Arabian Nights (1942) Directed by John Rawlins. Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Sabu (86 min).
An action-packed Technicolor Hollywood Orientalist tale stars Dominican Montez as Scheherazade, Jon Hall as Baghdad’s Caliph, and Sabu, the only Indian actor ever to make it big in Western movies, as the smartest cookie of all. Shemp is on hand as Sinbad the Sailor in a campy fantasy adventure. Universal archival print.
World War II was a heyday for escapist entertainment, and Arabian Nights movies and their ilk were meant to make you forget, if only for 86 minutes, about the more pressing issues of the day. Universal studios specialized this genre; this film made several million dollars and was nominated for four Oscars. Sequels inevitably followed, and the genre eventually morphed into widescreen ancient and Biblical epics, like Solomon and Sheba, The Egyptian, The Ten Commandments and Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra. Universal producer Walter Wanger speculated these wartime films, with their scantily clad harem girls and despotic villains, appealed to teen boys, and would inspire them to enlist in the Army in hopes of fighting Nazis in North Africa. Matthew Bernstein wonders, “Were audiences responding to its fantasy, to its Technicolor, to its physical comedy, or to its peculiar combination of these elements?” (Bernstein and Studlar 12).
Maria Montez plays the Arabian princess Scheherazade. She was born Maria Africa Vidal de Santo Silas, the daughter of the Spanish consul to the Dominican Republic. “Pathetically unskilled at acting (or singing or dancing for that matter) she nevertheless became immensely popular in a string of glossy-cheap but highly profitable color adventure yarns, often starring fellow camel riders, Jon Hall, Sabu and Turhan Bey” (Katz). Known as “The Queen of Technicolor” she died prematurely of a heart attack at the age of 39. There were a number of Latina heroines in American films, some like Montez and Dolores del Rio acknowledged for their ethnicity (del Rio was Mexican). Others like Margarita Cansino were anglicized. Her name was changed to Rita Hayworth, and her Latina roots obscured. Montez played authority figures, not doormats, sexy sirens of varying nationalities. “I am proud of who I am, I play proud characters, and I cannot play women who are pushed or laughed at” (Hadley-Garcia 117).
To post-war audiences, particularly gay men, Maria Montez became a thrilling icon of glamour in midst of tawdry surroundings. In a magazine article, Montez spoke of being coached in “Oriental dancing” six hours a day for three months by Carmen D’Antonio, to prepare for her role, and said that this was her favorite film. After seeing herself on screen as Scheherazade she said, “When I look at myself, I am so beautiful, I scream with joy” (Dickens 59).
Underground filmmaker Jack Smith published a famous essay, “The Perfect Film Appositeness of Maria Montez” in 1962. He built an altar and prayed to her, calling her The Miraculous One, and her films inspired his own. Michel Guillen quotes Gary Morris from Bright Lights Film Journal: “Smith’s own standards for art let him refashion Montez and the whole ethos of tinny Orientalia, low-budget intrigues, and what he called Universal’s ‘cowhide thongs and cardboard sets’ into Dionysian revels that were both wild camp and subtle polemic in upsetting an overflowing apple cart of norms: heterosexuality, narrative, social and sexual and aesthetic repressions.” Smith wrote, “But, I tell you Maria Montez Moldy Movie Queen, Shoulder pad, gold platform wedgie Siren, Determined, dreambound, Spanish Irish, Negro? Indian girl who went to Hollywood from the Dominican Rep. Wretch actress–pathetic as actress, why insist on her being an actress–why limit her? Don’t slander her beautiful womanliness that took joy in her own beauty and all beauty–or whatever in her that turned plaster cornball sets to beauty. Her eye saw not just beauty but incredible, delirious, drug-like hallucinatory beauty” (Hoberman and Leffingwell 26).
Montez brought her own imperious form of method acting to the set, telling her sister, Lucita, “The first thing a young lady should do for being an actress is to believe she is the most beautiful and important of all the women who live on Earth. In other words, behave as if you were a queen. Do not be afraid in front of any of the directors, not even how exigent and ill-tempered they could look to you. Remember, my dear Lucita, it is the public and not them, who has the last word” (Guillen)
Her most famous role might be as the dual heroines of the spectacular Cobra Woman.
