A Thousand and One Nights/1001 Nights (1945) **
As generally happens in such cases, the success of the Thief of Bagdad remake led the Hollywood studios— Universal especially— to begin cranking out movies in a similar vein. Swashbucklers had been big in the 30’s too, of course, but the new crop of films diverged from the standard form in three conspicuous ways. First off, they were set in South Asia or the Middle East, rather than in the more familiar Europe of Medieval, Renaissance, or early modern times. Secondly, they defied comfortable sorting into the traditional A- or B-movie categories. Though their production values in most respects were at the high end of the B range, their budgets were pushed up into the A-picture bracket by the expense of Technicolor— all the better to exploit the exotic appeal of those flashy costumes and gilt-encrusted sets. Finally, and of perhaps the greatest importance, many of these films at least flirted with the fantastic, although only one that I’ve seen embraced it as openly as The Thief of Bagdad. That one was Columbia’s A Thousand and One Nights. A Thousand and One Nights was made quite late in the cycle, as the pace of production was starting to wind down. If, as we might surmise, that meant audience interest was winding down, too, then it is only to be expected that Columbia would resort to a time-honored stratagem for wringing one last buck out of a flagging craze: they made their Arabian adventure a comedy. Specifically, they followed roughly the same model as most of the era’s less irritating horror parodies (Zombies on Broadway, say, or You’ll Find Out), shoehorning one of their popular comic actors into what would otherwise have been a fairly straightforward example of the genre being spoofed.
An opening crawl sets the tone: “Many years ago in Baghdad, a maiden postponed her execution for ‘a thousand and one nights’ by telling a Sultan a different story each night. If the old gal were still telling them, the latest would go something like this—” Then we find ourselves in Baghdad’s marketplace, where Aladdin of Cathay (Cornell West, later of Gargoyles), the legendary singing (uh-oh…) adventurer, has been hired as the barker at a slave auction. Neither Aladdin nor his employer is the focus of the scene, however. Instead, all eyes are on Abdullah the Touched One (Phil Silvers), a madman who is said to claim that he was born “1200 years too soon.” In other words, Abdullah is an openly anachronistic modern-day goofball, and his “madness” is an excuse to stick such a character in Abbassid Iraq without resorting to time travel. His inappropriate 1940’s-ness is apparent first from his face, which is dominated by a pair of cat’s-eye granny glasses. Then Abdullah opens his mouth, and dumb Catskills-comic one-liners start falling out, alternating, bewilderingly, with affectations borrowed from black jazz culture. You won’t have any more idea what to make of it than the men in the bazaar, I assure you. Abdullah is also one sticky-fingered son of a bitch— after all, a movie of this vintage called A Thousand and One Nights would be practically required to feature an ostensibly lovable thief, even if it weren’t a parody. As he wanders the marketplace, baffling all and sundry with his incomprehensible mannerisms, he fills his pockets with money and jewelry pilfered from everybody to whom he speaks. This is in direct violation of a promise he recently made to Aladdin, who happens to be his best friend. In fact, Abdullah’s pick-pocketing seems poised to buy both him and Aladdin an ass-kicking before the mob of the disgruntled hoodwinked is dispersed by horsemen from the palace of the sultan. (Yes, I know— it ought to be the caliph. Nevermind.)
What’s all the fuss about, you ask? Well, the Princess Armina (Adele Jurgens, from The Day the World Ended) is on her way to the palace, and Armina’s father, Sultan Kamar al-Kir (Dennis Hoey, of Phantom Ship and She-Wolf of London), has decreed that no man may behold her and live. We all know what that means, right? Sure enough, no sooner has Aladdin processed what the whip-wielding horsemen are saying than he conceives an irrational determination to do exactly what has been forbidden him. Luckily, there’s an accident involving an ox-cart in the procession’s path, and the princess’s litter-bearers are forced to set her down to deal with the blockage. Seizing the opportunity, Aladdin sneaks under the curtains of the litter, and somehow manages to bamboozle Armina into accepting his sudden and uninvited overtures without turning him over to the soldiers to have his eyes gouged out and his head cut off. In fact, Aladdin rides the litter all the way to the palace, where he decides to hide out in the hope of getting another chance to spend some time with the princess.
Aladdin isn’t the only schemer who has snuck into the palace today, either. The other is the sultan’s twin brother, Haji (also Dennis Hoey), who hopes to overthrow Kamar by stealth. And since the only distinguishing feature between the two brothers is the long and knotty scar on the legitimate sultan’s right arm (a souvenir of a previous assassination attempt), Haji could conceivably do so without anyone save his closest conspirators ever noticing the coup. Chief among those conspirators is Abu Hassan, the grand vizier (Philip Van Zandt, from House of Frankenstein and Gog). Abu Hassan is in love with Armina, but the sultan wants her to marry somebody of higher standing— say, some powerful sheik or khan from a potentially troublesome foreign land. The vizier’s price for cooperating with Haji is Armina’s hand in marriage after the usurpation succeeds.
To return now to Aladdin, he makes his move on Armina at about the same time that Haji is making his on the sultan. It’s almost exactly the same scenario we’ve seen played out in both versions of The Thief of Bagdad (and which would be played out yet again two years later in Sinbad the Sailor), only with more singing: Aladdin strolls into the garden where the princess is enjoying an evening’s relaxation, and romances her to the best of his platitudinous abilities. In this version, though, he is caught by the palace guards and thrown into the dungeon. His cellmate, by a remarkable coincidence, is Abdullah, who was presumably recognized and turned in by one of his victims from the bazaar. With a little help from the princess and her chambermaid, Novira (Dusty Anderson), Abdullah is able to trick his and Aladdin’s way to freedom, but freedom alone will not satisfy the latter man now that he’s had a taste of Armina’s company.
Fate provides a chance for Aladdin to resume his wooing when he and Abdullah encounter an old man named Kofir (Richard Hale, from the Roger Corman Tower of London) while making their escape. Kofir is a hermit who lives in the cave where the two fugitives stop to rest in safety, and he purports to be a sorcerer. He also says that there is a magical treasure hidden away in the cave, and that if Aladdin will help him to get his hands on it, he’ll see to it that Aladdin gets his hands on Armina. The item in question looks like nothing more than a copper oil lamp, but Kofir swears that it contains a power beyond compare. Unfortunately, it’s also guarded by a wicked giant (Rex Ingraham, virtually reprising his role as the genie in The Thief of Bagdad), whom Aladdin and Abdullah will have to outwit. In point of fact, they’ll also have to outwit the sorcerer, who actually has no intention of following through on his end of the bargain, but the lamp itself will come in handy in that endeavor. As always, it contains an imprisoned genie, but this one is a bit of a departure from the folkloric norm. Instead of a hulking monster, it takes the form of a beautiful woman (Evelyn Keyes, from Before I Hang and A Return to Salem’s Lot), and this genie is tied permanently to the lamp. She grants wishes not out of gratitude to whomever frees her from her confinement, but because that is apparently just one of the terms of her mystical enslavement. (Modern audiences might not notice the subversion, though, since this movie’s take on the subject of genies in lamps has pretty well supplanted the authentic treatment over the ensuing 60-odd years.) Also, Aladdin, as possessor of the lamp, is the only one who can see her. The genie extricates Aladdin and Abdullah from their difficulties with Kofir, and though she does so only grudgingly (having fallen immediately in love with Aladdin herself), she then outfits “Boss-Dear” with all the royal accoutrements he’ll need to pay court to Armina in the accepted style. Rest assured that there will be lots and lots of complications, however, not a few of them caused by the genie’s jealous efforts to sabotage the very courtship her powers have enabled. Rest assured also that Aladdin, Abdullah, and the genie will eventually find themselves embroiled in Haji’s intrigue against Armina’s father.
Such a shame about Phil Silvers… To my great astonishment, A Thousand and One Nights is capable of being quite a funny film, but its successes as comedy have nothing whatsoever to do with its most conspicuous comedian. Silvers rarely manages to be anything less than acutely embarrassing, and when a Jewish guy in granny glasses, dressed up like Hollywood’s idea of a tenth-century Arab, goes around inviting people to “slip me some skin, my man!” in a phony Harlem accent, I believe it’s safe to say that he’s earned a place of permanent distinction in the Annals of Ignominy. When A Thousand and One Nights manages to be funny, it’s due primarily to Evelyn Keyes, whose impish, prank-playing genie is as natural and spontaneous as Silvers is forced and belabored. Most of the genie’s jokes are either playful sight gags hinging on her invisibility to everyone but the owner of the lamp or clever riffs on the idea of her endeavoring to keep Aladdin and Armina apart in ways that don’t technically amount to disobeying Aladdin’s expressed wishes. Most of Abdullah’s, on the other hand, are essentially equivalent to watching Phil Silvers bellow at you, “Look at me! I’m FUNNY! Don’t you see it? Here’s a joke! And now here’s another one! I’m FUNNY, goddamnit!!!! I’M FUCKING FUNNY!!!!” Keyes could easily have carried the movie’s burden of humor all by herself, and it’s really too bad that the producers lacked the good taste to let her.