DirectorJohn Rawlins, Alfred E. Green, Frederick De Cordova, Terence Young, William Dieterle
Release Date(s)1942/1945/1950/1956/1957 (May 5, 2023)
Studio(s)Universal/Columbia/Paramount (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A-
- Overall Grade: A
Imprint’s Tales of Adventure: Collection 1 is a pleasant surprise. The genre itself—period adventure-romance films generally set in a Hollywood-imagined Middle East, often Baghdad, often based on stories from One Thousand and One Nights—is pretty limiting, so much so that the five films in this set frequently share character names and situations. However, the films selected vary nicely in a variety of ways: they come from three different studios, one made in Britain, three are in Technicolor, one in CinemaScope, and one in VistaVision. Several are straight action-adventure while one has a slightly more serious, political edge and another is broadly comic. The films are Arabian Nights (1942), A Thousand and One Nights (1945), The Desert Hawk (1950), Zarak (1956), and Omar Khayyam (1957).
Arabian Nights (1942) was Universal’s first production in three-strip Technicolor, which deservedly was nominated for an Academy Award. The film was an obvious but successful effort to cash in on the popularity of the 1940 British film The Thief of Bagdad; their scripts are almost identical in terms of structure, with the young Indian actor Sabu playing essentially the same role in both films.
Arabian Nights was a huge hit for Universal, and they teamed stars Jon Hall and Maria Montez in five more pictures together, two of which also feature Sabu. Decades later these films would find a cult audience that enjoyed them as high camp, especially for Montez’s vampy scenery-chewing. But Arabian Nights is perfectly respectable, comparing favorably to the classic film that inspired its production. Though it lacks the fantasy elements (and superb visual special effects) of the British film and, typical of Universal’s movies of the period, has its share of low-brow comedy, it’s quite entertaining.
The story concerns the Caliph of Bagdad [sic], Haroun Al Raschid (Jon Hall) and his half-brother, Kamar Al Zaman (Leif Erickson), who in the film’s backstory tried to overthrow his brother because a dancing girl Kamar was obsessed with, power-hungry Scheherazade (Maria Montez), had promised to marry him if he were to become caliph. As the film opens, Kamar loyalists rescue their leader moments before his execution and seriously wound Haroun in the process. Acrobat and magician Ali Ben Ali (Sabu) rescues Haroun, hiding his identity from the other entertainers—including, as it turns out, dancer Scheherazade.
With Zaman in power, Scheherazade assumes she’s got it made but plotting Grand Vizier Nadan (Edgar Barrier), concerned that Scheherazade will muck things up, has the captain of the guards (Turhan Bey) sell the entire troupe to slave-trader Hakim (Thomas Gomez). Can they escape? Will Scheherazade fall for Haroun? You bet.
Universal in the early-1940s was mostly a B-studio cranking out second features to support bigger films made by others. Arabian Nights was a big step up for the company, and they lavished it with production values rare for Universal at that time. Though much of its look was achieved via flawless matte and glass shots, there are a number of lavish sets and it’s obvious more time was accorded the production than the average Universal potboiler.
Beyond Universal’s fine stock company of contract character players (Gomez, Barrier, Bey, etc.), one of the best things about Arabian Nights is that Ahmad’s (Billy Gilbert) endearing troupe is comprised of deglamorized characters from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. Besides Sabu’s Ali, the offbeat but amusing casting has Shemp Howard (of the Three Stooges) playing a garrulous Sinbad the Sailor, who bores other members of the troupe with endless stories of his many voyages (“No tales, Sinbad,” complains Gilbert, “Work!”); and John Qualen (The Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers) as a down-on-his-luck Aladdin, whose lamp never quite works. (Wrestler William “Wee Willie” Davis also turns up as the hulking strongman.) This odd composition of characters is not only funny, but affords the character-comedians the opportunity to do their signature bits: Shemp goes “eeep-eeep-eeep,” Billy Gilbert sneezes, etc.
Imprint’s Blu-ray is an excellent 2K scan from the original three-strip negative and (as with all the other titles) LPCM 2.0 mono audio with optional English subtitles, and includes a feast of extra features: an excellent new audio commentary track by film historians Michael Schlesinger and C. Courtney Joyner; an introduction to the film by the late TCM host Robert Osborne; an interview with film historian Kim Newman; a video essay on music composer Frank Skinner hosted by Preston Neal Jones, and another on Maria Montez by Phillipa Berry. A trailer is also included. (Film rating: A-)
Cut from similar cloth, A Thousand and One Nights (1945), produced by Columbia Pictures, moves the genre close to spoofdom, with the irreplaceable Phil Silvers co-starring as the anachronistically modern Abdullah, who “claims he was born 1,200 years before his time.” Thus, he wears 1940s glasses (though minus lenses), uses ‘40s slang like “groovy” and makes topical references to Lana Turner and even television, befuddling those around him.
Pickpocket Abdullah is pals with vagabond singer Aladdin (Cornel Wilde), who is in love with Princess Armina (Adele Jergens), daughter of the Sultan (Dennis Hoey). Aladdin is arrested for gazing upon the princess, but with Abdullah’s help, they escape from the dungeon to a cave where a sorcerer (Richard Hale), tells them of a magic lamp, hidden deeper within the cave. After eluding a giant (Rex Ingram, more or less reprising his role from The Thief of Bagdad), they locate the lamp, from which appears its genie, spunky redhead “Babs” (Evelyn Keyes), who also falls for Aladdin. Back at the palace, the evil Grand Wazir, Abu-Hassan (Philip Van Zandt), conspires to imprison the Sultan and replace him with the Sultan’s identical twin brother, Prince Hadji (also Hoey).
The picture is a real charmer. Cornel Wilde had just become a major star with the release of A Song to Remember six months before, and while he makes an appealing hero, the real fun is watching everyone else make the most of atypical parts. Adele Jurgens, for instance, soon became typecast playing floozies, burlesque hall dancers, and gangster’s molls. In three-strip Technicolor and so near the beginning of her film career that she continued appearing uncredited in other 1945 releases, Jurgens is more than capable as the ingenue role, and singularly gorgeous.
Top-billed Evelyn Keyes had played Scarlett O’Hara’s sister in Gone with the Wind, which helped launch her into a brief career as a leading lady at Columbia, most notably in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and The Jolson Story (playing a character based on Ruby Keeler). Often ill-used by the studio, A Thousand and One Nights showcases her talent: as Babs the Genie, Keyes is spunky and spirited in a Betty Hutton-type manner but without overdoing it. Even though the story seems destined to pair off Wilde and Jurgens by the final fade-out, the audience is rooting for likable, playful Babs.
Dennis Hoey is best remembered today as the perennially flustered Inspector Lestrade in the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone. Fans of that series will delight in Hoey’s dual role, spoken with the same Cockney accent as Lestrade. A Thousand and One Nights seems to have been a turning point for actor Philip Van Zandt, a serious actor who, shortly after his work here, was assigned by Columbia to appear in Pardon My Terror, a two-reel comedy originally intended for the Three Stooges. The short was rewritten for Richard “Dick” Lane and Gus Schilling, the latter appearing as a dimwitted guard in A Thousand and One Nights. Van Zandt, playing one of the villains, wound up appearing in dozens of Three Stooges shorts for the rest of his career. Owlish John Abbott, as a tailor, and Frank Lankteen, as a camel driver, also seem to be having fun playing low comedy and against type.
Of course, it’s Phil Silvers who gets the lion’s share of the laughs, playing an antecedent of both Sgt. Bilko and Pseudolus. Lying about a supposedly infirm grandfather, a merchant asks him, “He was blind?” “Six nights out of seven!” says Abdullah. No one could play such characters with Silvers’s perfection, and the movie makes excellent use of the comedian.
Nominated for Best Special Effects, the film is also a feast of superb matte paintings and glass shots, and the familiar Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles is also prominently featured. Likewise filmed in three-strip Technicolor, Imprint’s Blu-ray utilizes a 2K scan of the original negative. For a film this good, it’s surprising there are no extra features. (Film rating: A-)
The weakest film in the set, The Desert Hawk (1950) returns us to Universal. Competent but tired and uninspired, it makes shockingly bad use of some of its onscreen talent, and looks cheap—except for some second unit shots, the film was made almost entirely on soundstage sets, including exteriors. Indeed, I would not be surprised if it and Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion (also 1950) were shot back-to-back to economize on sets and costumes. Uncredited Jeff Chandler describes Omar, the Desert Hawk, as “a valiant Robin Hood,” as well he might: English star Richard Greene soon starred in the popular TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood. Trying to free his people from the bondage of crippling taxes levied by the Caliph, Omar and his bandits intercept Princess Scheherazade (Yvonne De Carlo), en route to an arranged marriage with cruel, conniving Prince Murad, a man she’s never met. Pretending to be Murad, Omar and his bandits, including Aladdin (Jackie Gleason) and Sinbad (Joe Besser), drug her guards (including Rock Hudson) and make off with her priceless dowry.
When Murad (George Macready) himself arrives on the scene, he murders the guards, scheming to take over the kingdom for himself. He also sells the princess’s handmaiden’s into slavery, unaware that Scheherazade has switched places with one of them (Anne P. Kramer, Stanley Kramer’s then-wife).
