Don't worry, Judge Jesse Ataide giggles when he says "Chu Chin Chow" out loud too.
They don't make 'em like this anymore. And there's a reason why.
Until the mid 1950s, the most successful stage musical to ever run in England was "Chu Chin Chow," a lavish adaptation of the Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves legend. In 1934, it was made into a huge, overblown film with little reworking, meaning that in some ways, Chu Chin Chow is a time capsule, capturing (intentionally or not) the sensibilities and creative values of another time in history.
Facts of the Case
Until Ali Baba (George Robey) stumbles across the password to open a cave containing unspeakable treasure and riches, he is simply a penniless old man working for his brother (John Garrick), the Sultan Nur-al-din Baba. Meanwhile, notorious criminal Abu Hasan and his band of thieves raid the camp of the fabulously wealthy Chinese ruler Chu Chin Chow. Posing as Chu Chin Chow to enter the Sultan's palace, Abu Hasan plans to make the royal home his next conquest with the aid of palace slave Zahrat (Anna May Wong), whom he plans to make his wife. It is only through the ultimate intervention of the double-crossed Zahrat that disaster and anarchy are averted, but not without a number of twists along the way.
It seems essential to take a historical approach while viewing Chu Chin Chow, because to modern eyes and ears, it almost inevitably comes off as an overblown, ridiculously hokey mess of a movie. It contains almost zero cinematic awareness (it's essentially a stage production performed before a camera), and the heavily-gestured acting style and stylized way of speaking are obvious holdovers from stage and silent film acting techniques. The pacing is poorly handled, many of the songs are downright boring, and there is no attempt of any kind at authenticity or historical accuracy. Chu Chin Chow is an unabashed attempt to capitalize on audience's appetite for the exotic, gaudy, and extreme. It is this over-the-top display of ridiculousness, however, that makes the film of some interest today.
One of the things that becomes immediately apparent during the opening moments of Chu Chin Chow is the embarrassing way Muslims and people of Arabic origins are portrayed. Watching light-skinned European actors decked out in foot-high turbans, fake black beards, and heavy makeup could potentially be quite offensive, particularly when all characters seem to possess child-like comprehension skills and ridiculous habits of yelling out "Oh Allah!" in moments of fright or surprise. It is only the sheer silliness of the whole spectacle and a very obvious awareness of its own outlandishness that saves Chu Chin Chow from the race issues that make films like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind so controversial to this day (it also helps that Chu Chin Chow also lacks the artistry, critical reputation, and cultural significance of those films).
If anything, Chu Chin Chow is a really good demonstration that, even as late as the first half of the 20th century, the idea of the Middle East being laden with silks, spices, monstrous stashes of gold, and writhing, half-naked female slaves was as widespread and accepted as it had been when the myths inspired explorers like Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus to set out in ships to collect these precious commodities for the Western World. At the same time, it also shows an enormous public craving for the sumptuous, foreign, and the overblown at this time between the World Wars, when economic and financial hardship was widespread in Britain, Europe, and the world in general. Perhaps then the overwhelming success of Chu Chin Chow as both a stage play and a film is not so much a demonstration of how tastes in entertainment have changed over the years (though it could certainly be viewed that way), but as a testament to the enduring desire audiences have to be enthralled and entertained. Considering the continued success of Andrew Lloyd Webber's overblown musical extravaganzas, it would seem that not much has changed over the last seventy years.
One particular aspect of Chow Chin Chow cuts through the historical static and still contains a raw power to this day, and that is Anna May Wong (Piccadilly). Wong, an intelligent and by all accounts massively talented star of Asian descent (Hollywood's first), had left Hollywood in the late 1920s in search of the artistic freedom offered by Europe. In search of roles beyond the exotic vamp she had been typecast as back in Hollywood, she found just as much success in Europe as she had back in America, though sadly she was never quite able to break out of the stereotypical roles she had initially set out to avoid. Chu Chin Chow, along with Piccadilly and Joseph von Sternberg's Shanghai Express, became her most important contributions to cinema (her shining moment could have been in the epic The Good Earth, but due to racism she lost the role to Luise Rainer, who subsequently won her second Oscar for her performance).
In Chu Chin Chow, Wong is the only actor who possesses any awareness of how to perform for the camera, and her role, though rather limited, has a sexiness and erotic pull that still packs a punch today. Her roots in silent cinema are obvious, and they serve her well as she expresses emotions and thoughts through her eyes and body movements, which give her screen presence a very contemporary edge the rest of the film lacks. It is no surprise that Wong has been experiencing a recent critical renaissance (three new books and critical studies have been published in the last year alone), and it is very intelligent of VCI Home Video to market Chu Chin Chow chiefly as an Anna May Wong film.
It should also be noted the VCI Home Video has done a knock-out job on bringing this film to DVD, lavishing on this minor curiosity a treatment usually equated only with major Criterion and Warner Bros. releases. This three-disc set not only contains a reconstructed version of the original British version of the film, but also the edited American version and a full disc of extras, including cartoons, biographies, vintage advertising and an additional feature-length film of similar faux-exotic content starring Fritz Kortner, one of Chu Chin Chow's lead stars.
The quality of the film, though admirable for a film of this age, nonetheless contains numerous image defects, including jumping, flickering, blurriness, and the occasional vertical black lines running through the image. The audio likewise has its problems, with some light hissing, crackling, and general quality problems usually equated with early talkie films (still a rather new phenomenon in 1934).
There is a bounty of extras included on disc one. Like several other VCI releases (notably Blonde Ice), Jay Fenton provides the commentary track (which starts of stiffly and relies on the obvious but gets more informative as it goes along), as well as the linear notes included in the DVD case. Other extras include a photo gallery dedicated to the exotic glamour of Anna May Wong, a gallery of original poster and lobby cards, a collection of stunning vintage memorabilia from the original stage production, scenes of Wong from the film Piccadilly and an appearance on the TV program Elstree Calling, as well as short bios of several of the film's main stars and trailers for several other VCI releases. For hard-core fans there is also a collection of bonus music tracks.
Disco Two contains the shortened version of Chu Chin Chow, cut down to a mere 78 minutes and renamed Ali Baba Nights. Almost all of the original songs are missing from this version (which may appeal to some viewers), but gone also are most scenes including the racier elements of the film, including the hordes of barely-clothed slave girls that populate the film (which are some of the film's chief pleasures). The quality also seems to suffer in this version, with even more image defects present than in the British version. The extras on this disc include a Popeye cartoon ("Popeye Meets Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves"), another poster and lobby card gallery, and trailers for Blonde Ice, Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and the Jean Renoir-helmed Southerner.
The third disc features the film Abul the Damned, a feature length thriller set in turn of the century Turkey, with Fritz Kortner playing the sultan of Turkey. Most of the action revolves around the country's political turmoil and an effort by Kortner's character to get a beautiful Austrian singer to enter his extensive harem. Its content is mildly interesting at best, but the quality of both the image and audio track is just as good, if not better than Chu Chin Chow. The extras on this disc include bios of three of the film's stars, and a series of trailers for a number of films including Slightly Scarlet, the gritty Anthony Mann-directed noirs T-Men and Raw Deal, The Scar, Impact (which features Anna May Wong in a supporting role), D.O.A., and once again, Blonde Ice.
So what does one make of this film? It's not good, but in its own way, its historical importance is undeniable. Fascinating, bizarre, and really, quite bad, but in a good way.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• 78 Minute Edited American Version
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