Siren of Bagdad (1953) *½
Apparently I have some rethinking to do. When I reviewed A Thousand and One Nights, I was under the impression that it was a late entry in a waning cycle— that the cheaply-made Technicolor adventure spectacles of the 1940’s were inextricably tied to the business model of the studio era, and that they went extinct for all practical purposes in 1948, when the Supreme Court put an end to that model with its decision in United States v. Paramount et. al. I thought the majors took the exotic adventure genre upscale along with virtually everything else they did once they were deprived of their captive theater chains and forbidden to block-book their product, so that the likes of Cobra Woman and Sinbad the Sailor morphed more or less smoothly into the swollen biblical and Roman-era epics of the 1950’s. It turns out, though, that at least two of the major studios bucked that trend, and embarrassingly enough for me, one of them was the very outfit that made A Thousand and One Nights. It makes sense, though, that Universal and Columbia would be the exceptions to the rule. For one thing, neither company ever had more than the tiniest affiliated theater chain, so that part of the Paramount ruling barely applied to them anyway. They were therefore under less pressure to concentrate their production resources than the Big Five (MGM, RKO, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox), because they faced less disruption to their accustomed practice. But Columbia and Universal were also predisposed, for historical reasons, to do things on the cheap. Columbia had originally been a Poverty Row studio, while Universal had been run according to Poverty Row principles— most notably a reliance on mass-produced genre programmers— ever since the Laemmle family lost control of the company during the troubled production of Show Boat.
It’s Columbia that concerns us now, however, for the movie that brings this stuff to my attention is one of theirs. Although the studio was slow to follow up A Thousand and One Nights (or to get further mileage out of its expensive sets and props), they eventually threw themselves into the project with real vigor. Beginning with The Magic Carpet in 1951, they produced four Arabian Nights adventures on a roughly annual basis, followed by a more realistic swashbuckler set in 19th-century Afghanistan. Meanwhile, they made a couple attempts to exploit the craze for historical and biblical epics with Serpent of the Nile and Slaves of Babylon, low-budget precursors to Cleopatra and (sort of) The Ten Commandments respectively. Indeed, with all that bargain-basement Orientalism going on, we should probably reconceptualize The 7th Voyage of Sinbad as a transition between cycles rather than the start of a new one. Anyway, Siren of Bagdad marks approximately the midpoint of Columbia’s deviant program of fanciful yet modestly priced Middle Eastern adventure movies. In tenor and execution, it’s pretty close to the prototype from the previous decade. A lighthearted delivery system for the comedy of anachronism, its main virtues are brevity and a less frantically needy comic than Phil Silvers in the “funny” role. Unfortunately, it also suffers from even hoarier and feebler jokes than A Thousand and One Nights, coupled with far less ambitious fantasy content. And perhaps worst of all, it lacks a proper analogue for Evelyn Keyes, so that poor Hans Conried has to do virtually all the work of mining laughs from a most unrewarding script.
