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!

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (Fox 1932)

chandu1

Thrills! Chills! Romance! Action! CHANDU THE MAGICIAN plays like a Saturday matinée serial aimed directly at the kiddie crowd. Based on a popular radio series, the film is pretty antiquated seen today, its saving graces being the special effects wizardry of co-director William Cameron Menzies and the deliciously evil Bela Lugosi as the megalomaniacal villain Roxor.

chandu2

The movie kicks off with the banging of a gong and an offscreen narrator ominously intoning “Chan-du the Magician”. A hand is used to wipe the screen credits, the first of Menzies’ many filmic tricks. We’re taken inside a temple where Frank Chandler, aka Chandu, has spent three years learning the ancient secrets of the mystic arts (move over, Dr. Strange!). He’s a yogi now, master of the hypnotic eye and astral projection, and demonstrates his prowess by performing the old Indian rope trick and walking through fire. His mentor bids him to “go forth in thy youth and strength, and conquer the evil that threatens mankind”.

chandu3

That evil is in the form of Roxor, “last of an ancient family that lived in Alexandria”. Roxor has kidnapped Chandu’s brother-in-law Robert Regent, who has invented a “death ray” Roxor plans on using to conquer the world through chaos and disorder. Chandu senses his sister Dorothy and her two (whiny, annoying) teenage kids are in danger, so he goes to them just in time to rescue them from Roxor’s minions. Chandu’s long-lost love Princess Nadji shows up, as does Chandu’s former Army orderly Miggles, another annoying character, who’s fondness for booze is countered by one of Chandu’s spells, making a mini-clone of Miggles appear every time the souse tries to drink.

chandu4

Roxor’s flunky Sheik Abdulah (played by Clark Gable look-and-sound alike Weldon Heyburn, who’s about as much of a sheik as I am!) kidnaps the princess to lure Chandu into the madman’s clutches. He rescues her, but then niece Betty Lou is kidnapped, and Roxor threatens to sell her into slavery unless Regent gives him the secret of the death ray. Once again, Chandu to the rescue, and Roxor is royally pissed! He figures out a way to capture the magician by using tear gas, nullifying the power of Chandu’s hypnotic eyes, and chains Chandu in a sarcophagus, dropping it to the bottom of the Nile.

chandu4

Roxor has trapped Regent’s family in a cell with a tilting floor, threatening to dump them in the Nile too, before Regent consents to activate the death ray. Chandu’s gone, Nadji is in the clutches of Abdulah, Miggles is useless, and it looks like the crazed Roxor will reign supreme! Here’s where Bela gets to do some of his patented ranting and raving, while visions of his plan for death and destruction play out onscreen:

“At last, I am king of all”, he bellows. “That lever is my scepter. London! New York! Imperial Rome! I can blast them all into a heap of smoking ruins! … All that live shall know me as their master… What will they think when they feel the power of Roxor!” But alas, Roxor has spoken too soon, as Chandu escapes his watery grave, rescues everyone, and Roxor and his minions are blown to smithereens by the death ray machine, which Regent rigged in order to stop the maniac. A happy ending is had by all. Except Roxor, of course.

chandu5

Edmond Lowe was a star of silent and early talkies best known for his role as Sgt. Quirt in WHAT PRICE GLORY?, a role he repeated more than once. He makes a dashing hero, but I was never convinced he was a master yogi. Irene Ware (Nadji) would again appear with Bela as the object of his desire in THE RAVEN . Herbert Mundin (Miggles) is extremely annoying here, but good as Much the Miller in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD . Henry B. Walthall (Regent) was also a silent star, going all the way back to BIRTH OF A NATION.

chanduthemagician35

Then there’s Bela Lugosi, once again stealing the show, going far over the top and laying it on thick as the evil Roxor. His strange pronunciations and inflections give his Roxor an exotic edge, and he chews the scenery like an overcooked steak. Believe it or not, two years later a serial was produced, THE RETURN OF CHANDU, with Lugosi switching sides to portray the master magician! It was a rare chance for Bela to act the hero, and though I haven’t seen it, its definatley on my bucket list!

Roxor’s lab is filled with weird, Strickfaden-like devices, and Menzies’ special effects were cutting edge for their time. Unfortunately, some of them don’t hold up very well today. The camerawork does though, with some wonderful imagery captured by the legendary James Wong Howe . CHANDU THE MAGICIAN does suffer from some wooden acting and stilted dialog, but as always Bela Lugosi shines like a diamond in the rough. Fans of the Hungarian star will want to savor his performance in this goulash, another delightfully demented villain to add to Bela’s Rogue’s Gallery of amazing madmen.

Curiouser & Curiouser: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Paramount 1933)

alice1

Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s classic ALICE IN WONDERLAND was turned into an all-star spectacular by Paramount in 1933. But the stars were mostly unrecognizable under heavy makeup and costumes, turning audiences off and causing the film to bomb at the box office. Seen today, the 1933 ALICE is a trippy visual delight for early movie buffs, thanks in large part to the art direction of William Cameron Menzies.

alice5

Menzies’ designs are truly out there, giving ALICE the surrealistic quality of the books themselves. He actually storyboarded his ideas right into the physical script, earning a co-writer credit along with Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Menzies was the cinematic wizard whose art direction brought the magical 1924 THE THIEF OF BAGDAD to life. He was co-director and special effects designer for 1932’s CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, and the title of Production Designer was invented for him on the classic GONE WITH THE WIND. Menzies also directed a few films; especially of note are the science fiction entries THINGS TO COME and INVADERS FROM MARS.

alice2

You all know the story: young Alice is snowed in and bored, daydreaming away the time. She falls asleep, and dreamily takes a trip through the looking glass, where everything is backwards, and the chess board comes to life. Alice goes outside and follows the White Rabbit (Skeets Gallagher) down the hole, where she encounters a strange world inhabited by Caterpillar (Ned Sparks), Frog (Sterling Holloway ), The Duchess (Alison Skipworth) and her baby (Billy Barty), The Cheshire Cat (Richard Arlen), The March Hare (Charlie Ruggles ), The Mad Hatter (Edward Everett Horton), The Doormouse (Jackie Searl), The King and Queen of Hearts (Alec B. Francis, May Robson), Gryphon (William Austin), The Mock Turtle (Cary Grant), The Red Queen (Edna May Oliver), The White Queen (Louise Fazenda), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Roscoe Karns, Jack Oakie), Humpty Dumpty (W.C. Fields ), and The White Knight (Gary Cooper ) on her madcap journey through Wonderland.

Alice In Wonderland (1933) | Pers: Alison Skipworth | Dir: Norman Z. (M) Mcleod | Ref: ALI012AJ | Photo Credit: [ The Kobal Collection / Paramount ] | Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement

Nineteen year old Charlotte Henry stars as  twelve year old Alice, and she’s perfect in the part. In fact, she was too perfect, as she became so closely identified with Alice it was tough for her to get other roles. After costarring as Bo-Peep in Laurel & Hardy’s BABES IN TOYLAND (retitled MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS), Henry appeared in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (with Boris Karloff) and the Frank Buck serial JUNGLE MENACE before retiring from film at the age of 28.

alice4

Film fanatics will be able to recognize many of the stars by their distinct voices. Grant, Cooper, and Fields (who’s my personal favorite) are easy, but true movie afficianados won’t have trouble finding Oakie, Ruggles, Horton, Holloway, or Oliver. Leon Errol Roscoe Ates , Baby LeRoy, and Mae Marsh also take part in this hallucinogenic fantasy directed by Norman Z. McLeod. The director was a comedy specialist, working with greats like Fields (IT’S A GIFT, IF I HAD A MILLION), The Marx Brothers (MONKEY BUSINESS , HORSE FEATHERS), Bob Hope (THE ROAD TO RIO, THE PALEFACE), and Danny Kaye (THE KID FROM BROOKLYN, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), and helming the classic ghost comedy TOPPER.

alice6

Besides the Fields and Cooper segments, one part of the film I really enjoyed was when Tweedledee and Tweedledum relate the story of The Walrus and The Carpenter to Alice. Here the movie veers off into animation by Hugh Harman and Rudoph Ising, a pair of Disney veterans who’d later inaugurate Warner’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. It’s a cute little vignette done by the animation pioneers, who later created such characters as Bosko and Barney Bear. ALICE IN WONDERLAND probably won’t appeal to those who’re enamored of CGI, but it was way ahead of its time, and is historically worth a look. After all, it isn’t every day you get a chances to see Cary Grant as The Mock Turtle or W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, now is it?