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When Myrna Loy appeared in The Barbarian (1933), she was a star on the rise, while Ramon Novarro, who had been big box office during the silent film era, was winding up his career as a star. Loy had been at MGM under contract for two years and now the studio was finally giving her a starring role. Despite the fact that Loy was on her way up and Novarro was on his way down, the two became very close friends.
The Barbarian was a sound remake of Novarro's own 1924 silent film The Arab, based on Edgar Selwyn's play of the same name, in which he had starred with Alice Terry. For the 1933 version, screenwriter Frances Goodrich and her husband, Albert Hackett, worked on the assignment for a few days before giving up. Goodrich told her agent that that story was old-fashioned. American tourist Diana (Loy) goes to Cairo with her aunt and uncle (Louise Closser Hale and C. Aubrey Smith) on a tour and to meet her fianc (Reginald Denny). While there, she encounters Jamil (Novarro), who acts as a tourist guide and falls in love with him, not knowing he's really a prince. To avoid trouble with the censors over having a Caucasian and an Arab in a relationship, it's later revealed that Diana has some Egyptian blood. It sounds ridiculous now and it was ridiculous then to Goodrich, who complained that "It was all so false, all hooey." There was certainly more than a passing resemblance to an old Rudolph Valentino "sheik" film, but Valentino had been in his grave for seven years and sheiks were pass in the age of Clark Gable and The Great Depression. Anita Loos and Elmer Harris took over the screenplay from Goodrich and Hackett.
The working title of the 1933 film was Man of the Nile, but was later changed to The Barbarian. It went into production on the MGM lot in February 1933, with location shooting done in Yuma, Arizona. The cast and crew, which included director Sam Wood, were shooting on the studio back lot on March 10, 1933, when the Long Beach Earthquake struck. Measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale, the quake caused considerable damage and rattled nerves. The Barbarian was shut down for the day when the arc lamps that lit the set fell over and the palm trees followed suit. Less dramatic but shocking enough to cause the censors to get involved was Loy's supposed "nude" swimming scene. Existing stills do make it seem as though Loy was naked under the water, but she admitted in her autobiography that she was actually wearing a flesh colored bodysuit. Nevertheless, the censors demanded that "all shots in which the girl's body is visible through the water" be cut. While The Barbarian made a $100,000 profit for the studio, it was considered racy enough to be banned from rerelease after the 1934 adoption of the film censorship rules known as The Production Code.
Loy and Novarro got along splendidly during shooting and after filming was over, Novarro had Myrna Loy house-sit for him at his home in Los Feliz, while he was on a singing tour in Europe. While he was gone, Myrna Loy read an article that claimed that Novarro, who was "heretofore impervious to women," had fallen madly in love with Loy and she with him. Loy, who was really dating producer Arthur Hornblow (they would later marry), was furious and ran down to the studio where she made sure Howard Strickling and his publicity department would never pair her with a costar in the gossip columns again. She later said, "It was preposterous. Ramon wasn't even interested in the ladies and I was seeing Arthur exclusively, so the publicity department had chosen a most unlikely pair."
Producer: Sam Wood
Director: Sam Wood
Screenplay: Elmer Harris, Anita Loos (writers); Edgar Selwyn (play)
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Herbert Stothart
Film Editing: Tom Held
Cast: Ramon Novarro (Jamil El Shehab), Myrna Loy (Diana 'Di' Standing), Reginald Denny (Gerald Hume, Diana's Fianc), Louise Closser Hale (Powers), C. Aubrey Smith (Cecil Harwood), Edward Arnold (Achmed Pasha), Blanche Friderici (Mrs. Hume, Gerald's Mother), Marcelle Corday (Marthe, Diana's Maid), Hedda Hopper (Mrs. Loway, American Tourist), Leni Stengel (Ilsa, German Tourist).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Ellenberger, Allan R. Ramon Novarro: A Biography of the Silent Film Idol, 1899-1968: With a filmography
Leider, Emily W. Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood
Motion Picture Herald Volume 112
Soares, Andr and Slide, Anthony Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro