The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951) Directed by Rudolph Maté. Tony Curtis, Piper Laurie, Everett Sloan (88 min).
A prince in disguise plots to rob a royal treasury, and perhaps, usurp the pretender to his throne in 13th century Tangiers. First, he must enlist the help of Tina, a supple contortionist, able slither into the sultan’s stronghold. Although there is a sultry evil princess with Bettie Page bangs, along with fiery redheaded Tina (teenaged Laurie) the camera’s gaze lingers longest on the delectable shirtless Curtis, (New York accent intact) in his first leading role. Vaguely based on a fanciful tale by early 20th century American realist writer Theodore Dreiser, this vividly Technicolor Arabian Nights frolic is ridiculous fun.
Theodore Dreiser’s short story “The Prince Who Was a Thief” is about a ragged teller of tales, forced to scrounge for the smallest coins from an audience who felt they were entitled to his art for free. The tale contrasts poverty with the extravagant riches of the ruling class, the Prince has experienced (or will) both sides of this economic coin. Dreiser wrote two stories seemingly influenced by his boyhood reading of The Arabian Nights. This tale takes place in the town of Hodeidah, in Yemen, as does a story with a similar style, “Khat” which also contains some of the same minor characters. Both stories were personal favorites of Dreiser, far removed from his more famous works, like Sister Carrie, about a naive girl who moves from the country to the city and is exploited by a series of older men, and An American Tragedy, in which a young man must dispose of an inconvenient pregnant girlfriend to facilitate his social climbing (made into A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor).
In the story, young Prince Hussein does not escape death as an infant, but is sold into slavery at the age of four, purchased by the master thief who trains him in his profession. His name has been changed to Abou (not Julna as in the film) and is described, “He had now grown to be a youth of eighteen summers. His hair was as black as the wing of an uck, his eyes large and dark and sad from many thought as is the pool into which the moon falls. His face and hands were tinted as with henna when it is spread very thin, and his manners were graceful and languorous” (Best Short Stories… p.331). Tina is nowhere to be found in Dreiser’s tale, for the Prince dutifully falls in love with a Princess, who is thirteen years old! The story may have begun as a play, and then transformed into a screenplay by 1921, subtitled, “A Christmas Spectacle from the Orient”
Dreiser grew up quite poor, and The Arabian Nights, with its tale of sudden wealth and good fortune, impressed him as a boy, and as a writer, he realized he was not alone in hoping for a magical transport out of poverty. The Arabian Nights are referenced in both his major novels. In An American Tragedy, when Clyde Griffiths is being tried for murder, his lawyer uses the tales as part of Clyde’s alibi:
“I see, I see!” went on Jephson, oratorically and loudly, having the jury and audience in mind. “A case of the Arabian Nights, of the enscorcelled and the enscorcellor.”
I don’t think I know what you mean,” said Clyde.
“A case of being bewitched, my poor boy—by beauty, love, wealth, by things that we sometimes think we want very, very much, and cannot ever have—that is what I mean, and that is what much of the love in the world amounts to.” (Dreiser 716)
Orientalist swashbucklers were popular in the decade after WW II, and Universal was the studio most invested in the genre. Although inspired by Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad, they usually leave out the magical elements of the tales. They were basically children’s films for Saturday matinées, shot in Technicolor, now affordable and no longer limited to big budget A pictures. Many of my favorites, like this one, Flame of Araby, Princess of the Nile and Son of Ali Baba were written by Gerald Drayson Adams.
Tony Curtis was one of the last of the old style Hollywood movie stars. He was born Bernie Swartz, a Hungarian Jewish kid from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. His sixth wife, Jill Curtis said “All Tony ever wanted to be was a movie star.” Even as a scrappy street kid, he knew his face would be his fortune and avoided brawls that would damage his looks. When he signed a 7 year contract at Universal in 1948, he began a career at the twilight of the studio era. Universal may have changed his name, but did not smooth his rough edges, leaving his New York accent (even in period films) and his brazen charm intact. His childhood was unhappy. His parents fought constantly, and when he was 13, his younger brother, the person to whom he was closest, was run over by a truck and killed. He wasn’t interested in school, but he could climb the trestles of the elevated trains to leap on the platform and avoid paying the fare. After a stint in the Navy during WWII (volunteering for submarine duty after watching his favorite star, Cary Grant, in Destination Tokyo) he returned to the Bronx, where his family now lived, and realized he had to get out. He used the GI Bill for some acting lessons, and hustled his contacts into a meeting with a representative at the New York office of Universal, which eventually brought him to Hollywood. He was vain about his curly jet black hair (longer than was fashionable) and worked out to keep his body trim. Well aware of his effect on women (and men, although he wasn’t interested) he played bit parts (including a rhumba with Yvonne de Carlo in Criss Cross) until he got his first starring role in The Prince Who Was a Thief.
