Thursday, February 07, 2008


A wild, exotic British musical, based on the tale of Ali Baba from the Arabian Nights. If you've been looking for a musical in which some of the production numbers include murder or mass slaughter, look no further. The film begins with a musical number detailing the preparations for a feast being given by the wealthy Kasim Baba for merchants visiting Baghdad, one of whom will be the fabled Chu Chin Chow. Slave girl Anna May Wong sends a pigeon to deliver a message to the master thief Abu Hasan (Fritz Kortner), who heads out to the desert to kill Chow, take his riches, and pose as him at the feast. We meet Kasim’s lazy older brother Ali (George Robey) and his handsome son Nur-al-din (John Garrick) who is sweet on another slave girl (Pearl Argyle). Ali happens to see Hasan and his forty thieves get in and out of their hiding place in the desert mountains by uttering "Open, O Sesame" and after they leave, he sneaks in, steals a large load of jewels, and returns to town a rich man. Kasim also discovers the "Sesame" secret and tries to steal some riches, but is found by the thieves and killed as the climax to a rousing song about drawing scimitars. In fact, he is cut up into several pieces (though we never see this) and his family hires a cobbler to stitch his body back together for his funeral. When Hasan finds out that Ali Baba has some of his riches, he and his gang sneak into a party being given for the visiting Caliph by hiding in olive oil barrels, and anyone who knows the original story knows how it ends. A spectacular battle scene involving a violent death and a man and a huge gong both falling down a flight of stairs is praised by the Caliph as grand "entertainment."

The movie itself is pretty good entertainment, though it surely won't be everyone's cup of tea. This is a unique film; though it sometimes has the feel of a Hope & Crosby “Road to Baghdad” movie, it isn’t exactly played for laughs. In fact, it feels a bit like a collaboration between Cecil B. DeMille and Busby Berkeley, though since it was done in England, it doesn’t have the big Hollywood sheen that those two would have given it. Nonetheless, the sets and costumes are convincing, and some of the numbers (especially one which threatens to turn into a water ballet) are well staged, even if the songs are not particularly memorable. There are loads of extras in the backgrounds of most scenes and loads of singers and dancers in every number which give the movie a convincingly busy and bustling atmosphere. The acting is hit-and-miss; Kortner (ABDUL THE DAMNED) makes a good bad guy and Garrick is an OK good guy; Robey, a music hall comedian, is miscast but not terribly so; Argyle, though attractive, is not much of an actor. Wong, whose reputation has undergone an upswing in recent years, hasn't much to do and is rather low-key in doing it. The movie is based on a very popular British stage extravaganza, and part of my interest in seeing this in the first place has to do with it being mentioned in AUNTIE MAME as a show that Mame and Vera toured in during their salad days. The disc from VCI is "restored," but don't expect anything more than an adequate print--there are some scratches and some murkiness in both the picture and the sound. I gave the commentary 15 minutes and it bored me to tears. Still, a nifty little buried gem that is certainly different from anything else from the era. [DVD]

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