Judge Dennis Prince was shocked to discover that Scherherazade was actually the name of a lady dancer and not a brand of Middle East designer polo shirts.
A tale of treachery and romance set in the exotic Arabian desert.
If ever you wonder what became of the classic Saturday matinee, it's alive and well in this new Cinema Classics DVD from Universal, Arabian Nights. Released in 1942, the film offers the heavy-handed Hollywood spin on a faraway land filled with interesting peoples, homogenized here for easy consumption by the American moviegoer.
While American soldiers were bravely fighting the real enemies during World War II, Producer Walter Wanger (say that "wayne-jer") delivered a spectacular distraction for those at home who were anxious about their boys overseas. Here, Wanger and Director John Rawlins determined to offer a sweeping sword and sandal tale of love and loathing amid a prefabricated backdrop of humorous hi-jinks. The Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid (Jon Hall, Invisible Agent) has been seriously wounded in a coup attempt and is rescued by the quick thinking Ali Ben Ali (Sabu, The Jungle Book, 1942). Disguised as one of a band of traveling performers, Raschid learns his own unscrupulous brother, Kamar (Leif Erickson, Invaders from Mars, 1953) staged the coup and now has usurped the throne. While in the care of the performers, Raschid is tended to by the beautiful dancer, Scheherazade (Maria Montez, Cobra Woman), she who does not recognize the Caliph minus his customary beard. Believing she has been destined to wed Kamar and share in the ruler's riches, she unexpectedly falls for the disguised Raschid and unknowingly helps him wage an offense on his brother to regain his rightful throne.
Arabian Nights is pure Hollywood escapism—then and now. Afforded a significant budget during the time of its filming, Wanger put every penny to work to construct an elaborate production full of sweeping desert vistas and colorful sets and costumes. Oh yes, there was color on hand here as this was the first Universal picture to utilize the Technicolor three-strip process. The result looks crude by today's standards but imbues the picture with a texture that is vintage Tinseltown. While the coloring technique couldn't quite deliver the bold hues and saturations we're accustomed to today, it nonetheless manages to show off the eye-pleasing set dressings and wardrobes visible in every scene. Of course, the settings are Hollywood fabrication at its Golden Age finest, complete with visible matte paintings, cheerful cabanas, and plenty of potted palms.
As for the action, it's strictly played to the extreme, appearing initially to be a tale of stilted yet straightforward intrigue and peril, quickly sliding into a tone of Three Stooges type silliness. It's no wonder it has that "why I oughta" temperament given we immediately find Shemp Howard playing the role of a washed up Sinbad the Sailor. As one of the traveling performers, this Sinbad seeks every opportunity to impart the thrills of the exciting adventures he used to enjoy, that is if anyone would listen to him. But he's not alone in his displaced dilemma, as none other than Aladdin is also a performer, he who desperately rubs every lamp he can find in hopes of finding that elusive genie. The troupe is led by Vaudeville mainstay Billy Gilbert, a portly man with wide-open eyes and a trademark shtick of drawn-out explosive sneezing attacks (he performs one here). And, during the fight sequences, Gilbert throws his weight around, literally, as he bounces would-be assailants off his belly with an audible boinnngg.
Given the escapist aura and near-slapstick sensibility that abounds, it becomes clear this isn't to be an "actor's film." To that end, there are plenty of nubile females to be seen, none that can convincingly deliver a line of dialog nor can they muster up a thoughtful gaze. The actors are all stock character actors who deliver performance that are right off the cue cards. That gives us the lead actors beginning with the chiseled Jon Hall. He was the adoration of 1940s film fans and embodied the sort of heroic (now hammy) wiles that we hoped were also being practiced by our men in uniform half a world away. Maria Montez made her big breakthrough as Scheherazade, her sultry countenance, curvy figure, and thick Dominican accent making her a sight for the men of the day (and this role, incidentally, gained her the moniker of "The Queen of Technicolor," bestowed by the Universal Pictures marketing team). She couldn't act so convincingly yet her chemistry with Hall was effective enough to gain the pair seven more co-starring appearances in the years to come. Then there's the cunning Sabu, most widely remembered for his portrayal of Abu in 1940's The Thief of Baghdad. He plays his boyish role adeptly and with a more metered level of comedy, actually gaining himself a third-place position between Hall and Montez in this and two additional pictures. It all adds up to be a lighthearted romp that shows its age but can still be reasonably entertaining if you approach it in the proper frame of mind.
For the most part, Arabian Nights looks good in a restored transfer presented in the original 4:3 Academy Ratio. The Technicolor saturations appear to be tweaked ever so slightly at times, to gain a bit more push from the palette, but the process clearly shows its limitations. The source material must have been a bit damaged, resulting in the frequent appearance of blemishes that flitter by, visible but not truly distracting. Detail levels are a bit soft and contrast is a bit muted. As for the audio, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix performs adequately and preserves clarity of the dialog, score, and effects for the duration. The extras begin with Film Historian Robert Osborne providing his sitting room review as you've seen on the Turner Classic Movie network. The original theatrical trailer is also on board, showing considerable more damage than the feature print.
As the big studios continue to scour their vaults for more material to release, it's good to see classic pictures—however hokey by today's standards—find representation in the digital medium. Arabian Nights is inoffensive fun and definitely worthy of a look.
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• Introduction from film historian Robert Osborne
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