No, this isn't a political post. It is a digression on a Hollywood genre. One IMDB reviewer calls these movies "Grecianized Near-Easterns," others call them sand-and-sandals. The Siren calls them Baghdad-and-boobs.
I have a big soft spot for these cinematic baubles, and Maureen O'Hara is one reason. A fair-skinned redhead myself, flicks like Sinbad the Sailor (1947) assured me that if I pursued an acting career I need not fear typecasting. I envisioned myself at casting calls for a "Scheherazade type." I could even bring my own chiffon, to audition with that cute little see-through square that passed for the veil in these movies.
O'Hara's autobiography dispenses with Sinbad in one line, and the Siren thinks this unfair. It's a most enjoyable movie, with a delicious framing device. There is a lighthearted, almost spoof-like aspect to it that works well. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. has the requisite dash, but unlike his dad he had a certain fey quality that hindered him as an action hero. Sinbad turns this into an advantage by emphasizing the title character's braggadocio. Is he a real hero, or a loudmouth con artist? You find out at the end, after plenty of sparring with O'Hara's trademark feisty princess.
As a girl I also enjoyed Son of Ali Baba with Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie. My memory has faded, but even watching that one on the Turner Superstation in the 1970s I think I realized Curtis was a lot more Brooklyn than Baghdad. They changed the ending of the old story, possibly because someone realized that in 1952, seven years after World War II, mass murder of forty thieves might not play in Peoria.
Piper Laurie even made another Baghdad-and-boobs flick in 1953, The Golden Blade, with Rock Hudson (stop giggling. No, I haven't seen it). Something about redheads seems to have made studio execs think, "Now where did I put that heavily edited edition of the Arabian Nights?" Rita Hayworth got the girdle-and-veil treatment, with a Biblical twist, in Salome. And while it isn't part of the genre, I still crack up when I see Shirley MacLaine as an Indian princess in Around the World in 80 Days. If you look closely you can see her freckles in a couple of close-ups. Wonder why they never got around to Moira Shearer?
Hollywood churned these things out by the urnful in the 1940s (often with poor, doomed Maria Montez) and into the 1950s, with occasional forays even after that, such as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in 1974.
The only Baghdad-and-boobs saga that the Siren (and possibly anyone else) can consider a masterpiece is the 1940 Thief of Baghdad. Among its advantages were the brilliant Michael Powell, an uncredited William Cameron Menzies (six directors worked on the movie, all told), and dialogue by Miles Malleson that actually managed to evoke some cadences of a Khayyam translation without sounding ridiculous. It had the exacting Alexander Korda who, legend has it, looked at the Baghdad set and ordered, "Tear it down, build it three feet higher, and paint it pink." Finally, it gave us Sabu, a gifted and charismatic child actor who had the rare ability to react without mugging.
In case you're wondering, yes, the Siren does realize these films resemble true Arabic culture about as much as Mamie Van Doren resembles Marie Curie. But she cut her cinephile teeth on Busby Berkley musicals and figures realism is overrated anyway. These are fairy tales. If they teem with appalling Middle Eastern stereotypes (and boy do they), at least the heros are allegedly Arab or Persian too, albeit played by toothy Westerners. Talents like Turhan Bey and Sabu usually had to content themselves with supporting roles. Whereas today, of course, they'd be getting ... supporting roles.
Sabu's career was sadly limited by the typecasting of his time. When the Siren looks at something like The Mummy, however, she has to question whether he would have fared much better today. Perhaps he'd have found a place with independent filmmakers, but there wouldn't be much for him in the standard big-budget offering. The old days gave us patronizing Orientalism, but in the Siren's view, mainstream Hollywood manages to grow worse with age.