Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Goofballs in Harem Pants, Part 2

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Goofballs in Harem Pants, Part 2

Son of Ali Baba (Universal, 1952)

Including Arabian Adventure (1979) in last week’s article reminded me that there was a slew of films from Hollywood’s postwar spate of Arabian Nights-inspired B-movies that we hadn’t covered here yet. There were a lot of these, quickies shot in about a week apiece, mostly on the same Hollywood backlot. Though tedium reigns over most of the running time of these faux-desert adventures, there are nuggets of good fun scattered among the dunes. If only somebody would compile a half-hour supercut of the best bits from the films that follow, they’d be doing the 21st century a favor. Any takers?

Son of Ali Baba

Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1952
Director: Kurt Neumann
Source: Universal Vault DVD

After The Prince who Was a Thief (1951), Universal decided to do another Arabian Nights-style adventure starring Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie, but this time around they got a dud. Thanks to his ex-thief father Ali’s vast wealth, Kashma Baba (Curtis) is enrolled with the sons of the nobility as a cadet in Bagdad’s Military Academy — which, except for the dark-haired Curtis, is entirely filled with WASP-looking frat boys straight from the country club. (As usual in these films, only merchants, thieves, and the caliph’s goons look like actual Persians or Arabs.)

Trying to fit in, Kashma throws himself a rowdy birthday party in his opulent Bagdad house in which the caliph’s boorish son gets thrown into Kashma’s indoor pool. Uh-oh! Vengeance is sworn, and the next morning Kashma is embroiled in a plot to ruin him and his father by foisting upon him an escaped slave girl, Kiki (Laurie), only she’s really a princess who’s been promised to the shah unless she can find Ali Baba’s treasure for the caliph to save her mother but it’s impossible to care because this thing is a mess, okay?

I always hate to blame the writers, they’ve got it hard enough, but in this case, I feel obliged to point the finger of shame at Gerald Drayson Adams, who concocted this goofy story and wrote all the terrible, terrible dialogue. There’s a definite high style to the classic Arabian Nights stories, and adapting that poetic diction to a movie script can be done, and done well, but based on this clunker Adams had no idea how to go about it.

These poor actors are only human, and no one can say a line like, “I sense an evil hand has wrought this chain of circumstances!” without looking at least a little embarrassed. Poor Tony Curtis has it the worst, having to utter junk like, “Perished I would have, had not the princess dragged me from the flames,” all with a pronounced Noo Yawk accent. Yeesh. (Fun factoid: “This is the palace of my fadda, and yonda is the Valley of the Sun” is actually from this film rather than the later Black Shield of Falworth.)

The only real point of interest in this otherwise dull and derivative exercise is the character of Tala (Susan Cabot), a bow-wielding huntress and friend of Kashma’s youth. At first it seems her only purpose is to make Princess Piper jealous of her connection to Kashma, but then she saves the day several times in succession with her deadly talents at archery.

Tala is genuinely intriguing and capable, and how she wandered into this fiasco is anybody’s guess. Her role should probably have been combined with the princess’s so Laurie would have something to do other than look ornamental, because as it stands, her considerable talents are wasted. Skip this one and watch The Prince who was a Thief a second time instead.

The Magic Carpet

Rating: *
Origin: USA, 1951
Director: Lew Landers
Source: Amazon Streaming Video

This is quite terrible. In a cheesier-than-usual Arabian palace set, the Good Caliph is just naming his newborn son his sole heir when he’s assassinated by the New Evil Caliph. The nurse escapes with the child and sends him flying away on a magic carpet. (This is the only fantasy element in the film and is completely unexplained, because Mysterious East or something.) The baby is taken to a doctor, who hides the carpet and decides to raise the child as his own, not telling him that he’s the Rightful Caliph.

The child grows up to be legendarily awful leading man John Agar, who has all the screen presence and charisma of an Idaho potato. There’s a guards-oppressing-the-people montage, and Agar, now called Dr. Ramoth, sees some of this oppression and says a few lines to show he disapproves, though that’s the only way you can tell because his face doesn’t change. To fight the Evil Caliph’s oppression Dr. Ramoth becomes the Scarlet, or maybe Crimson Falcon, and leads a band of freedom fighters in a freedom-fighting montage. He keeps raiding the wrong caravans that don’t have the weapons he needs to arm the people to overthrow the Evil Caliph, so Agar decides he should infiltrate the palace to get inside information.

His cunning plan is to kill a bunch of palace guards as a diversion so his comic sidekick can get inside, where he can take the place of the Evil Caliph’s wine taster and dose him with a permanent-hiccups potion. Nobody pays any attention to the guards he killed, because it’s just routine, I guess, so Dr. Ramoth breezes in, cures the Evil Caliph of permanent hiccups and becomes the new palace physician.

Yeah. Now that he’s inside the palace Agar meets the Evil Caliph’s Evil Sister, who is played by, I am not making this up, Lucille Ball. With her red hair and green eyes, she’s about as Arabian as a leprechaun, but I suppose what matters is that she wears harem pants and a midriff-exposing top like the, I guess the word is bevy of giggling starlets prancing around the palace and its blue plastic in-ground pool.

