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Ali Baba Goes to Town

Ali Baba Goes to Town(1937)

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teaser Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937)

Eddie Cantor was a huge vaudeville and musical star prior to and during the 1920s. He was signed to a contract by Samuel Goldwyn to star in the film version of his stage hit, Whoopee! (1930), and by the mid-1930s Cantor was not only Goldwyn's biggest star, he had also become a top radio star as well. But Cantor was increasingly dissatisfied. He was tired of playing the same character over and over again: a simple, wide-eyed, happy go-lucky kid who sings and dances and solves all the film's problems by fadeout. Goldwyn refused to alter a winning formula, and when the studio boss also refused to loan Cantor to Warner Bros. to play the non-musical lead in the film version of the hit Broadway comedy Three Men on a Horse (1936), that was the last straw for Cantor. He bought out his Goldwyn contract and signed a three-picture deal with 20th Century-Fox that would reportedly earn Cantor one million dollars.

The first and, as it turned out, the only film made under that contract was Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937), another reworking of Mark Twain's novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Cantor plays Al Babson, a star-struck movie fan who's headed for Hollywood to ogle stars when he stumbles upon a movie company making an Arabian Nights film in the desert. Working as an extra in the film, Al falls asleep and dreams his own Arabian fantasy. Al becomes an adviser to the Sultan, and institutes some New Deal-style reforms, and as in previous Cantor films, straightens out everyone's lives. The film also incorporates some swing musical numbers, and Cantor manages to do one of his usual blackface routines. The film is filled with Arabian clichs: harem girls, a sultan with multiple wives, an evil prince, and of course, a flying carpet. That "flying carpet" was the cause of an on-set tragedy. A prop maker and a grip were killed when the 1500 pound device fell on them while they were testing the electric hoist which controlled its movements. The accident delayed the completion of Ali Baba Goes to Town. According to publicity reports, the carpet also caused less serious injuries. Cantor suffered skinned knees, bruised kneecaps and strained ligaments from kneeling on the carpet while being buffeted by 50-miles per hour winds from a wind machine. The Hollywood stuntmen's union made him an honorary member for his efforts.

If the actress who plays Sultana is familiar, but her name is not, there's a reason. She's famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, credited as Louise Hovick (her real name) because studio bosses were nervous about listing her by her stage name. This was Lee's second film appearance. Several Fox stars appeared as themselves in a scene at the end of the film that takes place at a movie premiere, including Sonja Henie, Tyrone Power, and Shirley Temple. It was actually filmed at the premiere of Temple's film, Wee Willie Winkie (1937).

Critics found Cantor as appealing as ever in Ali Baba Goes to Town. Time magazine's critic wrote, "Haroun-al-Cantor's venture into political satire is tuneful, gay, imaginatively written, generously produced." A few days before the film went into nationwide release, a celebration was held marking Cantor's 25th anniversary as "a prime factor in American entertainment." But his days as a top movie star were over. He starred in only two more films, and made featured appearances in a few others. However, he remained a radio star in the 1940s, and hosted a television variety show in the 1950s.

Director: David Butler
Screenplay: Harry Tugend, Jack Yellen, story by Gene Towne, Graham Baker, and Gene Fowler
Cinematography: Ernest Palmer
Editor: Irene Morra
Costume Design: Gwen Wakeling, Herschel
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun
Music: Raymond Scott, songs by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel
Cast: Eddie Cantor (Ali Baba/Al Babson), Tony Martin (Yusuf/Himself), Roland Young (Sultan), June Lang (Princess Miriam), Louise Hovick (Sultana), John Carradine (Ishak/Broderick), Virginia Field (Dinah/Deenah), Alan Dinehart (Boland), Douglas Dumbrille (Prince Musah), Maurice Cass (Omar the Rug Maker).

by Margarita Landazuri

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