She plays opposite Jon Hall, who rose to fame in the island fantasy, The Hurricane, in which he and Dorothy Lamour, both wearing sarongs, survived a special effects deluge. He’s not much of an actor and is perhaps an example of the wartime leading man shortage. Jeffrey Richards believes “there was still Miss Montez, whose thespic ineptitude did at least have the result of making the clean-limbed and very dashing Jon Hall look like the greatest actor ever to appear on the screen” (Richards 272). He spent much of his career either in a loin cloth or in Bedouin robes. He played Ramar of the Jungle on tv in the early 1950s, and then invested his profits from the show in a business which rented out underwater camera equipment to film makers.
Sabu Dastagir was born in Karapur, Mysore, India, –so far—the only Indian actor to make it big in Hollywood. He was an orphaned stable boy at the court of an Indian maharaja. Discovered by documentarian Robert Flaherty, he played the title role of Elephant Boy. Sabu was completely at ease with the giant beasts, and a natural in front of the camera. He was cast, in what we would call a hybrid film, part fiction (based on a Kipling story) and part documentary. “Sabu, transfigured, was in his element, thoroughly at home, ordering the elephants about, mounting them, riding them, sitting there as on a throne from which he looked down upon us common mortals. It is here, but the way, near Kakankote, that he was born. His mother died when he was a baby. His father taught his elephant to rock the baby’s cradle—to rock the baby himself in his trunk” (Flaherty 59). The Flahertys had imagined such a boy when they were planning their film and felt it quite uncanny that the real Sabu conformed to their imagination. Sabu and his older brother returned to London with the Flahertys to finish filming some scenes. They arranged for his schooling, and the studio became captivated with their young star. “The first night, the London premiere, will come. (Yes, Sabu will be there). And then, as the film unfolds, the miracle must happen—Sabu must capture his audience, and the audience must—or will it?—take the little Indian boy to its heart” (Flaherty 136)
The film was a huge success, and in a miracle of social mobility, Sabu then became an international movie star. He played the title role in the extravagant 1940 version of The Thief of Baghdad, and also Mowgli in a live action version of The Jungle Book. In 1944, at the age of 20, he became an American citizen and joined the Army, where he served as a combat tail gunner. Like many child actors, adult success eluded him for the most part and his post war career was less exciting, although he had a marvelous role in Black Narcissus. Michael Guillen quotes post-colonial critic Gayatri Gopinath, who describes Sabu as “nothing more than an anachronistic emblem of Orientalist and colonialist fantasies of perpetually childlike, effeminized ‘native’ men.” But, although physically small, he is the most intelligent and capable character in Arabian Nights. He, too, died young of a heart attack, at 39.
From the earliest silent days, cinema has presented extravagant Orientalist fantasies, traced back to the images brought back by artists and writers in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Arabian Nights stories are almost part of European culture, its tales reprinted in numbers second only to the Bible. First translated into French in 1703, the tales arrived in English in the late 19th century, with a standard translation by adventurer Sir Richard Burton. While set in Middle Eastern lands, the roots of the stories are varied, some originated in India, China and elsewhere. News stories about the British East India Company, Napoleon’s incursion into Egypt and the Greek war of independence from Turkey, along with literary landmarks like Edward Fitzgerald’s 1859 translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam also created a sense of wonder about the mythical “East” in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The 1940s and 1950s had some particularly appealing explorations of these myths, in part thanks to Technicolor. Their origins were less in the magical and mystical Orient of films like the two versions of the Thief of Bagdad, than the standard swashbuckler formula, emphasizing action over flying carpets and sorcerers, reinforcing notions of chivalric romance and enforcing the value of the restoration and upholding of authority. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. played Sinbad the Sailor, opposite Maureen O’ Hara, whose red hair and Irish beauty did not keep her from playing a Bedouin princess in more than one film. Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx, renamed Tony Curtis, played the title roles in The Prince Who Was a Thief and Son of Ali Baba. Although hugely popular at the time, there is an unease about ethnic stereotyping, so these films rarely shown today. Universal had only a single print remaining of the two Curtis films that they were understandably reluctant to circulate. The Print of Arabian Nights was an immaculate Technicolor archive print that revealed every glittering bead and spangle and faces smeared with dusky pancake make-up.
Jack G. Shaheen in Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, published in 2001, certainly has much to complain about and has become the self-appointed spokesperson for these negative images. He quotes Plato: “Those who tell the stories, also rule society.” Today, those storytellers are moviemakers. Shaheen references Benjamin R. Barber in The Nation who writes, “Disney does more than Duke, Spielberg outweighs Stanford” and Shaheen harbors a particular hatred for Disney’s Aladdin.
Shaheen wrote his book before 9/11, an event which has unleashed a new deluge of ethnic stereotyping which shows no sign of diminishing. He has made a documentary based on Reel Bad Arabs, and tours college campuses with his presentation. Without a doubt, there are countless negative images of Arabs and Muslims in American movies, and there is much to answer for. He asks, where are the everyday people? But in the Arabian Nights tales, all characters are Arabs. Shaheen is willing to give an endorsement to some of these films, because of their varied casts of heroes and villains, as long as the epithets (son of a camel driver!) and anti-Islamic cursing (by the beard of the prophet!) are kept to a minimum. Bagdad, another Universal film which stars Maureen O’Hara as a Bedouin princess, is celebrated as a film with an active, independent Arab heroine. The Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad is a favorite of his, a magical entertainment, with a reverence for Islam.
Proper casting is a problem. If, theoretically, it would have been possible in 1940s Hollywood to have an all-Iraqi cast for a film taking place in Baghdad (I don’t know of a single actor from classic era Hollywood of Iraqi heritage) it could easily have devolved into a minstrel show. When this film was made, Iraq, granted independence from Britain in 1932, had been occupied by British troops to guarantee that Persian Gulf oil supplies, necessary to the war effort, were not severed. Little interest in self representation on screen there, I speculate.
Political correctness insists that people be accurately represented on the screen. Recently, there was an uproar when the lead actresses in Memoirs of a Geisha were Chinese, not Japanese. But, what about color blind casting? Great works of the theatrical repertoire are no longer denied actors because they are not white and European. An African American cast is currently (March 2008) on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If Shemp of the Three Stooges plays Sinbad the Sailor is this not the ultimate in color blind casting?
Billy Gilbert, Sabu and Montez. The NCMA audience loved Gilbert’s vaudeville antics, and those of Shemp as Sinbad the Sailor and John Qualen as Aladdin.
After 9/11, all of the ethnic stereotyping and Orientalist clichés on display here were seemingly forgotten, replaced by a new set of ethnic stereotypes. Who thinks of Maria Montez when we heard “Bagdad” on the nightly news? Are we allowed to be nostalgic for the old ones, now, which saw Arab lands as a nexus of adventure and romance? Escapist entertainment in a time of war. Let’s just forget our troubles for 86 minutes and have fun and remember Jack Smith’s “Corniness is the other side of marvelousness. What person believing in a fantasy can bear to have its other side discovered” (Hoberman and Leffingwell 31).
(Colot photos from movie star scrapbooks, Sabu and elephant photo from Flaherty. Sources include: Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Jack G. Shaheen, Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, Elephant Dance by Frances Hubbard Flaherty, Introduction to Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film by co-editor Matthew Bernstein, Hispanic Hollywood by George Hadley-Garcia and “The Perfect Film Appositeness of Maria Montez” by Jack Smith, from Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool: The Writings of Jack Smith, edited by J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell, Swashbucklers of the Screen by Jeffrey Richards, “Maria Montez” by Homer Dickens in January 1963 Films in Review. There are a couple of extremely interesting essays online: Michel Guillen’s essay on a Maria Montez triple bill, on a blog that no longer seems to exist, and Jerry Tartaglia’s essay on Jack Smith (This link is broken).