Release Date(s)1964 (December 14, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
Films about genies are abundant and appear in nearly every decade since films began. Notable examples are The Thief of Bagdad (1940), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and Disney’s animated and live-action versions of Aladdin (1992 and 2019). The Brass Bottle rests similarly on the premise of a mysterious entity issuing forth from a magical object to grant wishes, but goes the comedy route.
Young architect Harold Ventimore (Tony Randall), is a junior member in an established California firm headed by the disapproving Mr. Beevor (Phillip Ober). Harold is engaged to sweet, attractive Sylvia Kenton (Barbara Eden), but her father, Anthony Kenton (Edward Andrews), a stodgily conventional professor of Egyptology, regards him as flighty and bohemian. To win over Mr. Kenton, Harold buys him an enormous antique brass bottle, purportedly an ancient Arabian receptacle. Finding his gift belittled as a cheap fake, Harold lugs the bottle home, pries it open, and beholds a distinctly corpulent genie (Burl Ives) emerge amid clouds of green smoke. The genie introduces himself as Fakrash, imprisoned in the bottle by King Solomon 3,000 years ago.
Delighted and grateful for his release, Fakrash vows to serve Harold by arranging for him to improve his status at work and impress Sylvia’s parents. The genie’s well-meaning efforts backfire, of course. Fakrash has a knack for whimsy and enjoys playing tricks while simultaneously offering helpful ideas for his master that only make his life more difficult. Harold has to deal with the disconcerting results and explain about the genie, who conveniently makes himself invisible, to Sylvia, his future in-laws, his boss, and the local police.
The major problem with The Brass Bottle is that it elicits only a smattering of laughs. Oscar Brodney’s screenplay has long stretches of uninspired dialogue sluggishly delivered under the direction of Harold Keller, and most of the jokes are pretty lame. The premise could have lent itself to a sharp screwball comedy but the film lacks the necessary wit, sophistication, and pacing. The best sight gag occurs when Fakrash turns Mr. Kenyon into a mule. Whether seated in the back of Harold’s convertible as it careens through city streets, braying and baring its teeth, or simply reacting comically much more convincingly than his human co-stars, that mule steals all of his scenes.
Randall is a bland leading man and his performance isn’t very funny. When one thinks of how Cary Grant would have played the role, an idea of the potential unrealized forms. Looking distracted, even lackadaisical, Randall goes through the motions but never convinces that his Harold is thrown into a maelstrom. The closest he gets to exasperation is by raising his voice and widening his eyes. His underplaying in a broad comedy further dulls the jokes. He shows none of the comic expertise he would amply employ as Felix Unger in The Odd Couple TV series.
Ives, known mostly as a folk singer and for his Oscar-winning performance in The Big Country, seems totally miscast. Fakrash is supposed to be devoted to his liberator yet he seems oblivious to the difficulties he’s causing for Harold and regards everything as a frolic. Shouldn’t a genie who owes his freedom to Harold be more considerate of his feelings? Rather than invest his role with personality and motivation, Ives does little more than recite his lines with a broad smile.
The special effects are pretty rudimentary by today’s standards. Fakrash appears in a cloud of colored smoke, walks through walls and up unseen stairs, wills a fire hydrant to move by itself, flies over people’s heads, and conjures up entire, lush dwellings fit for a sultan. At one point, he reduces three lawyers to the size of mice. Quaint and simple, the effects diminish rather than enhance the film.
Barbara Eden has a small role as Sylvia but would go on to fame as a genie herself in the long-running TV comedy I Dream of Jeannie. Eden is pert and lovely, but the part is so underwritten that Sylvia becomes a plot point rather than a real character. With better material to work with on her TV show, Eden would make her genie funny, playful, and sexy.
Director Harry Keller, whose work was mostly in television, never gives The Brass Bottle a theatrical feature feel. Seeming more like an extended sitcom, the film lacks the snappy, precise timing and editing that could have exploited the jokes fully. Some scenes go on too long, others are moribund, and still others dependent on mundane sight gags.
The Brass Bottle was shot by director of photography Clifford Stine on 35 mm film, finished photochemically, and presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Kino Lorber Studio Classics presents the film on Blu-ray for the first time. The Eastmancolor palette contains soft, muted hues for the most part, but primary colors dominate in the genie’s clothing, the green smoke that billows from the open bottle, and the dangling, jingling, gold ornaments on a belly dancer’s revealing outfit. Clarity and definition are both very good, with details on costumes, a camel caravan, Fakrash’s whiskers and beard, and set decor nicely delineated. Skin tones are pleasant and creamy, though Randall’s make-up seems heavily applied and pasty. The room that Fakrash magically creates is more Arabian Nights via Hollywood than actual Mideast, with gauzy curtains, patterned rugs, a bevy of male and female servants, and purple lighting. Camera movement is dull and limited to a few tracking shots, giving the film a TV movie look. The actors are usually stuck in one position and deliver their dialogue uncinematically.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout. A metallic jingling is heard as a belly dancer goes through her routine, and a mule’s braying creates some whimsy. Burl Ives’ relentlessly jolly line delivery sounds as if his genie would be right at home playing Santa Claus. There’s a brief car chase with the sounds of screeching and piercing police sirens.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Lee Gambin
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:37)
- Bedtime Story Trailer (SD – 1:37)
- Thoroughly Modern Millie Trailer (SD – 2:39)
- 40 Pounds of Trouble Trailer (SD – 2:24)
- Arabesque Trailer (HD – 3:30)
Lee Gambin provides a career overview of Tony Randall, who is usually a supporting actor. Randall typically played an educated, nervous, anxious man “in a constant state of flutter.” Harold’s relationship with Fakrash foreshadows Randall’s teaming with Jack Klugman on TV’s The Odd Couple. The Brass Bottle, based on a 1900 novel by F. Anstey, was filmed twice before during the silent era. In the tradition of genie films, a genie helps an average person to whom he’s devoted. Harold tries to make the genie understand that some of his magic has consequences. An added bonus is an extended interview with Barbara Eden, which takes up the remaining half of the commentary. The actress talks about her early career, working with Lucille Ball, her work in the film, and her starring role in the TV sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, created by Sidney Sheldon. She doesn’t believe Sheldon based the TV show on The Brass Bottle because of the many differences between the two. She was surprised when she won the role because they had been casting dark, willowy beauty contest winners, but Sheldon approved her. She speaks of the professionalism of the character actors who worked on The Brass Bottle.
The Brass Bottle is an unimaginative film that fails to use its fantasy premise to make things sparkle. Randall and Ives have little screen chemistry and the jokes are often labored and lame. An actor with a stronger screen presence might have been able to sell the gags better. With a director who fails to infuse life into the film, it’s merely a mildly amusing comedy.
- Dennis Seuling