Walter Wanger’s Arabian Adventures

February 15, 2019 | By

Producer extraordinaire (and impromptu sharpshooter), Walter Wanger (1984-1968).

Walter Wanger may not register with film fans under a certain age, but this highly successful independent producer made several classics in conjunction with top filmmakers from the 1930s to the 1960s, working with Rouben Mamoulian (Queen Christina), Henry Hathaway (Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the first 3–strip Technicolor film shot on location), John Ford (Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home), Alfred Hitchcock (Foreign Correspondent), Fritz Lang (Scarlet Street, Secret Beyond the Door), Victor Fleming (Joan of Arc), Don Siegel (Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and Robert Wise (I Want to Live!).

His final production was the ill-fated Cleopatra (1963), which over the years has aged into one of the last great epics in spite of its reputation as a near-studio killer, but during his peak years Wanger managed to make deals and deliver classic A and B+ productions with major and minor studios, and the films showcased this week are two of his three ‘Arabian’ tales.

Arabian Nights (1942)

The first, Arabian Nights (1942), is an inarguable classic. Shot in gorgeous Technicolor and starring the perfectly cast Sabu, Jon Hall, Maria Montez, and Leif Erickson, the story follows a good prince’s efforts to reclaim his throne from a murderous, evil brother, and gain the hand of the fair Sherazade.

Sabu’s in great form as the wily confidante who helps Hall navigate through dangerous circumstances, and Montez is typically striking in whatever costume and lighting design.

Universal hasn’t released a badly needed Blu-ray, so the review stems from the old DVD, which does look fine, but from a scene montage of clips on YouTube, it’s clear the studio has a stunning HD transfer that should exist as a standalone Blu, if not a collection of Montez’ films for the studio.

Wanger’s second poke at desert exotica came in 1952 with Aladdin and His Lamp for Poverty Row studio Monogram, but like so many of that studio’s output, very little exists on disc, and the movie is ostensibly unavailable on home video in North America. When something materializes, I hope to review the film, which stars Patricia Medina, Johnny Sands, and prolific character actor John Dehner.

Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954). Note the :Not Suitable for Children” warning.

The third effort came in 1954 with Allied Artists, one of my favourite indie studios because of their mix of B and sometimes C grade genre productions, and the odd genre classic – Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers being a biggie.

The Adventures of Hajji Baba fits B+ to a T, with a fine cast headlined by John Derek as the barber-turned-savior / lover / adventurer.

The bouncy script was adapted from James Justinian Morier’s 1824 novel, and shot in CinemaScope, DeLuxe Color, and a stereophonic sound mix with another bombastic score by Dimitri Tiomkin.

Derek may not have been a master thespian, but there’s an earnest, likeable quality to his screen presence, and his natural athleticism was clearly welcomed by directors wanting an energetic actor who could do some tricky stunts, especially on horseback.

Derek’s best known for playing Joshua in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), his marriages to beautiful actresses Ursula Andress (Dr. No, The Blue Max, Clash of the Titans), Linda Evans (TV’s Dynasty), and Bo Derek; erotic photography, and directing Bo in the ridiculous Tarzan the Ape Man (1981) and Bolero (1981), a rare studio film released without a rating to connoisseurs of erotica and boobery.

The last phase of Derek’s career has overshadowed / obliterated his prior reputation as a young Columbia star who worked in a series of strong A and B productions. Hajji Baba makes its debut in a stunning HD transfer via Twilight Time, and fans of tongue-in-cheek adventurism and romance should be pleasantly surprised by the high fun factor in this fanciful production that co-stars Elaine Stewart as the bratty princess, Gunsmoke’s Amanda Blake as a ball-busting warrior, and a ludicrous bevy of underdressed models vaunted in CinemaScope’s sprawling 2.35:1 ratio.

Wanger assembled a fine group of creative personnel for a production deeply steeped in quality 1950s style – an asset that further heightens the film’s fantasy realm (if not betraying Morier’s reportedly detail-heavy descriptions of Persian culture, circa 1824).

Like Republic Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, and Allied Artists, a lot of films that used to rotate on TV and later videotape kind of vanished during DVD’s heyday, and the presumption that few interesting films exist for discovery is pure bunk.

The films produced for mass consumption in formal cinemas and drive-in venues were often stepping stones for the actors, composers, writers, directors, cinematographers, and editors who ascended (even briefly) to major studio productions, genre classics, and in many cases, migrated to the career safety and financial regularity of TV.

For Wanger, there’s a sense each film was important; Arabian Nights was a Universal production, but The Adventures of Hajji Baba shows even for a minor B company, care went into costumes, locations, stunts, cinematography, and a script that delivered action, romance, humour, zest, slimy villains, and near-perfect casting.

Coming next: old franchises Halloween and The Predator are rebooted with polar results, and a review of Satan Never Sleeps (1962), Leo McCarey’s extremely weird final film, released on Blu via Twilight Time.

 

 

Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com

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Category: EDITOR'S BLOG

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