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Monday, December 14, 2009

A Half-Dozen Ways We Forgot The War

Let the record show that Universal made six Maria Montez/Jon Hall adventure romances between 1942 and 1945 (Arabian Nights, Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, White Savage, Cobra Woman, Gypsy Wildcat, and Sudan). They were embraced by a wartime public that we’ve since been informed was starved for such escapist exotica. I guess all of us will eventually be sized up as neatly for whatever films we’re currently making popular. The six were escapist and as nearly exotic as 40’s restriction made possible. Youngsters liked them for swordfights and snake pits, plus their playing often in tandem with Sherlock Holmes or comedy/musicals Universal released by peck loads. What really distinguished Montez/Halls was Technicolor. The first of them, Arabian Nights, was also the company’s initial run at three-strip lensing, setting a pace for class bookings in theatres not otherwise hospitable to Universal output. If you want to know what this half-dozen meant to a generation coming up in the forties, read Alan Barbour’s first chapter of A Thousand and One Delights, his paean to moviegoing during what I’d call an absolute peak era. He saw them first-run and later chased Realart revivals playing Montez/Halls into the fifties. These were evergreens for being actionful and unbound to years they were made. Color sold them to theatres intent on edging out television, with showmen going back/forth to Realart wells throughout ten-years the company leased oldies from Universal. After that, it was anybody’s luck just finding the six. I’ve tried and have so far seen only half. Universal released two so far on DVD, Arabian Nights and Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves. Now having teamed with TCM for disc projects, I hope they’ll do the rest. Word is that three-strip elements survive on the group and prints maintain much of Technicolor's original luster (but were some lost in Universal’s disastrous vault fire of last year?).

France sells a DVD of Cobra Woman, likely a result of Robert Siodmak having directed it. There used to be revivals of that one, sometimes on nitrate 35mm, at revival houses catering to audiences in search of laughs over its retro silliness. They anointed Maria Montez as camp icon for a generation removed from Alan Barbour’s matinee congregation. Now camp is as dated as its followers proposed Montez and Cobra Woman to be. Everyone back to original writers and crew knew the group of six to be outlandish. Celebrated director/scribe Richard Brooks got his start on Cobra Woman. To he and others, the Montez/Halls were initiations not unlike fraternity Hell week, a future rich source of anecdotes about fat-cat producers slapping out "tits and sand" (their appellation) from which genuine talent struggled to graduate. One needed healthy cynicism to work on these. None got respect, but cash reward flowed aplenty. Arabian Nights cost just under a million and brought back several times that. Producer Walter Wanger made a personal killing for having produced it at Universal. Once he laid the blueprint, staff hands pushed forward to replicate the mold. They all recognized camp without benefit of introduction to the term. For such profits earned, you could label these molasses and still drive a Cadillac home.

It really comes down to one’s own exotica threshold. Do you draw the line at Sabu dashing about in harem pants? To have enjoyed 1940’s The Thief Of Bagdad helps, for the Montez/Halls are largely economy versions of that. Maria Montez was among those Hollywood celebrated as most fabulous of beauties. For temperament minus notable talent, there was no chance she’d play a Mrs. Miniver, but Montez was equal to displaying as much (which is to say not much) flesh as censors would allow, being a type reincarnated in the sixties as Ursula Andress and various Hammer Glamour practitioners. Montez also forged ahead of her time posing in see-through attire for photographers (as here), anticipating Playboy pictorials successors would engage. There were reports she stood before mirrors to declare, When I look at myself, I am so beautiful, I scream with joy. That was likelier a Universal plant to prevent Montez aspiring beyond status as a costumed joke. By the time the actress tried variation, it was too late. Some have attached Hollywood Babylonian significance to Montez’s 1951 heart attack in a bathtub (filled with too hot water?), although that death at age 34 probably amounted to nothing more than it appeared.

Jon Hall was a big side of beef way this end of magnetic, his screen companions (even besides Montez) forever more colorful and engaging. Aforementioned Sabu was like Beanie Babies for the brief time he swooned a public fascinated by his boy-toy allure. Sexual currents were afoot in these shows beyond bare midriffs Montez displayed. Robert Stack remembered girls lined up at Sabu’s dressing room for a go at his offscreen exotica, and frequent supporting Turhan Bey cut a hooded eyed swath through boudoirs not limited to consort Lana Turner’s. Both these guys put Jon Hall in the shade for manly technique their foreign origins suggested. Bey would in fact replace Hall as romantic lead in the final entry, Sudan, with the latter now relegated to support. What's best overall about the series are its background players. Never did comic relief strive so mightily to soften starch out of endlessly told tales (one writer alerted Walter Wanger that Arabian Nights was just a western with camels, to which the producer essentially replied, Yeah, and your point?). Even allowing for viewer disdain with turbans and slippers with bells, there are joys of Shemp Howard, Billy Gilbert, Andy Devine … a casting department’s joke bag emptied in service of brisk shows (all under 90 minutes, most less than 80) that really benefit from oft-doses of slapstick. For those that enjoy giddy days of Universal manufacture, the six Montez/Halls are gem fields worth mining. I’ve had fun watching ones available. They’ve kind of grown on me like mosquito bites that feel good when you scratch them. The DVD’s of Arabian Nights and Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves (plus the Region 2 Cobra Woman) are some of the prettiest modern renderings of vintage Technicolor around, and reason beyond the film’s entertainment values to invest.


Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I picked up some gray-market DVDs a while back of Cobra Woman, Arabian Nights, Ali Baba and White Savage, apparently dubbed from AMC showings back in the '80s. It would seem the IB Tech elements were still intact then, as the color is pretty well eye-popping. Certainly a hugh step up from my late, unlamented Eastman-pink 16mm of Cobra Woman.

Cobra Woman is deliriously wacky and in a class by itself, of course ("Giff me da cobra jool!"), but all four of these camp-fests are enjoyably unpretentious hokum. Pauline Kael may have thrown up her hands in dismay at them, but reading between the lines of her dismissive blurbs in 5001 Nights at the Movies, I suspect even she had a grudging good time.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I really wish Universal had released all six in a box set. It seemed like such a natural, instead of releasing them piecemeal. I think they would have been very surprised at how well it would have sold.

They're all a lot of fun, though "Gypsy Wildcat" is probably the weakest. James M. Cain, of all people, is credited with the screenplay. Talk about your yin and yang. In one year, the screen version of your book "Double Indemnity" is being released to rave reviews, while your other 1944 writing credit is "Gypsy Wildcat." At least the film version of "Mildred Pierce" was one year away and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" in two years.

I haven't seen "Sudan" in years, but remember it as a bizarre experience, as much operetta as it is an adventure film. It is disconcerting seeing Jon Hall in support after starring in the five previous Montez films.

"White Savage" is the one that appears to be the hardest to see.

12:58 PM  
Blogger J. Theakston said...

White Savage didn't make it into any of the initial Montez-Hall packages for TV. When it showed up later, I think it may have only been available in black and white. Sadly, it's one of the best of the pictures, seldom seen.

Regardless, Universal has elements on all of their Technicolor hits, and have struck new prints of most of them. Their new print of Cobra Woman looks better than the original Technicolor prints, in my opinion.

3:11 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's very interesting about "White Savage" being out of the initial TV packages, Jack. I remember one collector having an eastman print of the film some years ago --- it was probably a rental, maybe originating with the old Universal 16 line. Anyway, I guess by now it would have faded.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

So glad you got around to la Montez!I vaguely remember seeing some of the films on tv as a child..and heard alot about them in my 8mm film collecting days,but never got a good look at one of these until recent years..Montez aside,there seems to be no shortage of other beautiful women in these films and the scene compositons they inhabit in that rich technicolor are heart stopping..and for B quickies,the direction and writing seem a tad above the usual..A good box set of these is definately in well as the release of the non universals like Siren of Atlantis..

10:11 PM  
Blogger Erik Weems said...

Looking at the locations stills, the camera looks monstrous. I've not seen any of these films and wonder how much motion they contain with cameras that big.

9:10 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yep, those three-strip Technicolor cameras were real leviathans.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I meant to mention, John: Thanks for publishing that "Maria Montez Uncensored" pic. Once you get past the obvious focal point of the picture, it's gratifying to look a little closer and discern that she did in fact have a navel.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Kenneth Henderson said...

Nothing has been said about any real losses except audio mastertapes or whatever of Universal Music older material(Crosby, Garland, jazz etc)which they said represented about 5% of the Universal masters that were stored there on a lease/rental basis-that company being a spin off with French owners or whoever and no longer part of Universal Pictures(NBC Universal). But they did say all the masters of the past had been digitally redone in a special reclaim program and stored in Philadelphia(where the Comcast people who are trying to take the company over have their HQ). I have always liked the color that appears on DVD of those few Universal titles on DVD from the 1940s like The Phantom of the Opera, Can't Help Singing, Ali Bab, Arabian Nights. Those that went on Laserdisc were pretty good also & I still have them. But Universal made some serials in the 1930s that seem to be invisible now(they did have some re-released by some other small business later who changed the titles like on Flash Gordon)but where are they. Titles like Clancy of the Mounted(1933) & Lost City amongst others.

