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Arabian Nights

Arabian Nights(1942)

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Movies like Arabian Nights (1942) are true time capsules - not to the period in which the movies take place but to the period in which they were made. In 1942, the United States was in the early days of its involvement in WWII, and a light, silly, Technicolor trifle was just the kind of escapism that Americans craved. And thus Arabian Nights was an enormous box-office hit, racking up almost $1.9 million in profits. The movie doesn't feature any renowned stars on the order of a James Stewart or a Katharine Hepburn - instead we get a campy story featuring Jon Hall, Maria Montez and Sabu. Great actors? No. But fun, popular stars who tended to put smiles on moviegoers' faces? Absolutely.

Hall plays Haroun, the rightful caliph in ancient Baghdad who is deposed by his brother Kamar (Leif Erickson). Rescued by young acrobat Ali (Sabu), and nursed back to health by stunning dancing girl Scheherazade (Montez), Haroun works to regain his rightful place. This little plot, told with cartoonish and sometimes juvenile humor, is brought to vivid life by Universal's talented technicians of the time. The studio's first three-strip Technicolor feature, Arabian Nights dazzled the eyes back in '42 and does so again now on DVD, in no small part because color like this just doesn't exist in movies anymore. The effect of seeing it now must rival the "wow" factor it produced back then, when most movies, after all, were still in black-and-white.

A big part of the "wow" factor in 1942 was also the Dominican-born Maria Montez, who catapulted to stardom with this movie. She quickly gained a loyal following even though she couldn't act. She knew she couldn't act - and she knew it didn't matter. It was enough for her to be glamorous, larger than life, and be willing to go over the top in movie after movie, with great titles like White Savage (1943), Cobra Woman (1944) and Gypsy Wildcat (1944). She was in the right place at the right time in Hollywood history and became known as The Queen of Technicolor.

The makers of Arabian Nights knew what they were doing with Montez because they knew what audiences would want to see. (As one character says, "[her] beauty shames the glory of a desert sunset!") The movie is filled with beautiful close-ups throughout of Montez bedecked with jewelry and wearing exotic, midriff-baring costumes. These shots, along with nice desert vistas and Oscar-nominated art direction, go a long way toward making an otherwise campy, silly story very pleasurable to watch. Also nominated for Oscars were Frank Skinner's excellent score as well as the sound and color cinematography. The movie was such a success that Universal teamed Montez and Hall again in five more similar films.

Popping up in the supporting cast for comic relief are Shemp Howard as Sinbad and John Qualen as Aladdin, who rubs every lamp in sight hoping it's "the" lamp. Qualen did this movie right after playing a small role in Casablanca (1942), and Shemp Howard made it a few years before he rejoined The Three Stooges. He had been one of the Stooges in the old days with his brother Moe and Larry Fine, until his other brother Curly replaced him in 1930. Shemp returned to the Stooges in 1946 when Curly had a stroke. Shemp Howard and another famous old comic, Billy Gilbert, bring some vaudeville tone to Arabian Nights, with Gilbert even dressing as a woman for one funny sequence. ("The bag of Baghdad!") The presence of these comic actors ensures that Arabian Nights will not be taken very seriously and keeps it on the level of diverting escapism.

That said, the presence of Sabu, hot off The Thief of Baghdad (1940), brings some level of "believability" (if one can call it that) to the film. He also brings welcome enthusiasm and charm; the scene that finds him alone in a harem is hilarious. ("Look! A boy! Catch him!!" the harem girls squeal.)

Universal Home Entertainment's DVD offers a digitally remastered transfer with sublimely beautiful color and barely a scratch. The only extras are an intro by Robert Osbourne and a trailer, which is a hoot and contains some accidentally macabre humor when seen in 2007: "Baghdad... City of temptation... Home of fiery adventure... and daring romance," a narrator intones. Interestingly enough, the trailer also prominently mentions producer Walter Wanger, which says a lot about his success and fame at the time. (He had also just signed a new deal with Universal.) But then the narrator gets back on track with: "You'll thrill to the slave market, the torture rack, blazing battles - in a story rich and exotic as the East itself."

For more information about Arabian Nights, visit Universal Home Video. To order Arabian Nights, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold