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Though there have been a slew of movie Aladdins over the years -- Donald O' Connor, John Qualen, Robert Clary, Billy Mumy, Disney's animated hero and Jackie Gleason among them -- where else but in the Columbia Pictures production A Thousand and One Nights (1945) could you find an Aladdin who was on the U.S. Olympic fencing team and spoke six languages? Hungarian-born actor Cornel Wilde was a handsome renaissance man whose continental charm and considerable athletic skills made him the perfect choice for this rollicking, hardly serious but immensely entertaining version of the classic adventure tale that had been prime entertainment material since the early 18th century. Variously attributed to Syrian, Chinese, Arabic, Persian and Indian sources, the stories of magical lamps, brave heroes, despotic rulers, beautiful princesses, and hidden treasure were especially appealing to Hollywood producers who loved the chance to indulge in lavish and imaginative films whose sole purpose was to entertain.
Producer Samuel Bischoff, who had started his production career as an independent, worked for many years at Warner Bros. before moving to Columbia in 1940. Bischoff decided to take a lighthearted approach to A Thousand and One Nights, requesting a screenplay from his trio of writers which was awash in contemporary 1940s jive slang and comedic anachronisms (there are jokes about the new medium of television and crooner Frank Sinatra) and melded vaudeville and old Baghdad into a crazy and colorful revue. A Thousand and One Nights's director Alfred E. Green had started helming silent films in 1916, working in all genres and then transitioning into TV in the mid-fifties. His greatest success would come with The Jolson Story (1946) and earlier he had directed Bette Davis in her Academy Award-winning performance in Dangerous (1935).
Though this was only costume designer Jean Louis' seventh film, he would bring an opulent fairy tale glitz to the production, and with an attractive cast full of a bevy of pin-up-worthy starlets to clothe, his costumes played a large role in selling this Technicolor fantasy. Cinematographer Ray Rennahan was a much-nominated and winning industry veteran; the movie could not have been in better hands. (Composers Saul Chaplin and Eddie de Lange contributed a few songs for Aladdin -- Wilde's singing voice is dubbed by Tom Clark -- though the credits don't acknowledge them.)
The dashing Cornel Wilde as Aladdin was romantically paired with Adele Jergens as the Princess Armina. Jergens, a scrumptious bottle-blonde who started out as a New York showgirl and Rockette, was signed by Columbia in 1944 and later primarily made her career in B-movie crime dramas and comedies. The real leading lady of the movie was the vivacious Evelyn Keyes, best known as Suellen O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) but equally adept in comedic roles. Keyes' turn as the jealous red-haired Genie "Babs" was a perky delight, her comic chops equaled in the movie only by those displayed by the other main player, comedian Phil Silvers as Aladdin's buddy Abdullah. Silvers, a larger-than-life personality and talent whose roots in vaudeville and burlesque led him to success on Broadway and then in Hollywood, played Abdullah with all his characteristic mannerisms and trademarks intact, including his decidedly historically-inaccurate but hilarious horn-rimmed glasses. With brash verve, wall-to-wall wisecracks and an irresistible self-satisfied grin, Silvers' performance in A Thousand and One Nights can easily be seen as the Old Baghdad antecedent of his later TV triumph as Sergeant Bilko.
A Thousand and One Nights is sheer heaven for fans of character actors. Dennis Hoey, playing the Sultan and his evil twin, made his biggest impression in appearances as Inspector Lestraude in several of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies. Grand Wazir Philip Van Zandt was a veteran of over two hundred film appearances, many of them uncredited (even in later years), and was a familiar face in Three Stooges shorts of the late 1940s (including the classic Shemp "Squareheads of the Round Table" from 1948). Gus Schilling, who played Jafar, was a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre group, with roles in Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and other Welles' productions, as well as many comedy short subjects and features. The acclaimed actor Rex Ingram, who made such a memorable impression as the giant Djinn in The Thief of Bagdad (1940) contributed a similarly impressive appearance in this movie, too, as the Giant in the cave. Richard Hale as Kofir the sorcerer made well over one hundred appearances during his thirty-year screen career, even though it didn't begin until he was over fifty years old; he had been a theater actor since his twenties. Original series Star Trek fans will recognize Ali the Tailor actor John Abbott, and he made over one hundred and fifty other appearances throughout the years. And nobody should forget Nestor Paiva, here as Kahim, who had one of his most memorable roles in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). John George, in the uncredited role of the Dwarf, worked in Hollywood from 1916 until his last role in 1960, the last of over one hundred.
Columbia populated the distaff side of the supporting cast with a plethora of pulchritude, starting with the gorgeous brunette Dusty Anderson as Novira, one of the Princess' handmaidens. The former model and WW II pin-up girl was under contract to Columbia and after debuting in Cover Girl (1944) had a short career that she gave up when she married director Jean Negulesco in 1950. The equally lovely Erle Gailbraith, in an uncredited role as a handmaiden, had been discovered by Al Jolson when he was hospitalized at the same facility where she was an x-ray technician; Erle later married Jolson and they had a little more than five years together when he died in 1950. (She later married screenwriter Norman Krasna). Actress Shelley Winters also co-starred as a nameless handmaiden, recounting in her biography how skimpy the costumes were and how impossible it was to walk in the pointy harem shoes. Respected Indian dance interpreter Mari Jinishian was brought in to give a realistic touch to the exotic dance routines. Another harem girl, Diana Mumby, had sued Samuel Goldwyn the previous year for distributing to servicemen a photo from her role as a Goldwyn Girl (former G Girl Virginia Cruzon was also in the cast) in Up in Arms (1944), calling her "Samuel Goldwyn's Most Cuddlesome Blonde." Actress Nina Foch also can be spotted behind a veil. Several of the other women hired to provide the requisite eye candy were drawn from the ranks of runway and cheesecake models, and never had real careers as such. Pretty girls weren't a rarity in Hollywood; a movie like A Thousand and One Nights provided the perfect excuse to parade them in front of an appreciative American public.
Columbia's lavish production, including the most elaborate sets built on the lot since Lost Horizon (1939), and outside filming at locations including the unforgettable Vasquez Rocks (where Captain Kirk fought the Gorn in a Star Trek episode) did not go unnoticed by industry peers. At the 1946 Academy Awards the work of Stephen Goosson, Rudolph Sternad and Frank Tuttle received a nomination for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Color, and Lawrence W. Butler (photographic) and Ray Bomba (sound) shared a nomination in the Best Effects, Special Effects category. Although they would not win for their work on A Thousand and One Nights, all of these men had many nominations both before and after, and their combined expertise set the movie well above many similar adventure titles. An added boost to the movie's prestige was star Cornel Wilde's Best Actor nomination for his role as Fredric Chopin in A Song to Remember (1945), the movie he completed just before A Thousand and One Nights.
Reviewers were generally positive about A Thousand and One Nights, with most of them getting into the spirit of its creative anachronisms and especially enjoying Evelyn Keyes' and Phil Silvers' vibrant contributions to the movie's sense of fun. In fact, the Arabian Nights were rarely groovier than in A Thousand and One Nights.
Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Director: Alfred E. Green
Screenplay: Richard English, Jack Henley, Wilfred H. Petitt
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Film Editing: Gene Havlick
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson, Rudolph Sternad
Music: Marlin Skiles
Cast: Cornel Wilde (Aladdin), Evelyn Keyes (The Genie), Phil Silvers (Abdullah), Adele Jergens (Princess Armina), Dusty Anderson (Novira), Dennis Hoey (Sultan Kamar Al-Kir).
by Lisa Mateas