I agree a box set would be great of the Jon Hall/Maria Montez titles and Universal have made a few horror ones. I have the latest Horror collection thru TCM and these are of very good quality and the lone Paramount title(Murders in the Zoo) from 1933 is very well preserved. The Paramount masters they bought in the 1950s were not often very good by all accounts. Much gray market Paramount are available in varying quality but this has been the only way to see some of these titles that were the staple of early TV in Australia along wit the other packages sold at that time to TV. Those prints along with their added MGM logo & fanfare were often poor, wear line down most titles, noisy soundtracks and cue marks all too often than they should be meaning some definite splices/cuts to fit into a time-frame(luckily less ads in those days meaning less cuts which were using not put back in.
What I am hoping for is some of the lighter fluff from Universal from the late 1930s to the 40s like the musical type flix with Gloria Jean, Donald O'Connor, Peggy Ryan etc. Nice to read about them in books and articles in classic film mags but I would like to see them as well if... TCM might give this hope which must have come with the announcement of the TCM cable deal with Universal for the back catalogue. Ken Henderson/Australia

2:33 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Universal has gorgeous new video masters on Gloria Jean's THE UNDER-PUP and DESTINY, both from 35mm. TCM is supposed to be enlarging the scope of its current contract with Universal, and when this takes effect in 2010 -- and Universal sends whatever broadcast masters it has on the shelf -- Gloria should be there.

4:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember "Sword of Ali Baba", where new 60s footage would suddenly give way to 1944 and ".....Forty Thieves"?(And very grainy, too)

5:10 PM  
Blogger Ray Faiola said...

I have a brand-new LPP print of WHITE SAVAGE. It is really gorgeous. It was struck for Australian TV, which makes sense because MCA never made color prints for the US for a very ridiculous reason. The BIB distribution manuals mistakenly listed the film as B/B (Made in B&W; Prints in B&W). So no station ever bothered to order a color print!

10:35 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yours is the only good 16mm print I ever heard of for "White Savage." I certainly never had one in all the years I collected. The only really nice Montez/Hall in my collection was an Agfa "Arabian Nights."

11:02 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I'm writing this in 2023.
After reading GPS' entry for Nov 27 2023, which has a review of 'Ali Baba And the Forty Thieves', I looked through some old discs I recently inherited and found there was a DVD of 'Arabian Nights' amongst them; so I watched it, and found it enjoyable enough to search for the other five titles for possible online viewing. I found several of them here and there, and watched 'Sudan'.
The technicolor looked great,and once the action got out into the desert, the vistas looked beautiful with golden sands and blue skies - and it reminded me of the last time I saw a desert presented on screen, in the 'Star Wars' movies, with the escape of the droids to the deserts of the plane Tatooine in 'Star Wars - A New Hope'. I also recalled that "Lawrence Of Arabia" also had beautifully photographed desert scenes, but that that movie by contrast emphasized the forbidding aspect of the desert spaces, while 'Sudan' seemed content just to show a good-looking exotic place, never emphasizing the "dangers of the desert".
I was then rather surprised to notice another similarity to the "Star Wars" films, as "Sudan" has as a central character a Princess who is captured and sold into slavery while in the desert - just as in 'Star Wars - The Return Of The Jedi', Princess Leia is captured by Jabba the Hutt and made into a slave in his desert redoubt and aboard his desert cruiser; the scenes of Jabba's land yacht cruising through the desert in that film were also brought to mind by the desert scenes of 'Sudan'.
But then another similarity to 'Star Wars' came along - in 'Sudan', the fate of the small group of protagonists come to rely entirely upon the winning of a horse race run on a spectacular desert racecourse by one of their number, in order to provide them with the means to escape their jeopardy - just as the fate of the small band of protagonists in "Star Wars - The Phantom Menace" comes to depend on one of their number winning a speed-pod race run through a spectacular desert race course in order to provide them with the means to escape their jeopardy.
I was then astounded to see a scene in 'Sudan' where three of the the heroes are tied to posts to await their execution by being torn apart by wild horses - just as the three heroes of "Star Wars - The Attack of the Clones' were tied to posts to await their turn to be torn apart by wild beasts!
Finally, in 'Sudan' the day is saved by the timely arrival of an outlaw in love with the Princess who deals the decisive blow to the evil vizier - just as in "Star Wars - A New Hope' it is the outlaw Han Solo, in love with his Princess, who saves the day by dealing the decisive blow to the evil Darth Vader.
All this reminded me that "Sudan' is at heart basically a fantasy movie, just as the "Star Wars' films are; and that perhaps there are many scenes in many movies that are accounted as originals which are, in some sense, "remakes in disguise" of older films in their genre, in whole or in part.
I liked 'Sudan'. And I like the 'Star Wars' movies too.
I just had not expected there to be any connection whatsoever between 'Sudan' and the 'Star Wars' films, and was surprised to notice so many similarities.

9:33 PM  

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