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"Heaven was in her Eyes...And her lips were Paradise."
Tagline for Night in Paradise
Universal's front office must have thought they were trapped in a hellish nightmare when this lavish Arabian Nights adventure lost half its investment at the box office. In more recent years, however, fans of the strange and misguided have come to regard this 1946 romance as a camp classic. Long unavailable in its original form, the film had rarely aired uncut until TCM started presenting it.
Producer Walter Wanger had scored a huge hit at Universal in 1942 with Arabian Nights, inspired by the success of Alexander Korda's The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and even featuring one of its stars, Sabu. The real news generated by the Wanger production, however, was Maria Montez, who shot to stardom as queen of the Universal swashbucklers with her performance as the Arabian dancing girl Scheherazade. The studio followed with a series of profitable exotic adventures, most often teaming her with her hunky Arabian Nights co-star, Jon Hall. Though those films did well, however, the genre's comic elements took over. Even Wanger spoofed the form with his 1945 Salome Where She Danced, which made Yvonne de Carlo a star. As a result, the time was far from ripe for a serious return to exotic romance.
For over a decade, Wanger had dreamed of filming George S. Hellman's 1931 novel Peacock's Feather, depicting the famed fable-writer Aesop's romance with a Persian princess betrothed to the mythical King Croesus. When Wanger was at RKO in the early '30s, he had hoped to make it with that studio's reigning dramatic star, Ann Harding, but the project fell through. He resurrected the picture at Universal, where it seemed a perfect fit for the studio's production roster.
Wanger wanted to borrow the young Ava Gardner from MGM for the role of Princess Delarai, but studio executives insisted on casting established star Merle Oberon. Ironically, Universal's The Killers, released the same year as Night in Paradise, would make Gardner a much bigger star. Oberon didn't hesitate to accept the role. She had always dreamed of being a Persian princess and often went to costume parties in her version of Arabian regalia. When she read her first scene, in which she is drawn to the palace in a cart hauled by 12 white oxen, she didn't have to read any further.
As her leading man, the studio cast another star from their run of adventure films, Turhan Bey. The Austrian actor, nicknamed "The Turkish Delight" for the exotic looks inherited from his Turkish father, was a great hit with audiences in search of escapism during the World War II era. He had top-lined many of the studio's genre films and had even taken a trip to the majors to co-star as Katharine Hepburn's husband in the ill-fated Dragon Seed (1944). But despite his good looks, he could be rather wooden on-screen. Nor was he helped by a script that kept him in unconvincing old age makeup until well past the halfway point.
Out of the makeup, however, he was considered quite a dreamboat, an assessment with which leading lady Oberon readily agreed. Director Arthur Lubin claimed that Oberon and Bey had an affair during filming. Unfortunately, that damaged the film, as the married leading lady fought to keep her passion from showing during what should have been steamy love scenes with him. It didn't help either that his current inamorata, Lana Turner, kept showing up on set to keep anything further from developing between the co-stars. Even when Oberon demanded a closed set, Turner would sneak in and peep through the scenery.
The film's real drive -- and much of its camp value -- comes from the lavish scenic design and the supporting cast. Art director Alexander Golitzen had already won an Oscar® for the Technicolor sets for the studio's remake of Phantom of the Opera (1943), starring Claude Rains. For Night in Paradise, he worked with John B. Goodman to create a series of fanciful depictions of the ancient Far East, which took up a good part of the high-for-Universal budget of S1.6 million.
Competing to see who could devour more of those sets were a trio of inveterate scene-stealers. Ray Collins, originally a member of Orson Welles's Mercury Players and later Lt. Tragg on Perry Mason, got to play an effeminate royal advisor whose shifting loyalties help keep the plot moving. Gale Sondergaard, who had won the first Oscar® for Best Supporting Actress as the villainess in Anthony Adverse (1936), is a vengeful sorceress out to drive the king mad and foster Aesop's romance with Delarai. But the biggest scene stealer of all is Thomas Gomez, best known for playing seedy urban types like John Garfield's brother in Force of Evil (1948). His Croesus is alternately imperial and childish as Sondergaard's enchantments and jealousy drive him to the brink of madness and beyond.
In the late '40s, however, critics and audiences were tiring of Universal's Arabian Nights confections. Dorothy Masters of the New York Daily News dismissed the film as the "spoofingest artistry of the season," while Bosley Crowther of the New York Times dubbed it "more ridiculous than entertaining." Audiences obviously agreed, as the film lost $800,000 at the box office. Even those who might have enjoyed Night in Paradise's mix of romance and high camp were stymied by the badly cut, grainy prints released to television in the '50s. The TCM screening returns the film to its original Technicolor splendor and 84-minute length, complete with picturesque shots of beautiful girls wading in the palace pool and the title song sequence, sung by Juli Lynne. With all of its footage intact, viewers can even try to guess which of Gomez's palace maidens is future singing star Julie London.
Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: Arthur Lubin
Screenplay: Emmet Lavery, Ernest Pascal
Based on the novel Peacock's Feather by George S. Hellman
Cinematography: W. Howard Greene, Hal Mohr
Score: Frank Skinner
Cast: Merle Oberon (Delarai), Turhan Bey (Aesop), Thomas Gomez (King Croesus), Gale Sondergaard (Attosa), Ray Collins (Leonides), Ernest Truex (Scribe), George Dolenz (Frigid Ambassador), John Litel (Archon), Jerome Cowan (Scribe), Douglass Dumbrille (High Priest), Moroni Olsen (High Priest), Pedro de Cordoba (Magus), Julie London (Palace Maiden).
C-84m. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller