A Thousand and One Nights (1945) Directed by Alfred E. Green.  Cornel Wilde, Evelyn Keyes, Phil Silvers (93 min).

A precursor to tv’s I Dream of Jeannie, Aladdin rubs a magic lamp and unleashes the lovesick genie, Babs.  A lavish Technicolor musical, with bonkers Swing Era Orientalist costumes by Jean Louis, it features Silvers as the hero’s jive talking buddy. ”A strictly bobby-socks version of the story of Aladdin and his lamp has been whipped up… like a bolt out of a Sherman tank” (NY Times).

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 93 minutes, about the more pressing issues of the day. Universal Studios producer Walter Wanger (who specialized in the genre) 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).

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 stories from A Thousand and One Nights are almost part of European culture, its tales reprinted in numbers second only to the Bible.  The stories had Syrian, Chinese, Arabic, Persian and Indian origins.  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. 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 references 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 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 present day unease about ethnic stereotyping, so these films are rarely shown today.

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.” 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. 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, even if they are played by white actors like Cornel Wilde, Evelyn Keyes and Phil Silvers.  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, a 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.  A Thousand and One Nights is faulted only for the dialogue’s interchanging the words “Arab” and “Persian” and Shaheen admits there is a tradition of female genies in Arabian folk tales.

A Thousand and One Nights was filmed at Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth CA and the Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park (where Captain Kirk fought a lizard Gorn on the original Star Trek)  in spectacular Technicolor. The set were the most elaborate built at Columbia since 1939’s Lost Horizon.  

Cornel Wilde was born Kornel Lajos Weisz in Hungary.  His family moved to NYC when he was eight, and Americanized their names.  He travelled in Europe extensively and supposedly spoke six languages.  He turned down a scholarship for medical school in favor of the theater, and was a college fencing champion who made the US Olympic fencing team in 1936, although he did not attend the Olympics in Berlin (perhaps, because he was a Jew). Spotted by Hollywood when he co-starred in the Laurence Olivier’s Romeo and Juliet on stage (he was Tybalt) he also choreographed the stage fighting.  After a few minor roles, he played Chopin in the popular A Song to Remember for which he received an Oscar nomination, and this was the film he made immediately after, while excitement about him was at a height.  He excelled in adventure films, although he longed for more serious roles.  He was ambidextrous, and often had fights where he showed his fencing skill with either hand.  He also was in some strong film noirs after WW II and worked as a director.

Evelyn Keyes’ most famous role on screen was as Scarlett O’Hara’s bratty kid sister, Suellen in Gone With the Wind.  And, though she never really had a role that fully utilized her talents, (for example, she played the wife in the Seven Year Itch (the one who was NOT Marilyn Monroe) or brought her any Oscar acclaim, her spicy memoirs, recounting in detail her tempestuous marriages (to John Huston and Artie Shaw, among others) kept her on the best seller list, even if she was rarely on the screen.

Phil Silvers plays Aladdin’s sidekick Abdullah. He was a vaudeville, burlesque, stage, screen and tv comedian.  He won two Tony Awards, for Top Banana in 1951 and for a revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  He was singing onstage by the time he was 12 and  played comic sidekicks in many films (he thought the characters were interchangeable, he called them all “Blinky”) like Cover Girl with Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth, and Summer Stock with Kelly and Judy Garland.  He was in It’s a Mad Mad, Mad Mad World and Damn Yankees. He was best known for playing the scheming Army Sgt. Bilko on The Phil Silvers Show 1955-1959. “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 (tcm.com). You’ll see another familiar comedy face, Philip Van Zandt, who often played a villain in the Shemp era Three Stooges comedies.

Adele Jergens was from Brooklyn, and after she graduated from high school began working in the chorus on Broadway.  Signed to a modelling contract, she was “Miss World’s Fairest” at the 1939 World’s Fair, as well as The Champagne Blonde and the Girl with the Million Dollar Legs.  She continued her stage work, and was signed to a movie contract in the early 1940s.  She often starred in musicals, but after WW II spent a lot of time in the shadows of film noir.  She continued to work in movies and television until the mid-1950s, retiring to spend more time with her family.  She died in 2002.

