You have to like any movie where Shemp Howard plays Sinbad the Sailor. That’s what you get with “Arabian Nights” (1942), from Universal Pictures, starring The King and Queen of Technicolor, Jon Hall and Maria Montez.
Between 1942 and 1945, these two starred in six Technicolor adventure movies from Universal Studios that proved very popular with war-weary audiences.
The first, “Arabian Nights” was a huge hit, but in retrospect, stands as one of their weaker films. There’s not as much action as one would like, and some of the comedy relief is forced (not from Shemp, I hasten to add. He’s quite funny in it).
Jon Hall is very dashing in his robes and turban and the gorgeous Maria Montez (a native of the Dominican Republic) makes a most fetching Scherezade. Turhan Bey has a small role but he would graduate to bigger roles in the series.
It’s all very non P.C., what with all those Caucasian actors running around playing Arabs. Still, the sets are attractive, there’s a nice score from Universal house composer Frank Skinner and plenty of harem girls and belly dancers for eye candy.
Following its success, Universal re-teamed Hall and Montez in “White Savage” (South Seas adventure); “Cobra Woman (more South Seas doings, complete with Maria as twins and an exploding volcano); “Gypsy Wildcat” (probably their worst together, a story about a princess raised by gypsies doing battle with an evil baron, co-written by, of all people, James M. Cain, author of such hard-boiled crime novels as “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”) Their last film together was “Sudan” set in ancient Egyptian times with quasi-operetta musical numbers.
Their best film is “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” a spirited adventure yarn based on the famous story. Lots of good action, rescues, tribesmen yelling “Open Sesame” to a magic cave filled with treasure, evil Mongols ravishing the countryside and a memorable climax with the 40 thieves crashing the wedding festivities between our beloved Maria and the lecherous Mongol leader, wonderfully played by Kurt Katch, who demands Maria’s hand in marriage lest her country burn to the ground.
I was very pleased that Universal put out “Arabian Nights” on DVD in a beautiful transfer and at an affordable price (I paid $6.99 for it at Best Buy). But I was disappointed that it was issued as a stand alone title. Universal is well known for issuing collections devoted to specific genres or actors. All six films together would have made a very attractive package and I think Universal would have been pleasantly surprised at the sales, as only “Arabian Nights” and “Ali Baba” were previously issued on VHS.
This is a very fun series of films that I hope gets released to DVD soon. “Arabian Nights” is a good start.