Adventure of a Lifetime: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (United Artists 1940)

Alexander Korda’s Arabian Nights fantasy THE THIEF OF BAGDAD has stood the test of time as one of filmdom’s most beloved classics. A remake of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s 1924 silent classic, Korda and company added some elements of their own, including Indian teen star Sabu as the title character, and some innovative Special Effects. In some scenes THE THIEF OF BAGDAD plays like a child’s fable, in others a horror movie, all blended together to create a grand piece of entertainment, despite having five different directors!

Those familiar with Disney’s animated 1992 ALADDIN will recognize much of the plot here. Blind former Prince Ahmad and his faithful dog are begging for alms when summoned by trickery to the court of evil Grand Vizier Jaffar to awaken a beautiful princess from her slumber. Ahmad then relates the backstory of what has transpired: thrown into prison by his treacherous Vizier, he meets the child-thief Abu, who has stolen the key to the cell. The two escape before being beheaded to the city of Basra, where Ahmad lays eyes on the Sultan’s beautiful daughter, whose face it is forbidden to behold. Ahmad must see her again, and he does, with the help of young Abu. The exiled prince and the beautiful princess fall madly in love, because of course they do!

Jaffar, usurper of the throne of Bagdad, also travels to Bagdad, though his purpose is more nefarious in nature. He’s greeted by the doddering old Sultan, a collector of mechanical toys, and Jaffar has come bearing a gift: a flying mechanical horse! The Sultan, after taking a joyride, must possess this magnificent marvel, and Jaffar asks in return the hand of his daughter. The Princess, wanting no part of Jaffar, flees to Samarkand, and Ahmad and Abu are caught at the palace, where Jaffar uses his evil magic to blind Ahmad and turn Abu into a dog!

Back to the present: Ahmad’s presence wakes the princess, but she’s spirited away from him again aboard Jaffar’s ship. Abu-dog follows, only to be thrown overboard for his troubles. The princess, at Jaffar’s mercy, lets him embrace her, breaking the spell and restoring Ahmad and Abu to normal. They give chase, but the Grand Vizier conjures up a raging hurricane, stranding the pair on a deserted island, where peril awaits at every turn, including from a giant vindictive Djinn who has been trapped in a bottle for two thousand years…

The adventure never abates, as Abu must steal the All-Seeing Eye embedded in a statue inside a great temple in order to find his friend Ahmad. This spooky sequence is the most horror-influenced in the film, with Sabu climbing the web of a giant, venomous spider to get to the Eye, being careful not to fall into the abyss where a deadly octopus lays in wait. Another scary scene occurs when Jaffar conjures a murderous six-armed “Silver Maid” to lure the Sultan into a death embrace. There’s also flashing swordplay, romance, comedy, and even a few songs thrown in for good measure… a little something for everybody in this spectacular film, shot in gorgeous Technicolor by Oscar-winning Cinematographer Georges Perinal.

Sabu gives a charming, energetic performance as the thief Abu. The young star came into prominence in 1937’s ELEPHANT BOY at the age of 13, and is fondly remembered as Mowgli in the 1942 THE JUNGLE BOOK, as well as a string of Universal/Maria Montez/Jon Hall costumers. The great Conrad Veidt is the personification of evil as Jaffar, in what may very well be his best role of the sound era. John Justin (Ahmad) is handsome and heroic; he had a long screen career mainly in Britain, later popping up in some of Ken Russell’s 70’s films. June Duprez is lovely indeed as the Princess; among her movie credits are THE FOUR FEATHERS, NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Miles Malleson (The Sultan) also wrote the film’s screenplay; horror fans will recognize him from DEAD OF NIGHT , PEEPING TOM , and the Hammer entries HORROR OF DRACULA , HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, BRIDES OF DRACULA, and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

The there’s Rex Ingram, the American actor playing the Djinn. Ingram’s genie is no joking Robin Williams, but a towering titan of malevolence who only does Sabu’s bidding when the thief tricks him back inside the bottle. Ingram made his film debut in 1918’s TARZAN OF THE APES as an uncredited native. His booming voice landed him the plumb role of De Lawd in the 1936 all-black cast THE GREEN PASTURES, but like most black actors of the era, Ingram never broke the color barrier to major stardom. His talent could not be denied however, and he worked steadily in films: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (as Jim opposite Mickey Rooney’s Huck), THE TALK OF THE TOWN (as Ronald Colman’s valet), the all-black musical fantasy CABIN IN THE SKY, the war drama SAHARA, A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (as a giant reminiscent of his Djinn), GOD’S LITTLE ACRE, ANNA LUCASTA (as Eartha Kitt’s father), and his last, Otto Preminger’s HURRY SUNDOWN. Ingram also stands out in a 1969 episode of GUNSMOKE as an aging ex-slave.

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD was started by German director Ludwig Berger. Producer Korda, unhappy with the results, replaced him with Michael Powell, assisted by Tim Whelan. When financing and the war in Europe ground production to a halt, Korda moved filming to Hollywood, where William Cameron Menzies and Zoltan Korda took turns in the director’s chair. Menzies worked on the ’24 version, and his fingerprints are all over this one, though art direction and production design are credited to another Korda brother, Vincent. The Oscar was also awarded to the movie for its dazzling Special Effects. Lawrence Butler pioneered the bluescreen travelling matte process in this film, a process still in use today. Though primitive compared to CGI, it holds up well, and should be viewed from a historic standpoint. Miklos Rozsa’s outstanding score earned the composer his first Oscar nomination, though he lost to PINOCCHIO. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is truly a classic fantasy film, and has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then again, so does PADDINGTON 2, so don’t take their word for it… see it yourself, and prepare to be enchanted!

 

 

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt. 5: Fabulous 40s Sleuths

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It’s time again for me to make room on the DVR! This edition features five Fabulous 40’s films of mystery and suspense, with super sleuths like Dick Tracy and Sherlock Holmes in the mix for good measure. Here’s five capsule reviews of some crime flicks from the 1940s:

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WHISTLING IN THE DARK (MGM 1941, D: S. Sylvan Simon): The first of three movies starring comedian Red Skelton as Wally Benton, aka radio detective ‘The Fox’. Skelton is kidnapped by a phony spiritual cult led by Conrad Veidt to devise “the perfect murder”. Ann Rutherford and Virginia Grey play rivals for Red’s affections, while Eve Arden is her usual wisecracking self as Red’s manager. Some of the jokes and gags are pretty dated, but Red’s genial personality makes the whole thing tolerable. Fun Fact: Rags Ragland (Sylvester) was once the Burlesque comedy partner of Phil Silvers.

Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)
Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (Universal 1942, D: Roy William Neill): Basil Rathbone IS Sherlock Holmes in this fourth entry in the series. All the gang from 221B Baker Street are along for the ride (Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey, Mary Gordon) as Holmes tries to foil a plot to steal a new bomb sight (for the war effort, don’t you know) by his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty. A secret code holds all the answers. That Grand Old Villain Lionel Atwill plays “The Napoleon of Crime”, and it’s terrific to watch screen vets Rathbone and Atwill engage in a battle of wits. In fact, it’s my favorite Universal Holmes movie because of the pairing of the two. Fun Fact #1: Rathbone and Atwill also costarred in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Fun Fact #2: Kaaren Verne (Charlotte) was the second wife of another screen villain, Peter Lorre!

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TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (RKO 1945, D: Anthony Mann): Ann Rutherford’s back as a female cab driver who helps an amnesia victim (Tom Conway) piece things together in this early effort from director Anthony Mann. Unlike Mann’s later films, the tone’s light and breezy here. There’s lots of plot twists to keep you guessing, and Conway and Rutherford have good onscreen chemistry. Cracked Rear Viewers will recognize supporting players Lester Matthews (The Raven), Jean Brooks (The Seventh Victim), and Jane Greer (Out of the Past). Hollywood’s favorite drunk Jack Norton does his schtick in a bar scene (where else?). Fun Fact: Actor Dick Lane (reporter Haley) later became a TV sports commentator in the 50’s, announcing pro wrestling and Roller Derby matches!

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DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME (RKO 1947, D: John Rawlins): Chester Gould’s stalwart comic-strip cop (personified by Ralph Byrd) goes up against gangster Gruesome, who uses a paralyzing gas to commit bank robberies. Boris Karloff is Gruesome (of course he is!), and adds his special brand of menace to the proceedings. (At one point, Dick’s aide Pat exclaims, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff!”) Gould’s trademark quirky character names like L.E. Thal and Dr. A. Tomic are all in good fun, and the Familiar Face Brigade includes Anne Gwynne, Milton Parsons, Skelton Knaggs, and Robert Clarke, among others. Fast moving and fun, especially for Karloff fans. Fun Fact: Boris played many gangsters early in his career, including a role in the 1932 Howard Hawks classic SCARFACE.