Michael A. Hoey said about his father, Dennis Hoey (best known for playing Inspector Lestrade in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films) as a kid, this was his favorite of his father’s films, in part, because he had a dual role.  “He played the caliph and hits him on the head.  As in The Prisoner of Zenda, the real caliph ends up imprisoned somewhere while the evil brother pretends to be the caliph and does all the dastardly deeds…(it) was fun, and had a lot of sharp dialogue and I really enjoyed seeing two of my father in some scenes, via a split screen.  Years later I edited the sound effects on a film that Cornel Wilde directed Beach Red (1967) and when we reminisced about A Thousand and One Nights, he agreed it was one of his favorites as well” (Weaver 81).

This film sparked a major battle between Columbia Producer Harry Cohn and the Production Code because the script contained a taboo word “louse.”  Phil Silvers says in a gin rummy scene, “Don’t play that card.  You’ll louse up your hand.”  The Hays Office forbid it, even though it had no anatomical or sexual double meaning; Joseph Breen, in charge of the Code, just hated it. Cohn wouldn’t back down, and threatened to pull Columbia Pictures from the jurisdiction of the Code, a major challenge to its authority. The censors caved, “We find…”louse up”…in violation of the Code.  However, because of certain conditions in the Industry…we are prepared to permit the use of it on this particular occasion, but on the distinct understanding that it is not to be considered a precedent.  No approval by the Production Code Administration shall hereafter be given to the use of the word “louse” in any form whatsoever.” (Dick 152). The film also documents an early use of the word “groovy.”

When I first saw this film on Turner Classic Movies, I was struck by the fact I had seen it before.  A friend of my is studying Arabic, and I suggested to her that watching films is a great tool for language learning.  She recommended some of her favorites from the vast Egyptian film industry. One of them, Afrita Hanem: The Genie Lady (Also called Little Miss Devil 1951) is set in a Cairo nightclub, in which a “down on his luck crooner” is plagued by an amorous genie who he has released from a lamp in the hope of winning his lady love.  It stars two popular Egyptian movie stars, Farid Al Atrache as the singer and actress and dancer Samia Gamal, a real life romantic couple at the time.  This Egyptian film clearly seems to have been inspired by the Hollywood film, A Thousand and One Nights.

The costumes are by Jean Louis, designing only his 7th film, who had the splendid opportunity to dress a plethora of starlets, models and showgirls in scanty harem attire.  He was born in Paris, studied at Arts Decoratifs and worked as a sketch artist for the couture house of Drecoll.  Coming to the US, he worked at Hattie Carnegie, along with Claire McCardell and Norman Norell.  He began working as Columbia’s head designer in 1943.  Undoubtedly his most famous dresses were Rita Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame” strapless dress from Gilda, and the shimmering “beads and skin” dress he sewed Marilyn Monroe into so she could sing “Happy Birthday Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy. He was nominated for an Oscar 13 times, and won for The Solid Gold Cadillac, starring Judy Holliday.  He had also dressed her in her Oscar winning role in Born Yesterday.  His credits include The Lady From Shanghai, From Here to Eternity, Bell Book and Candle and A Star is Born. The extreme 1940s Arabian Nights costumes are, for me, among the film’s primary pleasures.

One of the handmaidens is a young Shelly Winters (you can spot her standing in the background of the wedding scene) who complained in her autobiography about the skimpy costumes and the difficulty of walking in the pointy shoes.  The dances were choreographed by Indian dancer Mari Jinishian.  It has a guest appearance by Rex Ingram, the genie from the sumptuous Alexander Korda The Thief of Bagdad. A Thousand and One Nights was Oscar nominated for Art Direction and Set Direction and for Special Effects.

Mixing up traditional lore with a jive vibe, it also had songs (dubbed by Tom Clarke for Wilde) and a gag appearance by Frank Sinatra’s voice at the end.  Bosley Crowther said in the New York Times, “There are no magic carpets in this one, no horses with sky-beating wings, there are just a lot of elegant females and a couple of gents who make colloquial gags.  In other words, it’s atypical Hollywood Harem-scare ‘em film, with the comedy cut to the fashion of the modern swoon-spooning school.”

Sources include: Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Jack G. Shaheen, , Introduction to Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film by co-editor Matthew Bernstein,  Swashbucklers of the Screen by Jeffrey Richards A Sci Fi Swarm and Horror Hoard: Interviews with 62 Filmmakers by Tom Weaver, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures by Bernard F. Dick, Columbia Pictures Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films, 1928-1982 by Michael R. Pitts, http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/93038/A-Thousand-and-One-Nights/articles/ (This link is broken), http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/24/us/jean-louis-89-dressed-stars-and-socialites/ (This link is broken), “King Banana” by David Kamp in the April 2003 Vanity Fair.