Cast & Crew
In the middle of the Arabian desert, magician Kazah the Great entertains a caravan with his daring acrobats, seductive dancers and astounding feats of magic, including a trunk in which people disappear. Shortly after his latest show, as Kazah juggles the attentions of his two helpers, Orena and Leda, the camp is attacked by the forces of bandit Hamid. When the women are taken by Hamid, Kazah is outraged that his show has been disrupted and, sending the acrobats on to Besserah, he and his assistant, Ben Ali, follow the bandits to Bagdad. Upon arriving in the city, Kazah discovers his dancing girls on a slave auction block, but when he attempts to rescue them, he and Ben Ali are attacked by the sultan's guard. They are saved by a hulking stranger, Morab, and a dirty gypsy girl, Zendi, who take the pair to meet Zendi's father Telar. They explain that Kazah's women have been bought by Hamid for Grand Vizier Soradin, who controls the empty-headed Sultan El Malid. Telar reveals that he hoped that Kazah and Ben Ali might join his forces to overthrow El Malid, despite Soradin's ban on merchant goods in the city, including arms. Kazah, impatient to reclaim his dancing girls, declines and hurries to the palace to offer to entertain the sultan. At the palace, El Malid instructs Soradin to keep the dancing girls on for his amusement, then expresses anticipation at proposing to Princess Alexia of a nearby kingdom. Soradin approves of the marriage as a way to solidify the sultan's power, while El Malid only hopes the princess is beautiful. Later, when El Malid glibly declares that he will offer Alexia half of Bagdad's gold upon her acceptance of his proposal, the wary Soradin advises prudence. In order to discover what is going on with the girls, Kazah turns Ben Ali into a blonde dancing girl who mingles with the dancers and learns of the proposal. When Soradin takes a fancy to Ben Ali, Kazah then places each of his girls, including Ben Ali, in his magic trunk where each disappears. El Malid demands their return, but Kazah refuses, and he and the restored Ben Ali make a harrowing escape. After Ben Ali reveals the information about the sultan's upcoming nuptials with Princess Alexia, Kazah is compelled to tell Telar. Though pleased to find that the freshly bathed Zendi is beautiful, Kazah is startled when Telar declares that they must intercept the proposal message and Zendi volunteers to be Alexia in order to secure a position within the palace. When Kazah questions why Zendi should take such a risk, Telar reveals that his real identity is that of former Sultan Ahmand the Just, who with his daughter, Princess Zendi, was overthrown by Soradin, who remains unaware that they are alive in hiding, fomenting dissent. Dismayed that Zendi would go so far as to marry El Malid, Kazah attempts to dissuade her, but when she persists, he agrees to help. El Malid's courier carrying the proposal is intercepted by Morab and Kazah, who then departs for Besserah to make over his acrobats as an appropriate royal escort for "Princess Alexia." After two weeks, Kazah, disguised as Grand Vizier Hazak, escorts Zendi into the city. Delighted by Zendi's beauty, El Malid is on the verge of agreeing to Kazah's demand for ten thousand gold pieces for her people, when Soradin intervenes, suggesting that they postpone the wedding for a week to let the princess rethink her demand. Disappointed, El Malid later eagerly accepts Soradin's suggestion of privately marrying Alexia the next day, as she is too far from home for her country to protest. While searching for Kazah's magic trunk in the palace, Ben Ali overhears the plan and tells Kazah. Meanwhile, the sultan's courier, spared by the kindness of Telar, escapes and returns to Soradin to inform them that the former sultan lives. Realizing that Telar must have a large following, Soradin sends to the desert for help from Hamid. Kazah hurries to save Zendi with his magic trunk, but she refuses and Kazah is forced to escape without her when Soradin's guards close in. Telar, Kazah and their men then build a barricade outside of the palace to delay Hamid's forces, and Kazah and Ben Ali return to the palace for Zendi. Caught by Soradin and El Malid in Zendi's rooms, Kazah and Ben Ali wage a sword fight that ends with Soradin's capture and El Malid's collapse. Returning to the burning barricade, now under attack by Hamid, Kazah halts Hamid's assault by making Soradin and El Malid disappear in his trunk. Terrified, the bandits flee. Later, as Telar, Kazah and Zendi celebrate, Ben Ali plans headlining his own magic show, confident that Kazah is sure to settle down.
Siren of Bagdad
Siren of Bagdad was produced by Sam Katzman, prolific producer of low-budget, often schlocky films who worked in every genre imaginable throughout his long career. He ground out films cheaply and quickly, and they usually made money. In 1953 alone, seventeen releases bore his name, including titles like Killer Ape (a Jungle Jim movie starring Johnny Weissmuller) and Prisoners of the Casbah.
Henreid later wrote that Siren's director, Richard Quine, "wanted to do the film as a satire, a Chaplinesque burlesque of pirate films in general, and he succeeded. I was a little fed up with the swashbuckling life, and I went along and had a great deal of fun making it. All of us at the studio thought it would be great."
At a preview, Henreid recalled, "every situation joke worked, and the audience howled. I came out of the theater beaming, and Katzman, Quine and I congratulated one another on the very funny picture." But Katzman's wife did not believe the film would be a hit despite the strong preview, and when Henreid pressed her as to why, she told him, "Because people who go to pirate pictures want just that, a pirate picture. They aren't as sophisticated as this preview audience... You can't kid around with them. They want it played straight. This picture pokes fun at the sacred formulas -- and I don't think they'll accept that."
"As it turned out," wrote Henreid, "she was absolutely right... The picture was a flop!"
The critics were more mixed, however. The New York Times didn't even review the picture, while the Los Angeles Times called it the "funniest spoof of Oriental melodrama in years."
Trade paper The Hollywood Reporter declared, "The kidding mood comes over successfully with plenty of laughs...[and]...Henreid turns in an enjoyable tongue-in-cheek performance... [He] demonstrates his all-around versatility, showing he is as skillful at comedy as he is in dramatic or straight roles... Sam Katzman [gives] the film his usual lavish production, with Technicolor, impressive settings and a bevy of gorgeous, thinly-clad beauts."
But Variety echoed Mrs. Katzman's comments: "Fans of this type of high romance aren't likely to accept the spoofing of a favorite form of escapism, which, when played straight, has enough chuckles for the cosmopolite without straining for more... The players get into the spirit of the script and directorial aims, but there was no need to pad the hokum for comedy... Not near as funny as the makers may have hoped."
Variety also added, "Miss Medina wears harem briefs attractively."
Appearing as Henreid's bumbling assistant is Hans Conried (yes, "Henreid and Conried"), who in one scene gets turned into a beautiful woman (Vivian Mason) who speaks with Conried's voice. This was one of five feature films Conried made in 1953 (including voice work), three of which contain his most notable performances: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), Peter Pan (1953), and The Twonky (1953). Siren of Bagdad, on the other hand, was hardly a high point from his perspective. He called it "shameful... a terrible film, the kind we called 'tits-and-sand' -- sort of a Western in burnoose. I think in two weeks we had a musical number, the burning of a city, an attack; it was unbelievable." He also said that any verbal flubs that exist in the film are there because there was no time or money to shoot additional takes.
Siren of Bagdad opened on a double bill with The 49th Man (1953), an atomic-themed spy thriller starring John Ireland and Richard Denning, and also produced by Sam Katzman.
By Jeremy Arnold
Suzanne Gargiulo, Hans Conried: A Biography
Paul Henreid, Ladies Man
Siren of Bagdad
In Siren of Bagdad, Paul Henreid satirized his famous two-cigarette lighting scene from Now, Voyager (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50) in a sequence in which he lights two hookahs (water pipes).