Kazah the Great (Paul Henreid, from The Thief of Damascus and Exorcist II: The Heretic) is a traveling magician. His sorcery is the real deal, but rather than hire himself out as a consultant to sultans, sheiks, and emirs, he prefers to earn his living as a showman. Imagine Jack Ruby touring the Abbasid Caliphate with a tent caravan, and you’ll be close to the tenor of the operation. In addition to his cheesecake assistants, Orena (Prehistoric Women’s Laurette Luez) and Leda (Anne Dore, of The Lost World), Kazah’s entourage includes a baggy-shalwar comic MC by the name of Ben Ali (Conried, from The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T and The Monster that Challenged the World), a troupe of dancing girls, and a bit of hired muscle to deal with the marauding tribesmen who complicate the lives of everyone whose business takes them through the desert. One such force, led by the bandit Hamid (Phantom of the Rue Morgue’s Carl Millitaire), falls upon the caravan en route to Basra, and overwhelms Kazah’s guards so easily that you have to wonder why he even bothered to bring them. Kazah and Ben Ali escape, but Hamid’s men get away not only with all the magician’s money, but with all his girls, too. Of course you realize this means war…
Hamid is well known in these parts, so it doesn’t take Kazah long to learn that the bandit is an associate of Sorradin (George Keymas), grand vizier to the sultan El Malid (Charles Lung, from The Ghost Ship and The Leopard Man). It therefore stands to reason that Hamid would go to Bagdad to sell the captive dancers, and it is to Bagdad that Kazah and Ben Ali now race. Fortuitously, they reach the city’s bazaar just as Kazah’s girls are going up on the auction block, but the magician’s protest that the auctioneer is dealing in stolen merchandise predictably doesn’t avail him very much. The police are called out on the interlopers, and the magician and his sidekick are forced to flee into Bagdad’s labyrinthine warren of alleys and side streets. There, they are lucky enough to catch the attention of a young woman called Zendi (Patricia Medina, of Latitude Zero and The Magic Carpet), who sneaks them down to the cellar of her father’s house and shop. Most people, upon encountering two men being chased by the cops, would not think first of giving them a place to hide, but Zendi has her reasons. You see, her dad (Michael Fox, from The Magnetic Monster and Gog) isn’t really Telar the merchant, like it says on the sign out front. In fact, he’s Ahmed the Just, the legitimate sultan, from whom El Malid usurped the throne some years ago. Zendi figures that any enemy of the authorities may be presumed a potential friend of her old man, and the exiled royals become doubly excited when they learn that one of the fugitives is a sorcerer. Sensibly enough, Kazah balks at sticking his nose into the dynastic politics of Bagdad, but after Sorradin buys the kidnapped dancers for El Malid’s harem, it becomes obvious that the best way for Kazah to get his girls back is to help Ahmed get his throne back first. Ultimately, it all comes down to a scam in which Zendi poses as Princess Alexia, the so-called Siren of Bagdad, a legendarily beautiful woman whom El Malid has contracted to wed, but whom he has never actually seen. Kazah, in turn, poses as Alexia’s royal chaperone on her visit to the palace, giving him optimum placement for magical mischief-making.
Given the sheer number of Arabian Nights fantasy films to come out of Hollywood between 1924 and 1960, it’s astonishing that I can’t think of a single really good one. Even The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is pretty lousy apart from Ray Harryhausen’s superb menagerie of Dynamation monsters. Siren of Bagdad, meanwhile, is among the worst of the bunch. As a comedy, the kindest thing I can say about it is that it at least avoids the trying-too-hard desperation of A Thousand and One Nights. Hans Conried has a less obtrusive, more easygoing style of clowning than many noteworthy comic actors of this era, and the jokes here benefit somewhat from being underplayed. There’s also a bit of fun to be had simply from seeing what passed for risqué humor in the Hollywood of 1953. This is, after all, a story that gets started with two guys fighting over the same harem, and Siren of Bagdad does take the sexual implications about as far as censorship and cowardice in the face of prudery would conspire to permit. Of course, it’s unfortunate for that very reason that we don’t get more of a woman’s touch in the “funny” business. Except for a scene or two hinging on Orena’s jealous rivalry with Leda for Kazah’s romantic attention, the girls themselves don’t really have anything to do but to look cute in their belly-dancing costumes.
Siren of Bagdad is even weaker in its primary role as a fantasy adventure. Kazah’s magic is limited to making things disappear into and appear out of a trunk, which would have seemed woefully unimpressive even 50 years earlier. I mean, would a flying carpet or a forced-perspective giant really have been so much to ask? Paul Henreid, meanwhile, cuts a singularly un-dashing figure as a swashbuckling hero. The fight scenes are desultory, and the stunts display no ambition or imagination whatsoever. Nor are matters helped any by Columbia’s ongoing efforts to wring every last drop of production value out of those decade-old Arabian sets and props. A lot of that stuff was showing its age by this time, and the starting point for its decline hadn’t been all that high to begin with; among other things, the 1940’s were the golden age of truly shitty prop swords. The tackiness of the production would be forgivable if there were anything of substance to make up for it, but there simply isn’t. With limp action, tepid jokes, a clichéd plot, and no special effects worthy of the name, Siren of Bagdad has nothing to offer but sumptuously garish production design, and it can’t even get that right.