DVD: Arabian Nights (1942)

February 15, 2019 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Standard

Label:  Universal

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  February 6, 2007

Genre:  Action / Adventure / Romance

Synopsis: Two brothers fight for power and the love of danseuse Sherazade.

Special Features:  Theatrical Trailer.




Inspired by the success of Rank’s Technicolor extravaganza The Thief of Bagdad (1940), producer Walter Wanger set up a sweet deal to produce films for Universal, and the first production to benefit from the studio’s talent and cash pool was Arabian Nights, in which Haroun Al-Raschid (The Hurricane’s John Hall) poses as a commoner to regain his position of ruler from rotten brother Kamar (dashing Leif Erickson), and woo the fair Sherazade (Maria Montez) from Kamar’s ruthless grasp.

Michael Hogan (King Solomon’s Mines, Rebecca, The Blue Lagoon) adapted the classic Persian tales into a vivid adventure saga that was compact, tightly paced, and served the strengths of the stars and comedic character actors. Hall’s Haroun is beefy, physically boisterous, and emotionally expressive in his hunger for Sherazade, while Dominican beauty Montez (dubbed the Queen of Technicolor) reappears in various ornate costumes until a finale that involves a risqué dance / contortion routine for Kamar.

(If Montez’ lack of emotional range baffles modern viewers, the dance helps explain why 1940s audiences loved her statuesque screen persona, and embraced the actress in several subsequent exotic films with rotating co-stars from Arabian Nights.)

While Haroun is on the lam, he hides among a group of commoners with only Ali Ben Ali (Bagdad’s Sabu) aware of his identity – ’twas Ali who saved Haroun’s life after Kamar’s henchmen participated in a neatly choreographed coup.

Erickson is really fun as the power-hungry Kamar whose mean streak is only slightly tempered by Sherazade, a woman wanted by every man; a key (and unfortunate) would-be suitor is Kamar’s long-suffering right-hand man Nadan (Journey Into Fear’s Edgar Barrier), who attempts to initiate his own plot to kill his master and claim the top job.

Turhan Bey has a small role as Kamar’s Captain of the Guard, and for comedy relief the gang of rogues supporting Haroun’s quest includes leader Ahmad (broadly played by Billy Gilbert), and aging Sinbad (pre-Three Stooges Shemp Howard, offering plenty of screwball double-talk). John Qualen (The Devil and Daniel Webster) is a moping Aladdin, and prolific character actor Thomas Gomez appears as a sleazy slave trader and auctioneer. (Gomez would earn a great supporting role in Wanger’s classy The Aventures of Hajji Baba in 1954.)

Harkening back to the Douglas Fairbanks action / adventure / romance sagas of the 1920s, Arabian Nights follows the classic structure of a hero fighting to survive extreme odds and vanquish a nasty villain after near-death adventures and trekking through harsh terrain – hence lively horse chases, an escape from a slave auction, desert travel, and infiltrating the villain’s encampment that houses a harem of bathing beauties.

The production design enhances the bright pastel colours of the Technicolor process instead of aiming for any kind of authenticity, and cinematographer Milton Krasner (A Double Life, Boy on a Dolphin) exploits the hard desert sun to maximize colour depth and billowing patterns from overhanging tent sheets and palm trees.

House composer Frank Skinner undoubtedly relished the chance to score fanciful exotica, and wrote a lively score (one of his best) with fine main themes and action cues for Haroun’s flights to safety & sword fights.

That heightened fantasy world helps balance the American accents of the character actors and harem maidens, the 1940s hairstyles, and especially contemporary humour stemming from Howard’s wordplay, not to mention Gilbert’s expressive visage & belly-bumping technique (with timpani oomphs) in every fight scene.

Director John Rawlins would eventually slip into B-pictures (Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome), but his straightforward approach here is fine – he seemed more concerned with maintaining momentum without flashy camera perambulations, relying on performance, movement within the frame, and  Philip Cahn’s tight edits.

Universal’s DVD sports a trailer and short TCM intro from Robert Osborne that contextualizes the film as a career-maker for Montez’ in exotica, appearing in White Savage (1943) with Hall, Sabu, and Gomez; Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves with Hall and Bey (1944); the classic Cobra Woman (1944) with Hall and Sabu; Gypsy Wildcat (1944) with Hall; Sudan (1945) with Hall and Bey, and director Rawlins; and Tangier (1946) with Sabu!

Given the blazing colours in Montez’ Universal canon, it’s a no-brainer her films should migrate to Blu-ray. (A compilation of scenes on YouTube suggests an HD master already exists, but has yet to be licensed for Region A distribution.) A boxed set could showcase the fun escapism within Universal’s Hall-Montez-Sabu works, if not the adventurism which provided wartime and postwar audiences with velvety escapism.

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



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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