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Screenwriter-director-producer Herbert J. Biberman was not far into his Hollywood career (and not far from the end of it either, thanks to the Blacklist) when he made Action in Arabia (1944). It's the story of an American journalist in Syria who unravels the mystery of a murdered reporter colleague and, with the aid of a female secret agent, sabotages a Nazi scheme to blow up the Suez Canal.
After a successful stage career as one of the leading directors of the Theater Guild in the late '20s and early '30s, Biberman came to Hollywood in 1935 and wrote, directed and/or co-produced some low-budget films before penning the script for this picture with novelist Philip MacDonald, who had adapted Daphne Du Maurier's novel Rebecca (1940) for Alfred Hitchcock's screen version. Biberman worked on only four more movies after this before making headlines in 1947 for refusing to answer questions about his alleged Communist Party membership before Congress's House Un-American Activities Committee. Three years later, as one of the famed Hollywood Ten, he was convicted of contempt of Congress and jailed for six months. Both he and his wife, Gale Sondergaard, Academy Award-winning Best Supporting Actress for Anthony Adverse (1936) who also refused to testify about her political affiliations, were blacklisted.
After 1949, Sondergaard began selling real estate and did not appear in another film until playing a small part in Slaves (1969), written and directed by her husband. He made one other film in the interim, the legendary Salt of the Earth (1954), a moving tribute to the hardships and racism faced by Chicano labor activists, based on a real mining strike in New Mexico. Actual miners and their families played many of the leading roles, and the film was financed by a mineworkers' union. But under pressure from the Hollywood Blacklist, union projectionists refused to screen the film. It played to "rave reviews" in only one New York theater, but it was a big success in Europe where it was voted best film of the year by the French Motion Picture Academy and won the top prize at a Czechoslovakian film festival. It was finally given a general U.S. release in 1965.
Much of the interest of Action in Arabia lies in its international cast and crew, many of whom had fled politically torn Europe, such as Russian director Leonide Moguy and actor Marcel Dalio, both of whom resumed successful European careers after World War II. The leads were played by Virginia Bruce, onetime wife of silent screen star John Gilbert, and Russian-born Englishman George Sanders, who had made a name for himself as the suave crime fighter in The Falcon movie series. He later won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his performance as the cynical theater critic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950). In 1972, Sanders committed suicide (something he promised David Niven in 1937 he would do when he got older) in a Barcelona hotel, citing boredom as the reason. Other familiar names in the cast include Robert Armstrong, the adventurer who captured King Kong (1933); Alan Napier, later Alfred the Butler on the Batman TV series; and H.B. Warner, famous as Jesus in DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) and as the druggist Mr. Gower in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
Although a low-budget programmer, Action in Arabia does have one surprisingly stunning climax, an action-packed desert scene with countless extras, horses and camel caravans. The footage had actually been shot years earlier by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper for a film about Lawrence of Arabia they were planning as a follow-up to their hit King Kong.
Director: Leonide Moguy
Producer: Maurice Geraghty
Screenplay: Philip MacDonald, Herbert J. Biberman
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Editing: Robert Swink
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Alfred Herman
Original Music: Roy Webb, Leigh Harline
Cast: George Sanders (Michael Gordon), Virginia Bruce (Yvonne Danesco), Robert Armstrong (Maxwell Reed), Gene Lockhart (Joseph Danesco), Alan Napier (Eric Latimer).
by Rob Nixon