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THE THREAT (RKO 1949, D: Felix Feist): Convict Red Kluger (Charles McGraw) busts out of Folsom Prison and kidnaps the cop who sent him away (Michael O’Shea), the DA (Frank Conroy), and his former partner’s moll (Virginia Grey again). The police go on a manhunt to capture Kluger and save the others in this taut, suspenseful ‘B’ crime noir.  Quite brutal and violent for it time, with McGraw outstanding as the vicious killer on the loose. A very underrated and overlooked film that deserves some attention. Highly recommended! Fun Fact: Inspector Murphy is played by Robert Shayne, better known as Inspector Henderson on TV’s SUPERMAN.

Enjoy others in the series:

Halloween Havoc!: Peter Lorre in MAD LOVE (MGM 1935)

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I mentioned in my review of Body Parts that it was a variation of THE HANDS OF ORLAC, a 1920 novel by French author Maurice Renard. The book was first adapted to film in a 1920 silent starring Conrad Veidt. The story has been retold many times, in many different ways, but none have surpassed the 1935 adaptation MAD LOVE. This film really doesn’t get its due as one of the top horrors of the 1930s. Director Karl Freund (THE MUMMY) uses his background in German expressionism and, together with cinematographer Gregg Toland, gives us a Grand Guignol thriller that’s hard to resist.

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Peter Lorre makes his American film debut as Dr. Gogol, a brilliant surgeon obsessed with beautiful actress Yvonne Orlac. Yvonne is married to concert pianist Stephen Orlac, and rebuffs the strange looking doctor. Returning to Paris via train, Orlac sees the convicted knife-throwing murderer Rollo board, heading for the guillotine. The train is derailed, and Orlac’s hands are crushed in the wreckage. Yvonne pleads with Gogol to restore her husband’s hands. The doctor says he can do nothing at first, then has an idea. He grafts the hands of killer Rollo onto Orlac. The operation is successful, but Orlac cannot play piano the wat he once did. He has, however, gained a peculiar proficiency in knife throwing.madlove3

American reporter Reagan is trying to get a story about Rollo. Gogol was given the body, but won’t let Reagan or anyone else see it. You see, the doctor hasn’t told Orlac his hands once belonged to Rollo. Gogol then devises as scheme to drive Orlac mad by “power of suggestion”. He kills Orlac’s step-father, then tries to convince the pianist he did the deed himself. Gogol costumes himself as Rollo, telling Orlac his head was grafted back on, like Orlac’s hands. Orlac is arrested, but Reagan suspects Gogol’s up to no good. The ending finds mad Doctor Gogol about to strangle Yvonne when Orlac throws a fateful knife and saves his wife from certain death.

Lorre is wonderful as Gogol. With his shaved head, bulging eyes, and fur collar, Gogol is second only to Hans Beckert in 1931’s M as Lorre’s creepiest character. Whether reading poetry to a wax effigy of Yvonne, or dressing as a man with a head transplant. Lorre gives a rich portrayal of a man driven mad by unrequited love. He’s particularly effective in the end scene, laughing hysterically at his misdeeds, believing Yvonne’s statue has come to life (“My Galatea!”), and finally striking out to kill what he loves most. Out of all Lorre’s long career, Gogol is surely his most frightening portrayal.

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Colin Clive is sympathetic as Orlac. Clive is best known to horror buffs as Dr. Frankenstein in Universal’s classic film and its sequel, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Frances Drake is also familiar to horror fans for her role in THE INVISIBLE RAY, with Karloff and Lugosi. Ted Healey, former Three Stooges boss, is the comic relief as reporter Reagan. Killer Rollo is familiar heavy Edward Brophy. Other supporting stars are Charlie Chan’s Number One Son, Keye Luke, Sara Hayden, Billy Gilbert, and Ian Wolfe.

Freund’s artistry gives MAD LOVE that expressionistic look and feel. Freund was cinematographer on 1920’s THE GOLEM and the Fritz Lang gem METROPOLIS. He was behind the cameras for 1931’s DRACULA and 1932’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE. Winning an Oscar for 1937’s THE GOOD EARTH, Freund continued to work his magic on pictures like GOLDEN BOY, UNDERCURRENT, and KEY LARGO. Making the switch to television in its infancy, Freund was a pioneer of the 3-camera set-up, filming most episodes of I LOVE LUCY. Gregg Toland was a fine cinematographer in his own right. Besides MAD LOVE, Toland was behind the camera for such classics as DEAD END, CITIZEN KANE, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, winning his own Oscar for 1939’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS. MAD LOVE is a true classic of horror cinema, with a chilling performance by Peter Lorre as the deranged Dr. Gogol. Add this one to your Halloween watch list!