This was waiting to be pasted into an anonymous early 1950s movie star scrapbook
The studio had decided to promote him as a swashbuckler in the Douglas Fairbanks mode, and pair him, on and off screen, with 18 year old Piper Laurie. Although they looked good on screen together, Curtis says they couldn’t stand each other. In his autobiography, Curtis writes, “She was a willful, headstrong person who did things her own way, regardless of the outcome. For instance, after the make-up artist finished getting Piper ready for her shots for the day, she’d go to the set, duck behind a bookcase or dresser, open up her own make-up box and completely re-do her face. When the crew looked at the rushes the next day, the head of the camera department would ask, ‘What is that dark shading over her eyes? That looks terrible.’ They’d look at the scene again and again, wondering what was wrong, until they figured out what Piper was up to. She was a piece of work” (Curtis 130). Still, when they offered him $30,000 to marry her for publicity reasons, he hesitated, because it was a lot of money. But, he was already dating Janet Leigh, and said he wasn’t interested.
He remembered, “I loved making The Prince Who Was a Thief. My role was physically demanding, requiring me to do a fair amount of stunt work, including horseback riding and fencing. One month before we started shooting, I took lessons in saber, foil and épée and I found I had an affinity for it. I liked my costumes, and while I many not have been attracted to Piper, she was a very pretty girl, so we made a striking couple on screen” (Curtis 130). Watching the film, as they would have said back in his old neighborhood, “what’s not to like?” The camera adores him, and ogles him with the enthusiasm usually restricted to the scantily clad maidens of the harem.
Piper Laurie, predictably, had a different interpretation of events. Born Rosetta Jacobs, she was also a Jewish kid who had a miserable childhood and yearned to be a movie star, although her focus was much more strongly on the seriousness of the acting profession than Curtis, who reveled in the fame. He also omits the fact that they were in the same acting class, he flirted with her, and they dated briefly. She was 17 and naïve, he was the first movie actor she had been out with, “So exciting. I had kissed a few boys before, playing kissing games at parties, but Tony kissed better than any of them” (Laurie 100). A year later, cast opposite Ronald Reagan in a film, she lost her virginity to him. An image I wish now was not seared in my brain. “When I first arrived at Universal, I had been disappointed that Tony seemed more stunned than happy to see me there at the same studio. I thought it was nice, my friend from acting class and me getting our big break together, but Tony had seemed a little distant. It didn’t help that I had gotten real parts and a major publicity buildup before he did. It had never occurred to me that a guy could feel competitive with a girl” (Laurie 145).
Although she got to work with some respected actors, Everett Sloane, a Mercury Theater veteran who had been in Citizen Kane, and Jeff Corey, and her director was Rudolph Maté, a former cinematographer transitioning to director, she was disappointed that it turned out her studio specialized in B pictures for kids. Yet, “For the first time, I felt free in front of the camera. I was allowed to wear more natural make-up, so I looked like a real person in my first Technicolor movie” (Laurie 146). The make-up again! Why was this such an issue? “Only a few months had gone by since I started making movies, and I had just finished my third one. Things were happening so quickly. A twenty foot tall picture of me in a bathing suit had been displayed in New York’s Times Square, which impressed our New York relatives” (Laurie 147). As a contract player, she posed for endless cheesecake photos, and the publicity department dreamed up an inane campaign that insisted that she ate only flowers. The stupidity of it haunted her for years. She and Curtis did a massive coast to coast personal appearance tour to publicize the film. They performed on stage between showings, they signed autographs in department stores, did radio and tv interviews, answered questions at endless press conferences. In the Bronx, a theater marquee proclaimed, Bernie Swartz and Rosetta Jacobs in The Goniff and the Maidle, Yiddish for The Thief and the Girl (Laurie 185).
“Tony and I had been thrown together for a long time by then—making two movies (the other was Son of Ali Baba) touring the country, doing fan magazine photo shoots of us on fake dates—and we’d got along pretty well through the whole grueling process” (Laurie 187). They vowed they would always be friends. He married Janet Leigh (Laurie does not mention if he was indeed offered a bounty by the studio for matrimony) and temporarily dropped out of their joint publicity junket. When Laurie got big crowds without him, he apparently was a bit miffed. “Tony was reportedly saying that he was the ‘real draw’ in our movie and he was ‘carrying me.’ I was upset and bewildered when I first heard these things” (Laurie 189). They eventually made four films altogether and relations became increasingly strained, so by the end, they only spoke on camera. She attended a play he was in in the 1980s, hoping to reconcile, but he dodged her. “As someone who had great fondness for the very young Tony, I regret we weren’t able to come together before he left us” (Laurie 190). Disillusioned with Hollywood, she left filmmaking to raise a family. When she married film critic Joe Morgenstern in 1960, he took her to Morocco for their honeymoon. To her, it looked disappointingly like the back lot at Universal.
Here is a fan magazine photo of Laurie on a studio date with another Universal contract player, Rock Hudson. They were friends, but never dated. She figured she wasn’t his type.
I fell a little bit down a Piper Laurie rabbit hole researching this film. I discovered a cut-out Piper Laurie paper doll on Etsy, and then a reproduction of the entire book on eBay. Because the cut-out doll had some outfits that were printed on newsprint to cut out and color with crayons or pencils, I searched for a Piper Laurie coloring book on eBay and located one in Canada. Moviediva, Jr., laughed at me.
Here is the costume Laurie wears throughout most of the film, designed by Bob Thomas. Thomas was under contract at Universal during the 1950s. His most famous films are probably Touch of Evil, Spartacus, some of the 1950s Douglas Sirk films, like Written on the Wind and Logan’s Run. After 1960, he worked for Disney, and costumed films like The Parent Trap, That Darn Cat! and The Love Bug. He was a ten time Oscar nominee!
Here is the Piper Laurie paper doll in Tina’s costume, as water colored by me!
The official Piper Laurie book has some outfits that evoke these Arabian Nights films, but not an outfit that actually appeared on screen.
The coloring book is pretty much entirely fabricated by the publicity department. “Piper was a Girl Scout when she was 10 years old” the caption reads. In reality, she had been confined in a sanitarium with her sister (who was ill with respiratory issues) for three years, and her parents had just reclaimed the both of them. Worried about their pre-adolescent weight, Mrs. Jacobs started both her girls on amphetamines.
Was it? Seems kind of random to me.
The coloring book does list all her film credits to date, though. I think two different artists colored the book’s pages. This one shows a light hand, and the previous page shows a dark outline, and a preference for primary colors.
Jack G. Shaheen in Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, published in 2001, certainly has much to complain about and became the self-appointed spokesperson for negative images of Arab cultures in motion pictures. 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, before his death, toured 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. This film shows an Arab character freeing other Arabs from oppression, and there is Arabic writing, and some Arabic words (shaitan, for devil or demon). The heroes and villains are all Middle Eastern natives. The Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad is a favorite of his, a magical entertainment, with a reverence for Islam. He also endorses films in which heroic Arab characters are played by glamorous American movie stars.
Jeffrey Richards, writing about adventure films praises it, “Written with just the right blend of tongue-in-cheek anachronism, well-worn romantic cliché and pseudo-oriental rodomontade, the film is directed with vigour and panache and good naturedly performed by Tony Curtis, swimming, fencing and scaling walls with aplomb” (Richards 274)
Why do I like these films inspired by A Thousand and One Nights? They have a distinctly fairy tale vibe, as removed from actual Middle Eastern politics as Grimm’s Fairy Tales are from the history of Europe. While Western fairy tales have passive heroines who often wait to be rescued by their princes, these Arabian Nights films often have very adventurous heroines, who instigate rebellion, escape oppressors and rescue themselves. Tina may speak in an annoyingly childish third person, and wear a little hat like a monkey, but without her, Julna cannot regain his kingdom. The genre has crazy costumes, fancy-schmanzy dialogue and swordfights. The intent is to be total cinematic escapism, and they succeed.
“The Prince Who was a Thief” The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser, Edited with an Introduction by Howard Fast, Check at Perkins for these, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Jack G. Shaheen, American Prince by Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock, Swordsmen of the Screen by Jeffrey Richards, The Romance of Adventure by Brian Taves, Learning to Live Out Loud by Piper Laurie,An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (Signet Classic Edition).