene in Thief of Bagdad. In fact, the whole look of the film, the architecture, the props, the bright costumes against the pastel backgrounds, is practically a love letter to William Cameron Menzies.

Soon enough the guards are shouting “Seize him!”, and Aladdin and Abdullah are on the run. In a mystic cave they meet a mystic mage with a mystic crystal, who sends them after a mystic treasure guarded by a mystic giant—Rex Ingram himself, fifty feet tall and looking exactly as he did playing the Djinni in Thief of Bagdad, chasing his puny prey and doing That Laugh. The treasure turns out to be a magic lamp (oh, right: Aladdin) that contains the best thing about this movie, a sassy red-headed genie played by Evelyn Keyes and named, er, “Babs.” Keyes, who is lively, clever, and ornamental into the bargain, effortlessly steals the rest of the picture, and no wicked vizier, sultan’s evil twin, or mystic mage can stand against her. Bonus: in the finale Cornel Wilde, who’d been an Olympic fencer in the 1930s, gets a chance to show us what he can do with a sword, and it’s quite impressive. Groovy, even.

Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Thief of Bagdad
Rating: ****
Origin: UK, 1940
Directors: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan
Source: Criterion Collection DVD

The Thief of Bagdad

Everybody loves this movie. It’s got heart, magic, music, adventure, romance, and ambitious special effects that alternate between stupendous and hilarious. Hang it, even I love this movie. And yet, to be perfectly frank, it’s a bit of a mess.

Given its production history, it’s a wonder it was ever made at all. Hungarian-English producer Alexander Korda was determined to create a grand epic, a career-defining masterpiece, and inserted himself into every aspect of the film’s production, sometimes causing chaos. Shooting started in early 1939 with German director Ludwig Berger, but he wasn’t delivering a story on the scope that Korda wanted, and then that war thing happened, so Berger was replaced by three other directors, all English or American. Throughout production the story was in flux, constantly changing, with new elements added and other parts cut. When war actually broke out in September, 1939, further production in the U.K. was suspended, and the whole thing was picked up and moved to Hollywood, with side shooting in the Grand Canyon.

Whew! Somehow Korda took all these disparate assets and assembled a mostly-coherent whole, but one can see the seams where he stitched it together in continuity lapses and sudden changes of tone. And yet, all that hardly matters, because this Arabian Nights fable is so vivid and dreamlike that dream logic seems to hold it together.

Certainly the romance that’s ostensibly the plot’s driving wheel is flat and rather dull, as John Justin (King Ahmad) and June Duprez (Princess—that’s all the name she gets) don’t provide much heat, chemistry, or interest. Perhaps they knew they were hopelessly outclassed by the real stars: the young thief, the evil vizier, and the mighty djinni. In truth, this is their movie. The thief, Abu, is played with engaging panache by the fifteen-year-old Sabu (that’s all the name he gets), a lad of genuine charm from India. The great German actor Conrad Veidt is Jaffar—wizard, tyrant, lecher, and all-around wicked vizier—and he has a fine old time with the rôle. But no one is having as much fun as the African-American actor Rex Ingram as the Djinni, whose energy and gusto would make him seem 90 feet tall, even if he wasn’t already being depicted as 90 feet tall.

The story is loosely based on Doug Fairbanks’s 1924 silent epic, with a half-dozen other familiar Arabian Nights elements tossed into the stew to keep things bubbling. There’s a flying carpet, magical curses and transformations, grotesque monsters, and voyages to unknown lands: picking up from its silent predecessor, this is the film that set the style and tone for all the Arabian fantasy films to follow, up to and especially including Walt Disney’s Aladdin.

Warning: the European colonialist gaze is strong here. There are people of all different skin shades in Bagdad, but lightness of color is the infallible guide to status. This is somewhat offset by the prominent casting of the brown Sabu and the black Rex Ingram—but damn.

As for the film’s look, “sumptuous” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Visual wizard William Cameron Menzies, whose credits stretched back to the 1924 Thief of Bagdad, was Korda’s associate producer and uncredited fourth director, and his eye for form and color deserves much of the credit. The excellent score is an early effort by Miklós Rósza, best known for his soundtrack for Ben-Hur (1959). There are some hokey songs—for part of the production cycle Korda thought he wanted the film to be a musical—but the orchestral pieces are dynamic and memorable.

Guilty pleasure: The picture’s screenwriter, Miles Malleson, gets to play the delightful rôle of the dotty old Sultan of Basra, who collects magical toys. I have to say, seeing the script guy having such fun warms my writer’s heart. And even C. Aubrey Smith would be envious of his amazing whiskers.

Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad
Rating: ***** (Essential)
Origin: USA, 1924
Director: Raoul Walsh
Source: Cohen Film Collection DVD/Blu-Ray

The Thief of Bagdad

Douglas Fairbanks gets his swashbuckling mojo back in this fabulous, dream-like fantasy that features the star at his most expressive and balletic, swaggering, leaping, and pantomiming through a fable from the Arabian Nights. The costumes are eye-popping and opulent, with towering hats—I mean, they look like actual towers—and curly-toed shoes to die for. The fanciful sets (by William Cameron Menzies) are fairy-tale tall and studded with grips so Fairbanks can clamber all over them. In its own way the film is as excessive as Robin Hood, but this time every excess is in service to the story, which moves quickly and stays focused, even with a running time of almost two and a half hours. A lot of the credit for this should probably go to the director, the great Raoul Walsh, in an early effort from a long career that would later include such classics as High Sierra and swashbucklers like Captain Horatio Hornblower.

Even after almost a century, the Thief’s visual gags in this film are outstanding, a combination of Fairbanks’s inspired gymnastics and some imaginative camera tricks. Fairbanks’s dancelike movements and broad gestures are compelling and eloquent, but he’s just as effective with his facial features in intimate close-ups. The star still had many fine films ahead of him—as we’ll see—but The Thief of Bagdad has to be regarded as his masterpiece. The story, about wooing and winning a princess, is negligible, a flimsy pretext for infiltrations, escalades, abductions, and rescues involving such enchanted adjuncts as a fakir’s vertical trick rope, a flying carpet, and a wondrous winged horse. Also sleeping potions, mystic talismans, and a Valley of Fire. Plus secret panels, walking tree-men, giant bats, crystal balls, a cloak of invisibility, an underwater city of sirens, a spider the size of a grizzly bear, and the Old Man of the Midnight Sea. The film just keeps unrolling this rapid cavalcade of wonders, but somehow it stays fresh all the way to the end. Immortal line: “Fling him to the ape!”

Warning: this film has long been in the public domain, and there are a lot of crappy digital transfers out there. A lot of care went into restoring the Cohen Film version, and that’s the one I recommend.