BR: Adventures of Hajji Baba, The (1954)

February 15, 2019 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  October 16, 2018

Genre:  Action / Adventure / Romance

Synopsis: A barber’s easy money plot to deliver a bratty princess to a scoundrel goes awry, and Hajji Baba realizes love and honor are more vital than emeralds and gold.

Special Features:  Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

When Monogram Pictures morphed into Allied Artists around 1953, the poverty row studio took several cracks at B+ and the odd A-level picture during the mid-1950s, including their first foray into CinemaScope – The Adventures of Hajji Baba, goosed with colour and 4-track stereo.

This was also Walter Wanger’s newest crack at Middle Eastern mythology, having produced the hugely successful romantic adventure Arabian Adventures (1942) at Universal, and the low-budget Aladdin and His Lamp (1952) for Monogram.

Based on the novel by James Justinian Morier, a former British diplomat to Iran, Hajji Baba recounts the sprawling adventures of an ambitious barber (John Derek) who aspires great wealth and hits paydirt when he discovers spoiled  Princess Fawzia of Ispahan (Elaine Stewart) has plotted to refute the arranged marriage coordinated by her frustrated father, the Caliph (Donald Randolph), flee and meet a guide who will ferry her to alpha male Nurel-Din (Paul Picerni), a womanizing prince with designs to rule Persia through steely conquest.

Hajji manages to impersonate the guide and makes an easy deal with Fawzia when her father’s soldiers are about to swarm the pair: escort her safe & sound to Nurel-Din in exchange for money, and one whopper of an emerald. Along the way they encounter wealthy merchant Osman Aga (Thomas Gomez, who played a slave trader in Wanger’s Arabian Nights), bodacious belly dancer & ambitious concubine Ayesha (former model Rosemarie Bowe / Stack), and most important, Banah (Gunsmoke’s Amanda Blake), leader of the brutal Turcoman babes whose mandate is to free enslaved women, and sell the men in popular markets. Those males who fail to meet their new position as servants and concubines are hung from cliffs to die slowly under the bold sun.

In spite of the film’s bubbly adventurism, Hajji’s James Bondian verve and sexual prowess, and the friendly comic book colour palette, there are some strikingly dark elements. Not unlike Arabian Nights, torture is part of the fear tactics the ruling class use to cultivate subservience among subjects. Fawzia may be an impatient spoiled brat, but her cowering, oft-suffering entourage of maidens know her displeasure can result in cruel punishment. (The interlocutor who coordinated the princess’ escape is forced to reveal the plot under bastinado.) When Osman’s caravan, including Hajji and Fawzia , are escorted into the Turcoman’s rocky encampment, the peaks are strung with the desiccating, probably dead cadavers of roped men, and Banah tells Hajji he lives as long as she’s pleased with his attention, fidelity, and energetic performance.

Fawzia , who’s been travelling as Hajji’s turbaned male apprentice, reveals herself to the Turcoman as a valuable bargaining tool, but her net worth becomes mud when a frequently scolded member of her entourage steps out among the warrior babes, and has the princess starkly suspended in the wind in a Christ-pose. That night, Hajji could’ve freed Fawzia and escaped nul problemo, but the lure of the emerald proved irresistible, and after a quick capture, the pair are strung up and left to die while the Turcoman travel to market.

The screenwriter’s smart decision to hold back on Nurel-Din’s appearance until the film’s midpoint adds to his mystique, and his first appearance is in pitch black attire, masking an untrustworthy grin and cold eyes – an impression that causes a fearful Hajji to go limp, and scrap a planned declaration of his love for Fawzia. Seeing her hero as a wimp and simple profiteer, she heads off with Nurel-Din for planned nuptials, while Hajji sorts out his epic quandary: rescue the princess, or return to the barber’s stall.

Both Arabian Nights and Hajji Baba share similar storylines of rescuing a fair maiden from a scoundrel, and the use of a potion to ultimately neutralize the egotistical villain, but being 1954, there’s way more sex appeal packed into this PG-styled adventure which owes some of its plotting and cliffhangers to 1940s movie serials.

Director Don Weis doesn’t show any visual flair, but he and cinematographer Harold Lipstein (A Man Called Peter, Damn Yankees) made sure to fill the wide ratio now & then with the lithe, figures of athletic models, stunt performers and two Playboy Playmates (Joanne Arnold and Pat Sheehan).

Wanger’s production budget wasn’t massive, but with a superb cinematographer, production value is gleaned from the striking desert locations, a classic 50s palette of pastel turquoise, salmon, reds, and greens, and beautiful costumes which celebrate in concert tautly toned midriffs. The colours, wardrobe, hairstyles and makeup are pure fifties, with Ayesha’s crazy headgear completely impractical for the desert heat. (A similar visual style of more contemporary colours and styles worked well for the 1952 cheeky Burt Lancaster semi-pirate spoof The Crimson Pirate.)

Instead of playing the Turcoman women for laughs, the casting seemed to include either stunt performers or circus horse riders, because their energetic raid on Hajji and Fawzia has several riders standing upright on saddles, whirring weaponry before they slaughter the Caliph’s turquoise-clad soldiers.

