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Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Thousand and One Nights (originally published 9/95)

Of all the collections of tales assembled by storytellers down through the centuries, few can claim to be as influential as "The Thousand and One Nights." The Arabian Nights tales were supposedly told nightly by the wily Scheherazade in order to postpone her scheduled execution by arousing her royal husband's curiosity as to how each tale would end. The king can hardly be blamed for being taken in, however, since these spellbinding stories have left their mark on the imaginations of generation after generation of artists. From the music of Rimsky-Korsakov to the poetry of Tennyson, the creative works bearing the imprint of the Arabian Nights narratives are many and varied.

Movies, certainly, are no exception. The current animated release, "Arabian Knight," is an example, as is the recent Disney megahit "Aladdin." For those who remain entranced by the narrative spell of Scheherazade, here are some earlier examples of Arabian Nights movies that are available on home video.

"Arabian Nights" (1942). During the 1940s, Jon Hall and Maria Montez were teamed for a series of flashy, gaudy adventure movies. Neither of them can be called a great actor by any means, but they both looked good in their costumes and their movies did very well at the box office. In recent years their films together have become cult classics, much prized by the camp crowd. If you're willing to lighten up and not try to take the movie seriously, this one can be great fun. Montez plays Scheherazade, with Hall as her suitor. How campy is it? Let me put it this way: the role of Sinbad is played by Shemp Howard of The Three Stooges.

"Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" (1943). Following up on the success of "Arabian Nights," Hall and Montez teamed up again to tell the story of Ali Baba. The storyline borrows at least as much from the Robin Hood legends as from the Arabian Nights tales, but when you're having this much fun, who's counting? Shemp doesn't appear in this one, but you do get to enjoy hearing perennial Western sidekick Andy Devine wrap his trademark raspy voice around Arabian Nights dialogue.

"Kismet" (1955). This story of Arabian romance and intrigue had been a stage vehicle for some time before it was converted into a musical. The songs, including "Stranger in Paradise" and "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads," were based on themes by Alexander Borodin. The film version of the musical play was produced by MGM at the height of the studio's glory days as the home of the finest musical production unit in Hollywood. Howard Keel stars as The Poet, around whom the intrigues of the plot are centered. Sebastian Cabot is the Wazir, whose machinations drive the plot.

"The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" (1958). For a rousing fantasy adventure, you can't do much better than this tale of Sinbad the Sailor. Kerwin Matthews stars as Sinbad, but the real star of the show is Ray Harryhausen, who created the visual effects. Courtesy of his sophisticated stop-motion animation techniques, you'll find it easy to suspend your disbelief and come away feeling as if you've actually seen a cyclops, a fire-breathing dragon, and a host of other Arabian Nights wonders. This film was followed by a series of Sinbad pictures, but "Seventh Voyage" remains the best of the lot. Just to give you a sampling of the film's striking visual effects, a re-release trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"1001 Arabian Nights" (1959). If you're looking for something more along the lines of "Arabian Knight," try this animated feature starring the one and only Mr. Magoo, as voiced by Jim Backus. Other familiar voices include Dwayne Hickman of "Dobie Gillis" fame, Hans Conried, and Herschel Bernardi.

"The Arabian Nights" (1974). In the early 1970s, controversial Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini made what he called his "Trilogy of Life," adapting first "The Decameron," then "The Canterbury Tales," and finally "The Arabian Nights." This is a somewhat spicier version of "The Thousand and One Nights" than the others I've mentioned, taking its cue more from Sir Richard Burton's 1885 unexpurgated translation.

All of these are delightful in their own way, but probably the best Arabian Nights movies of all are the two classic renderings of the story of "The Thief of Bagdad." The first was a silent version made in 1924 by Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and the other was made by Alexander Korda in 1940. Each one is an absolute delight, packed with laughs, thrills, and wonders.

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