One look at the cast credits and one instantly knows what roles everyone—Greene, De Carlo, Macready, Gleason and Besser, Marc Lawrence—will be playing. Greene and De Carlo are okay, but I can’t think of a movie that makes worse use of a comedian the stature of Jackie Gleason. The opposite of Phil Silvers in A Thousand and One Nights, Gleason has zero opportunity to be funny on any level. Both he and Joe Besser are fashioned into minor league con artists, Besser selling phony treasure maps and Gleason running a shell game, but mostly are little more than spear carriers. Gleason at times appears mildly disgusted with his part, and Joe Besser, a specialized comic with specialized schtick, never gets to do characteristic material. When one of Murad’s guards beats him on the head, how could the filmmakers not have allowed him to reply “Not so har-r-r-r-d!” They’re both wasted on a level rarely seen in a Hollywood film. Even Marc Lawrence’s false nose, a ludicrous beak of Big Bird proportions, is funnier they ever get to be.
Though derived from a new 2K scan of the original negative, the color on The Desert Hawk seems off some of the time, as if digitally tweaked. Mostly it’s fine, but in some scenes flesh tones seem way off, with characters looking dipped in bronze. Strangely, this disc includes two new audio commentaries, the first by film historians Phoef Sutton and Jordan Legan, and the second by writers Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons. Adding to the oddities is a featurette called “Man in the Shadows: Jeff Chandler at Universal.” Considering all Chandler does in The Desert Hawk is speak, uncredited, some narration at the beginning of the picture, such a featurette seems misplaced and better paired with, I dunno, a movie starring him instead? (Film rating: C+)
Zarak (1956) is the kind of film much more of interest for its production aspects and unusualness rather than the quality of the film itself, which is moderately entertaining but overall mediocre. What’s unusual is that it’s a British production mimicking the genre tropes of earlier Hollywood CinemaScope epics, especially those made by 20th Century Fox. Victor Mature, the star of Fox’s The Robe (1953) and its immediate follow-up, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), is the headliner, while its setting recalls another Fox hit, King of the Khyber Rifles (1953), all big hits.
The film was produced by Warwick Films, a partnership of Albert R. Broccoli and Irving Allen that lasted until 1961, when Broccoli teamed with Harry Saltzman for what became the long-running James Bond series. The beginnings of Bond can be seen in Zarak: director Terence Young, screenwriter Richard Maibaum, stuntman Bob Simmons, co-cinematographer Ted Moore, and co-leading lady Eunice Gayson all worked on at least two 007 titles, and co-star Patrick McGoohan was an early candidate to play Bond, the Catholic actor reportedly refusing the part on moral grounds. Even female lead Anita Ekberg turns up, sort of, in From Russia with Love.
Near the Afghanistan-Indian border, Zarak Khan (Victor Mature) is caught in the arms of Salma (Anita Ekberg), his tribal leader father’s wife. Zarak is sentenced to death by flogging, but the Mullah (Finlay Currie) intercedes on religious grounds, and Zarak’s life is spared, though he’s exiled from the village. Joined by brothers Biri (Bonar Colleano) and Kasim (Eddie Byrne), Zarak becomes a wealthy bandit chief targeting British soldiers along the Khyber Pass, including Maj. Michael Ingram (Michael Wilding) and Larkin (McGoohan), and soon enough Zarak reunites with Salma, now a widow working as a cabaret dancer. Later, Zarak joins forces with his cousin, the scheming Ahmad Khan (Peter Illing).
Zarak’s busy plot is replete with betrayals, whippings, suggestive dances, jailbreaks, big-scale battle scenes. All its genre requirements are duly fulfilled, but by the late-1950s this kind of film, with its unambitious storyline and cardboard characters, was on its way out, at least at the big studio level. Its naïveté is almost charming, such as the notion of Swedish blonde bombshell Anita Ekberg playing an Afghani woman, who at the café prances about in a proto-bikini strutting her not-inconsiderable stuff. Or admiring the versatility of veteran British actors like Finley Currie, (Britain-based American) Bonar Colleano, and Bernard Miles (as Hassu the One-Eyed) memorably pulling off such extravagantly colorful Middle Eastern types. Though Mature never took himself seriously as an actor, he was one of the few Hollywood stars who could sell the most stilted dialog with such conviction he was almost always acceptable if not believable; in this sense he was rather underrated.
The credits effectively give associate director credit to Yakima Canutt and John Gilling. Canutt undoubtedly directed all the second unit and action sequences, an area in which the legendary former stuntman and occasional actor excelled, lending it a Hollywood polish. Gilling, a director himself since the late-1940s, and later particularly associated with Hammer Films, has less clear a role in the production, but presumably worked in tandem with Young to keep it moving forward. Fox’s early CinemaScope titles in this genre tended to cost in excess of $2 million; my guess is Zarak, by filming in the U.K. and on location in Morocco with a mostly British crew, likely cost considerably less, perhaps in the $1.25-$1.5 million range.