Derek’s knack for stunts, leaps, tumbles, and horse riding – evident in his leading debut Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950) – come in handy in several chase scenes, especially his midnight flight from Osman Aga’s camp, tearing down tents to foil pursuing soldiers.

Collins’ dialogue is simple and sharp, and allows some tongue-in-cheek lines to play both straight and dryly funny, and poke a little fun at the protracted on / off romance between Hajji and Fawzia. The villainous Nurel-Din is handled with deft subtlety: threats are expressed matter-of-factly or inferred with chilling calm, as in a great scene in which Nurel-Din shows Fawzia his wondrous ‘collection’ of colourful potions that cause death in staggered or compacted degrees of agony. (Picerni’s performance is nicely understated, and although he would appear in myriad TV series, he’s perhaps best known as Cathy’s love interest in House of Wax.)

Also in the cast is an uncredited Claude Akins as one of Hajji’s clients in need of a haircut and massage, and deep-voiced Randolph (The Mad Magician) had previously appeared with Derek in Rogues of Sherwood Forest, and would pop up in a 1958 episode of Gunsmoke.

Perhaps the strangest and most problematic element in Hajji Baba is Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, which is based on a main theme that evokes more than a bit of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherhazade. The homage and dramatic underscore work fine, but perhaps due to the meteoric success of his High Noon (1952) vocal single, Tiomkin felt a hit song could be wrought if his Hajji Baba theme was sung by Nat King Cole.

Cole wasn’t unaccustomed to movie tie-ins (he sang the main theme for John Green’s Raintree County), but the lyrics and background chorus are pretty daffy. Tiomkin seemed to have forgotten the golden rule of Less is More, so rather than write formal underscore, full vocal sections are grafted over scenes almost arbitrarily, fading up like filler sound in scenes that should’ve had sound effects or tense underscore.

One hears partial sections of the song 11 times (!) throughout the film, two with just the instrumental and chorus tracks. It’s a sledgehammer approach that reduced the film’s total score, and limited its chance for a commercial soundtrack album. (Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a mono music & effects track, whereas the film’s mixed soundtrack come in very robust stereo 2.0 and 5.1 surround sound.)

That said, if Tiomkin’s plot was to plant his corkscrew theme in every audience member, it worked: it’s still impossible not to hear the song’s chorus when thinking of the film’s title, hero, or any scene.

The HD transfer is gorgeous and comes from what looks like a near-pristine print. Hajji Baba was reportedly a box office hit, but was the only film version of Morier’s character, who appeared in the novels The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824) and  The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan in England (1828). Other published adventures include Zohrab the Hostage (1832), Ayesha the Maid of Kars (1834), and The Mirza (1841).

Julie Kirgo’s appreciation is pretty much in line with all the above praise, lauding a ‘forgotten’ gem that was also ahead of its time in retaining fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene to colour-coordinate the highly pleasing palette of costumes and sets. Plenty of admiration is also applied towards Wanger, and star Derek, whose straight performance ensured the film never dipped into spoof.

Morier’s original novel is available for download and cloud storage courtesy of the invaluable Project Gutenberg, and although the script is a radical departure in tone and events from the novel, many key characters were retained. The most significant change may be transforming the Turcomans from a brutal male tribe at war with the Persians to an Amazonian-styled band of vengeance-fueled women: ex-courtesans, matrons, abused and turfed lovers who tough each other combat, savvy survival techniques, and a code of zero bullshit. Men are subjugated, and survive and enjoy limited freedom only as long as they’re useful.

The box office success of the film – over $2 million in 1954 – may have influenced lesser writers & directors (or execs at Allied Artists) to repurpose warrior women in lesser creative endeavors, namely Edward Bernds’ silly space diptych of World Without End (1956), in which returning Mars explorers find an Earth populated by smart yet silly women unfamiliar with men, and Queen of Outer Space (1958), in which a queen forbids any male romance because a bad date scarred her emotionally & facially. Bernds’ future of women is a pubescent confection, whereas the Turcomans are wholly self-sufficient, and most importantly, they remain unrepentant at the end: they return to their mountains & cliffs minus any male unions, sated with meting out proper payback to the biggest womanizer in the land, Nurel-Din.

John Derek co-starred in a variety of exotic adventure-dramas – The Ten Commandments (1956), Omar Khayyan (1957), Pirate of the Half Moon (1957) – and reteamed with Stewart in High Hell (1958), but he retired from acting in 1966, becoming an independent writer-director-cinematographer of eclectic exploitation fodder, of which the most notorious efforts starred wife Bo Derek: Tarzan the Ape Man (1981) and Bolero (1984).

After Hajji Baba, Don Weis switched to working almost exclusively in TV, directing a massive amount of episodes and TV movies with the rare feature film, such as The Gene Krupa Story (1959), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), and Zero to Sixty (1978).

Walter Wanger’s unofficial Arabian trilogy is comprised of Arabian Nights (1942), Aladdin and His Lamp (1952), and The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954).

 

 

© 2019 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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