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Because they're best known for their famous "Who's on First?" routine, Abbott & Costello will probably be remembered by most people as a clever vaudeville patter-shtick act. But in the 1940s and early 1950s, they were one of the most successful teams on the screen, appearing in about 40 pictures. Although based at Universal Studios for much of their film career, they also had a loan-out deal with MGM, and Lost in a Harem (1944), in which Lou dons harem-girl drag to foil the evil usurper of a Middle Eastern throne, was the second of three projects under that deal.
The plot has the boys working as a magic act in a traveling international revue stranded in the bizarre city of Port Inferno. Along with cabaret singer Hazel Moon (Marilyn Maxwell), they become caught up in a plot by the deposed desert sheik Ramo to regain his rightful reign from his evil uncle Nimativ. The success of the endeavor is boosted greatly when Costello befriends the chubby number-one wife of the usurper by promising to get her into movies and disguises himself as her to steal the hypnotic rings Nimativ has been using to control his subjects and hold power.
Bud and Lou were paid $70,000 for their first MGM film, Rio Rita (1942), and contracted for this one at $80,000, but they resented the deal Universal had made with MGM studio chief L.B. Mayer for their services. Their pictures earned far more money at their home studio, for which they received a hefty percentage. So the duo and their management team announced they would not report for Lost in a Harem unless they not only doubled their salary but got paid the increased rate retroactively for Rio Rita. Mayer, of course, was livid, but he knew a goldmine when he saw it, and eventually the team got what it demanded.
Lost in a Harem was initially meant to be the duo's first picture for MGM, and the first draft of the script predated any work on Rio Rita. The original story had the two characters, named Doc and Cozy, thwarting Nazi spies out to steal the formula for a powerful explosive developed by an Oxford-educated Arab prince. The basics of the plot ended up instead in Rio Rita, as Nazi agents tried to sneak bombs across the border from Mexico to the U.S., and a new script for the Middle Eastern story was written with an intended shoot date of Spring 1943. But Costello's illness and the death of his son forced postponement until the following year; by the time this picture began production, the team had not been before the cameras for 15 months, although they had typically made three or four a year prior to that.
Even with the salary dispute settled in Abbott and Costello's favor, the studio did not skimp on the production, although the reported $1,225,000 budget has been disputed since leftover sets from the movie Kismet (1944) were used. But with more than 100 roles, not including extras, costs were still high. Veteran comedy writer Harry Crane was brought in, along with John Grant, who worked on just about every Abbott & Costello script. The two contributed to the screenplay by Harry Ruskin, whose career at MGM included The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), several Andy Hardy movies and many of the films in the successful Dr. Kildare series. Leading lady Marilyn Maxwell had appeared in one of those Kildare flicks and would play the same character in another a year after this film. The studio reportedly tested its new young British import Peter Lawford for the role of the rightful sheik, Ramo, but decided to cast John Conte, former announcer for CBS Radio's Silver Theater whose film career up to this point had been largely uncredited voice-only roles as "radio announcers." He and Maxwell were married during production (and divorced a few years later). Popular character actor Douglas Dumbrille took on the part of the dastardly Nimativ. Dumbrille had been a favorite foil for such comedians as the Marx Brothers and Bob Hope and appeared with Abbott & Costello in Ride 'Em Cowboy (1941).
Surprisingly enough, Lost in a Harem, despite the innocuous nature of the project, was subjected to close scrutiny by Hollywood's self-appointed censorship board, The Breen Office. The group was particularly nervous about the harem girls' costumes, according to biographers Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo in Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (Berkley Pub. Group). The Breen memo read "We urge that you advise the costume department to use extreme care in designing of these costumes. In this connection, please make certain that the dance routines performed by these lightly costumed girls be watched closely in order to avoid any suggestive or sensuous body movements. Otherwise they could not be approved under the provisions of the Code." In addition, the Breen office cautioned "Please make sure you avoid any use of the expression, 'Allah be praised,' or any religious expression that may be taken as a derogatory reference to the religion of the Mohammedans. This is very important."
The harem set included several very large, exotically colored stuffed pillows, which were packed up in a delivery truck at the end of production and brought to Costello's house. When it turned out the pillows were needed for another scene, the props department had to ask Costello to please return them to the studio, with the promise he could keep them when shooting was complete. Costello also managed to keep another souvenir of this shoot - the dress he wore for his classic harem drag bit.
Director: Charles Riesner
Producer: George Haight
Screenplay: Harry Crane, Harry Rsuking & John Grant
Cinematography: Lester White
Editing: George Hively
Art Direction: Daniel B. Cathcart, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Jimmy Dorsey, Sammy Fain, Daniele Amfitheatrof, et al.
Cast: Lou Costello (Harvey Garvey), Bud Abbott (Pete Johnson), Marilyn Maxwell (Hazel Moon), John Conte (Prince Ramo), Douglas Dumbrille (Nimativ).
by Rob Nixon