It may seem strange and slightly ironic to those of us living in the 21st century, but there was a time not so long ago–the 1940s, to be precise–when audiences, tired of news accounts of war and global strife, found escape at their local theaters through movies set in the Middle East. These weren’t contemporary accounts of the region, of course, but action-packed, fanciful looks back at a land still shrouded in mystery, as it was depicted in fables of legendary heroes.
One of the first such pictures was 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, based on a 1924 silent movie starring Douglas Fairbanks and produced by British brothers Alexander and Zoltan Korda. The film, which featured a 16-year-old Indian lad known as Sabu in the title role, was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and its success inspired Universal Pictures and producer Walter Wanger to try their hand of creating a Middle East adventure of their own. So it was that the studio brought Sabu to Hollywood, teamed him with in-house leading man Jon Hall, and cast their resident “exotic siren,” Maria Montez, to play the seductive Scheherazade in the light-hearted swashbuckler (or should that be “sashbuckler”?) saga Arabian Nights (1942).
Any resemblance between Universal’s film and the original stories–not to mention any adherence to geographical accuracy–is quickly tossed aside during the opening moments. As a building that looks suspiciously like the Taj Mahal looms in the background of an Arab royal harem, the aged guardian/chaperone/teacher (?) shares the story-within-a-story of Scheherazade to his scantily-clad charges. This is not the virtuous heroine of literary fame who manages to keep her royal husband from putting her to death by telling him 1,001 consecutive “to be continued” bedtime tales, however. Here, Montez’s Scheherazade is a self-centered, scheming dancing girl who, it is prophesied, will one day be queen of Bagdad and who, as a result, comes between two siblings vying for control of the Caliphate: the virtuous Haroun (Hall), the rightful ruler, and his envious brother, Kamar (Leif Erickson). Kamar’s plan to depose Haroun fails and he is sentenced to “slow death” by exposure. Before the penalty can be carried out or Haroun can grant him a “merciful” quick death, Kamar’s followers free him and, following a breathtaking chase across the city rooftops, send a wounded Haroun fleeing.
Luckily for Haroun, he is saved before Kamar’s men can capture him by Ali Ben Ali (Sabu), a young acrobat with a travelling troupe of performers, who places Haroun’s ring on a dead man to make everyone think he was killed and takes the injured ex-Caliph back to his circus to recover. Among those helping Ali care for his new friend are an aging Sinbad the Sailor (played by none other than Shemp Howard, in-between stints as the Third Stooge), who bores everyone around him with incessant stories of his voyages; a befuddled Aladdin (John Qualen, best known as the Norwegian resistance fighter in Casablanca) who keeps rubbing every lamp he sees, hoping it’s the magic lamp one he lost years earlier; and the circus’s boisterous proprietor, Ahmad (Billy Gilbert). As fate would have it, another member of the company is none other than Scheherazade, who is unaware at first of Haroun’s true identity, or that Kamar has ordered his advisor Nadan (Edgar Barrier) to find her and bring her back to Bagdad to become his queen.
Nadan, however, doesn’t like the idea of anyone else having influence over Kamar, and arranges to have Scheherazade and the rest of the company–including Haroun–sold off to slave traders. The group manages to free themselves and makes their way to the desert, only to be captured by Kamar and Nadan’s forces. By this time Scheherazade has fallen in love with Haroun, and the ever-conniving advisor convinces her that he’ll see to Haroun’s safety if she’ll wed Kamar, then poison him so that Nadan can claim the throne. It’s up to Ali and his friends to save the day, with the two brothers facing off in a final swordfight that only one will survive.
Arabian Nights borrows heavily from the basic storyline of the Korda Brothers’ The Thief of Bagdad: handsome rightful ruler deposed, young urchin befriends him, heroine forced to wed villain, and so on. But while that movie offered up some of the most memorable screen fantasy elements to date (the mechanical flying horse, giant spiders over octopus pits, flying carpets, and Rex Ingram as the colossal genie), there are no such supernatural wonders here. This is a fairly straightforward costume thriller that relies more on action and nifty stunt work surrounding a by-the-book romance, enhanced by boldly hued sets and backgrounds (It was Universal’s first film shot in the three-strip Technicolor process).
It also has some dependable comedy relief courtesy of Sabu, as well as veteran funnymen Billy Gilbert (who does his trademark sneezing routine and poses in drag as “a bag from Bagdad” in one scene) and Shemp Howard (who also worked with Abbott and Costello, Olsen and Johnson, and John Wayne during his Universal tenure). Jon Hall, who shot to fame in a sarong alongside Dorothy Lamour in 1937’s The Hurricane, is a suitably stoic leading man, and Dominican-born beauty Maria Montez–whose 11-year screen career was founded on her looks rather than her acting–demonstrates why she was dubbed “The Queen of Technicolor” (a title she later shared with Maureen O’Hara).
Like its English precursor, Arabian Nights was a big hit at the box office, earning four Academy Award nominations for Universal. The studio–which, from monster movies to Sherlock Holmes whodunits, knew a good thing when it saw it–reunited Hall, Montez and Sabu for two more features–the South Seas dramas White Savage (1943) and Cobra Woman (1944)–and returned the two romantic leads to Old Araby in 1944’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Now seen as high camp adventures, these escapist films gave ’40s audiences the kind of carefree, daredevil release war-weary moviegoers yearned for…even if now, an Arabian Nights trailer describing the Baghdad locale as a “city of temptation, home of fiery adventure” seems to carry a whole other meaning.