Top Ten Reasons CASABLANCA is The Greatest Movie Ever Made!!

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Seventy three years have passed since CASABLANCA was first released. What can I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before, by writers far more skilled than me? Well, since CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite, I feel obliged to put my two cents in. So, here are my top ten reasons why CASABLANCA is the greatest movie ever made:

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  1. Humphrey Bogart as Rick.  While Bogie was already a star thanks to THE MALTESE FALCON, his performance here sent him into the stratosphere. Cynical, self-centered Rick Blaine, bitter over a lost love, sticks his neck out for nobody. His character is multi-layered, and his true nature wins out in the end. Without Bogie in the role, CASABLANCA wouldn’t be half as good.
  2. Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa.  Beautiful Bergman underplays her part in what should have been an Oscar winning turn (sorry, Greer Garson). Ilsa’s feelings are torn between Rick and husband Victor Laszlo, and the depth of those feelings come right through the screen.rains
  3. Claude Rains as Captain Renault. Corrupt, cagey Renault is one of Rains’ best roles. Playing a man who claims to have “no convictions”, Rains shows why he was one of cinema’s best character actors. His banter with Bogart throughout the film is priceless.
  4. The Dialogue.  Every line is a gem, with many of them becoming part of the lexicon (“I’m shocked, shocked…”, “Here’s looking at you, kid”, “Round up the usual suspects”). Writers Howard Koch and Julius and Phillip Epstein came up with a perfect script. (And Phillip became grandfather to a boy named Theo Epstein, who guided my beloved Boston Red Sox to World Series title in 2004, ending an eighty-six year drought!!)

    'Casablanca' Film - 1942...No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (1082971b) 'Casablanca' - Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Sydney Greenstreet 'Casablanca' Film - 1942
    ‘Casablanca’ Film – 1942…No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage
    Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (1082971b)
    ‘Casablanca’ – Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Sydney Greenstreet
    ‘Casablanca’ Film – 1942
  5. Dooley Wilson as Sam.  African-American Sam is written and played as a friend and confidant to white Rick ,rather than a servant.  The two men are equals, a rarity for a 1942 film. Besides the heart wrenching “As Time Goes By”, Wilson also sings “It Had to Be You” and “Knock On Wood”, which brings me to….
  6. The Music. Max Steiner’s score hits all the right notes, setting the mood for the drama. Speaking of music, the duel between the Germans singing “Watch on the Rhine” and Laszlo leading the patrons of Rick’s in “La Marseillaise” is one of Hollywood’s finest moments. supp
  7. The Supporting Cast. Without a doubt, the greatest supporting cast ever assembled. Paul Henreid is the moral core as Victor Laszlo, Peter Lorre’s brief bit as weaselly Ugarte is pivotal to the plot,  Conrad Veidt the epitome of Nazi oppression. CASABLANCA is fun for movie fans who love to play Spot the Stars: look, there’s S.Z. Sakall, Dan Seymore, Sydney Greenstreet, Lenoid Kinskey, John Qualen, Gino Corrado, Madeline LeBeau, Frank Puglia, Marcel Dalio, Joy Page, Hemlut Dantine, Torbin Meyer….
  8. Emotional Manipulation. Any good movie knows how to play its patrons, but none better than CASABLANCA. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride, and no matter how many times I see it, I still get caught up in it. I know what’s coming, but I cry at the end anyway.
  9. Michael Curtiz. The man simply does not get enough credit for being one of the all-time great directors. You can’t make a film like CASABLANCA without a top director at the helm. Just look at his resume… soul

   10. CASABLANCA Can Never Be Duplicated!  Anyone out there have fond memories of the 1955       TV version with Charles McGraw? Or the 1983 one starring David Soul? Didn’t think so.

So there you have it! A one of a kind movie, still as powerful as when it first hit the screen. CASABLANCA is the greatest movie ever made, and remains my favorite. I could watch it over and over, like listening to a favorite song. If you’ve never seen it….what are you waiting for???