Thursday, August 04, 2005

Baghdad and Boobs

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.

13 comments:

girish said...

Maybe this doesn't quite fall into the "Baghdad-and-Boobs" genre, [perhaps Bombay-and-Boobs?]...but I'm a big Fritz Lang-o-phile. His movies, esp. those made in Germnay, are ripe with orientalist exoticism. (Remember "Destiny" with its Baghdadian minarets and caliphs?). After the commercial disaster of "Beyond A Reasonable Doubt" in '56 (with the puffy-faced, permanently-hangovered Dana Andrews), Lang left Hollywood to return to Germany and made a wacky little 2-for-1 called "The Tiger Of Eschnapur"/"The Indian Tomb" that I'm a fan of. B&B all the way.

Campaspe said...

I was a little hesitant about confessing my enjoyment of these things ... they really are jaw-droppingly non-PC, most of them. I don't know those Lang films--I really only know the ones he made in Hollywood--but they sound like they would definitely qualify. I also think of Von Sternberg and "The Shanghai Gesture," Orientalism from a point much further east. It had Victor Mature as a dissipated Persian who spent most of his time spouting Edward Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. George had a nice entry about that film over at A Girl and a Gun.

Flickhead said...

The Tiger Of Eschnapur/The Indian Tomb are some of the best entertainments Lang ever concocted, and come highly recommended. (I believe Netflix carries them.)

Did you know that Sidney Poitier wears pointy-toed djinni slippers in Jack Cardiff's fringe B&B, The Long Ships (1963)?

My personal guilty pleasure: the Steve Reeves Thief of Baghdad (1961)...perhaps for nostaglia. I give it a brief mention at the bottom of this article:

http://home.comcast.net/~chabrol/Anytime-Anyplace.html

Exiled in NJ said...

You ALMOST make me rue the day I taped over a copy of Sinbad. My late wife had that same guilty pleasure feeling about the film [she also had a thing about The Fighting Prince of Donegal...sort of Baghdad moved to Ireland on a Hollywood back lot] and she was a bit miffed when she found Odd Man Out in its place. Morgan used to say such films were like marzipan.

Campaspe said...

Well, Odd Man Out ... can't possibly argue with that. Though it's hard to imagine satisfying a "Sinbad" urge with the Carol Reed movie.

The Fighting Prince of Donegal ... new one on me, but it sounds intriguing.

surlyh said...

How about calling the genre "Ali-Boobies"? I fondly recall the Hope and Crosby Road movies sending these up.

Beyond A Reasonable Doubt is a favorite Lang film. It has a perfectly constructed plot and a perfectly black soul. And Andrews is perfect for it.

Victoria said...

This was thoroughly enjoyable to read! I do not recall any specific films you mention, but I must have seen a couple, because I have a very distinct idea of what you are describing. Sure, these films are not about realism, but realism is an elusive quality anyway. Their fairy-tale aspect is what I find particularly appealing. On the other hand, one definitely has to made an allowance for the time period, otherwise one really cannot watch these films without getting exasperated by the stereotypes.

Exiled in NJ said...

Another from my Venezuelan era was The Black Rose with Tyrone Power. No Baghdad, no boobs but so typical of the Hollywood costume dramas of its day, though I think it was made overseas. Did he and Maureen ever make a film together? If not, they should have. Tyrone and Maureen were made for Technicolor, as compared to Errol Flynn, whose Don Juan from that era seems so garish to me.

Oddly I saw it again on television in the 70's and it put me to sleep.

Peter Nellhaus said...

As Girish knows, I have my "Michael Powell Theory of Color Film" which states that Technicolor was invented for Michael Powell to film red-headed actresses.
I'm also a fan of Lang's Indian films with the lovely Debra Paget. As far as the cinematic Middle East is concerned, I'm still recovering from seeing King Vidor's Solomon and Sheba.

Campaspe said...

Surlyh: Ali-Boobies - LOL!

V., I think we're right. Surely even in the 1940s no one watched these things thinking they were anything like the real Middle East.

Exiled: Do you mean The Black Swan? Tyrone Power did star in that one with her, and it's a blast to watch even now.

Peter: Nothing looks like Technicolor except Technicolor, which hurt Far From Heaven. Michael Powell talks about Natalie Kalmus and her lack of taste in his memoirs, saying at one point that the sight of a Matisse canvas from the period would have sent her to bed for a week. Hey, don't forget poor brunette June Duprez! I thought she was gorgeous in "Thief" and "The Four Feathers" and her acting was pretty good, too.

Exiled in NJ said...

My God, I forgot Black Swan. Black Rose is a Henry Hathaway film with Power, Orson Welles [probably making money to complete Othello], Jack Hawkins, Michael Rennie. Looking at the cast list I see Laurence Harvey, but I don't remember if his hair was that flying buttress style in 1950.

Juanita's Journal said...

"Jude Law as Russian war hero Vasilli Zaitsev in Enemy at the Gates (2001). Not a straight biopic, and not without merit, but despite a valiant effort Law is about as peasant-like as a pair of Gucci loafers."


It's ironic you should say this, considering that Jude Law's family is or was basically working class.

Campaspe said...

Ah, but so was Archie Leach. And John Wayne hated horses, and Henry Fonda was a chilly sort, and many are the sex symbols who had low-ish libidos ... what an actor projects on screen is often completely unrelated to who they really are. I believe I was a little too hard on Law, however. He did beautifully with the harrowing initial battle scene, where he's sent in without a rifle and told to pick one up when a soldier in front of him dies.