One of the most valuable film distributors in Australia is Via Vision who, via Madman Entertainment, release a superb range of classic and foreign features to bluray – oftentimes films that have never even had a local DVD released before. One of their latest releases is a real gem: the five-film Tales of Adventure boxed set, which includes several Middle Eastern-inspired adventure films from between 1942 and 1957.
It goes without saying that these films are somewhat contentious for 21st century viewers. After all, they are ripe with white performers in dark makeup, and by the virtue of when they were made contain fairly outdated ideas about race and gender. Taken outside of their historical context and they can seem to be mildly offensive. Taken in the spirit in which they were made, and they are perfect fodder for lazy Sunday afternoons. It is great that labels like Imprint Films are working to keep these older films in the market and available for new viewers to discover. This is, after all, film history.
The first of the five included films is Arabian Nights (1942), a war-time adventure with a pleasing seam of comedy running through it. It was the first three-strip Technicolor films for Universal Pictures, something that director John Rawlins certainly exploits in his vibrant use of colour. It runs a tight 90-minutes: it gets in, does exactly what it says on the tin, and gets back out with efficiency.
In a tale of warring brothers, the Caliph of Baghdad Haroun al-Rashid (Jon Hall) is betrayed by his brother Kamar (Leif Erickson) and forced to escape in secret. Joining a group of entertainers including former heroes Aladdin (John Qualen) and Sinbad (Shemp Howard), and with the aid of the acrobat Ali Ben Ali (Sabu), Haroun fights to reclaim his throne and capture the heart of the dancer Sherazade (Maria Montez).
One can take Arabian Nights superficially and find a remarkably fun and breezy romantic adventure. Something that allows the film to stand out from the morass of similar Hollywood swashbucklers is its free-wheeling use of comedy throughout. While the film’s narrative spine is based on an archetypal rivalry between brothers – both attracted to the same woman – much of the content linking it together consists of amusing side characters and comedic skits. Shemp Howard, better known for his role in the Three Stooges, makes for a funny Sinbad but it is John Qualen that stands out best as a down-on-his-luck Aladdin – checking every lamp he passes in case it is the one with the genie inside.
The ‘brownface’ – crudely using dark make-up to make white actors vaguely resemble people of colour – is a problem, but then the film is more than 80 years old. What is less forgivable is the manner in which race is used to not-so-subtly signpost the heroes from the villains. Not only is the ‘good’ brother made-up with a much lighter, more Caucasian complexion, the film contrives to shave off his beard for spurious plot reasons within minutes of starting. The ‘evil’ brother remains elegantly hirsute and swarthy, while Nadan (Edgar Barrier) – his untrustworthy advisor – is rendered so dark it beggars belief.
The exception to this rule is Sabu as Ali. Hollywood’s first mainstream Indian actor was typecast in these kinds of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ pictures, but he was also very relaxed and charismatic in them. By casting him here one assumes Universal Pictures producers hoped the success of his The Thief of Baghdad (1940) would rub off here.
A charming range of matte paintings give the film a lovely storybook quality, as does the framing narrative of Haroun and Sherezade’s romance being told as a story in a harem. Everything moves along at a brisk pace, with no risk of outstaying its welcome – although to be fair the denouement is remarkably brief, to ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ levels. This is a rock-solid example of its age and its genre; both good and bad, both problematic and naive.
Arabian Knights has been released to bluray as part of Imprint Films’ new boxed set Tales of Adventure. For more information, check the website here.