The first of the titles filmed in widescreen (CinemaScope), Imprint sources a 2K scan of the original negative, which includes an odd, almost amateurish rendering of the Columbia Pictures logo. By this point some CinemaScope releases were monophonic (though many offered Perspecta Stereophonic Sound); this, however, is in LPCM 2.0 mono like the others. It’s on the same disc as A Thousand and One Nights; the other three films get their own discs. No extras. (Film rating: B-)
Finally, Omar Kayyam (1957), from Paramount and directed by William Dieterle, has all the genre tropes and clichés as the others, yet is among the most entertaining of this set. It was shot in VistaVision, Paramount’s large negative widescreen format, with 35 mm negative running through the camera horizontally, like a still camera, rather than the standard vertical manner, thus exposing more “real estate” and resulting in a vastly sharper image. Imprint’s Blu-ray, derived from a 6K scan of the original horizontal negative, has its share of speckling and other minor imperfections, but the cinematography (by Ernest Laszlo) is still positively gorgeous. The production design, costumes, and special effects are greatly enhanced by the added clarity.
In 11th century Persia, poet and mathematician Omar Kayyam (Cornel Wilde) is reunited with childhood friends Hasani Sabah (Michael Rennie) and the Nizam, Keeper of the Kingdom (Sebastian Cabot), both of whom encourage Kayyam to seek a court appointment from the Shah (Raymond Massey). Kayyam, in love with Sharain (Debra Paget), daughter of court advisor Imam Mowaffak (Morris Ankrum), reluctantly agrees in the hope that a court appointment will allow him to marry Sharain.
The Shah is impressed with Kayyam’s poetry and strategic application of mathematics and appoints him Court Counselor, setting him up in a tower to develop a new and more accurate calendar. Soon after, however, the Shah decides to take Sharain as his latest wife, undermining the power of first wife Queen Zarada (Margaret Hayes) and her son, Ahmud (Perry Lopez), while elevating Malik (John Derek) to heir-apparent. This disharmony in the court allows a sect of religious fanatics based in an impenetrable mountain fortress and led by a mysterious Grand Master to move toward overthrowing the Shah.
The screenplay by Barré Lyndon is above average. Omar Kayyam’s contributions as a polymath are cleverly integrated into the plot, even essential to the climax. The romantic aspects are trite but the political intrigue is much more adult than usual, at a kind of slightly dumbed-down I, Claudius level.
Produced as a modest “A,” a good 90% of the picture was shot on Paramount soundstages, though the production design, probably mainly by J. McMillan Johnson (To Be or Not to Be, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief), is visually sumptuous and admirably different from “Arabian Nights”-type settings, with an interesting emphasis on low, arched ceilings. Many exterior shots are enhanced with excellent matte paintings and miniatures. Fans of ‘50s sci-fi films will want to see this for the picture’s extensive use of Bronson Canyon and its caverns, one of the most (over)used locations for movies as varied as Robot Monster and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In Omar Kayyam, Bronson Canyon never looked so good.
Cornel Wilde is a pleasant surprise as Kayyam, projecting intelligence and talent yet politically savvy though unambitious professionally. In 1950s Hollywood movies, “egghead” types were usually starry-eyed and single-minded, ambivalent toward romantic relationships, as if a character couldn’t be both a genius and a lover, but Wilde and his character make an appealing exception. Rennie, Paget, and Derek, all veterans at these types of pictures, all come off well, too.
It’s amusing to see Raymond Massey and, as a high-ranking court advisor, Abraham Sofaer, reunited nearly a dozen years after Powell & Pressburger’s great A Matter of Life and Death. Peruvian exotica legend Yma Sumac, previously featured in Secret of the Incas, appears as a handmaiden and sings three songs. Other familiar faces in the cast include Joan Taylor (as Wilde’s lovesick slave), Edward Platt and James Griffith (as cult leaders), Henry Brandon, Paul Picerni, John Abbott, Anthony Caruso, Douglas Spencer, and others.
Beyond the new 6K scan of the VistaVision negative—making the set worthwhile for this title alone—there’s an audio commentary by historian Phillipa Berry and a featurette by film historian Sheldon Hall. (Film rating: B+)
Much better and more varied than I was expecting, Tales of Adventure: Collection 1 is a terrific boxed set, and one of the best Blu-ray releases of 2023 thus far. Highly recommended.
- Stuart Galbraith IV