Cast as a seductive villainess, Ball’s talents are completely wasted as she never does anything the least bit funny or, for that matter, seductive or villainous. More stuff happens: Agar finally finds out he’s the Rightful Caliph and flies around on his carpet, the effects for which are so awful they’re almost endearing. There’s a bunch of “swordplay,” with people waving around thin curved sticks that are supposed to represent scimitars, but confusingly there are always some guys waving actual sticks because I guess the props department didn’t make enough scimitars. Also, everybody knows that when you run someone through you pass the sword behind their body, but Raymond Burr didn’t get the memo and impales people on the wrong side.

Oh, right, Raymond Burr is in this too, as the Evil Caliph’s Evil Grand Vizier, wearing black facial hair that must be darned stiff because his lips barely move when he speaks. Only his eyes look alive, the eyes of trapped animal shifting this way and that, desperately seeking an escape.

Thief of Damascus

Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1952
Director: Will Jason
Source: Turner Classic Movies

This is another of Paul Henreid’s blacklist-era swashbucklers for independent producer Sam Katzman, and whoa, it’s mostly a stinker. Good General Andar (Henreid) is besieging Damascus for Bad King Khalid (John Sutton), as depicted by jarringly inappropriate footage of European soldiers storming European battlements reused from films such as Joan of Arc (1948). Good General Andar fools the Damascene defenders and the city falls to his troops, but Bad King Khalid repudiates Andar’s generous surrender terms and orders him arrested.

Andar is pursued by Khalid’s goons through the four streets of Columbia’s Arabian backlot set, running through it in six directions filmed each time from a different angle. Henreid, or anyway his stunt double, does some acrobatic swashbuckling and fights his way free, thanks to an amazing sword of Damascus steel he picked up along the way.

Damascus steel? Check! Familiar Arabian Nights characters? On it! Andar makes new allies of Sheherazade, Sinbad, Aladdin, and Ali Baba, but only the latter gets to be cool because he has a secret cave lair with a magic door. (Which makes this technically a fantasy, but meh.) And Andar needs allies, because he must rescue his love-at-first-sight Zafir (Helen Gilbert), the Princess of Damascus, from Khalid before he either marries her or cuts off her head (he’s flighty like that).

There are a lot of weak jokes that depend on Hollywood character actors talking like gangsters instead of Arabians, gratuitous “Oriental” dancing by half-clad starlets, and guards running about waving ridiculous scimitars. The only reason to watch this is to admire Paul Henreid, because about half the time he seems to be actually having fun, and when he is his Continental charm makes up for any number of American goons in turbans speaking lines like, “Did your eyes behold what mine just did?”

The Golden Blade

Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1953
Director: Nathan Juran
Source: Universal DVD

Every year for a while Universal popped out another of these quickie Arabian fantasies, further amortizing the costumes and sets they’d built for Arabian Nights in 1942. It’s a tribute to Piper Laurie that she managed to star in three of these things in succession and still go on to have a distinguished cinematic career. By the time of this production Tony Curtis had left Bagdad for Camelot, so Universal roped in rising star Rock Hudson to play the male lead, Harun.

The story is rudimentary: Harun’s father, the Sultan of Basra, is slain by mysterious assailants whom Harun tracks to Bagdad. There, in a used-clothing shop, he encounters both Khairuzan (Laurie), the incognito daughter of the caliph who likes to go slumming among the commoners, and a magical golden blade, the Sword of the Prophecy of the Destiny of Fate or something, that only exhibits its powers when wielded by Harun. This is never really explained, like at all, but that’s par for the course in this sloppy farrago.

For example, Harun’s quest to avenge his father is conveniently forgotten for most of the picture, as he gets drawn by Khairuzan into improbable shenanigans at the caliph’s court. Most of the film slogs through a dumb palace conspiracy involving an evil vizier inevitably named Jafar (the always-reliable George Macready, looking embarrassed), his dim-witted and brutal son, a scheming noblewoman, a Greek merchant, giggling half-clad harem girls, and an endless supply of disposable palace guards.

Sounds like a total loss, right? Not quite: the bad guys wear scorpion medallions (you heard me: scorpion medallions!), Piper Laurie has got the Adorable turned up to eleven, and there’s one amazing, essential scene where Harun, at a palace party, gets totally stoned smoking whatever’s in that tall, pink hookah while watching an “Oriental” dancer undulate in front of him.

In his hallucinatory state the dancer transforms into Khairuzan and he pursues her staggering through an endless hall hung with filmy, fluttering salmon-pink curtains. Far out! I had to watch it twice. Meanwhile, in a plot engineered by Jafar, Harun’s magic golden blade is being stolen and replaced by an imitation so Jafar’s doofus son can win a tournament that… nah, never mind, it’s just too dumb to recount.

At least Hudson’s smarmy grin is wiped off his face for a while, as, without his magic sword, he becomes a sad-sack loser who can’t do anything right. The golden blade gets stuck in a marble pillar and nobody can pull it out, not nohow, except for guess who? (Tony Curtis may have run off to Camelot, but he left Excalibur behind in Bagdad.) When Harun finally draws the magic blade, everything wraps up double quick in a spasm of bloodless mayhem, and Harun is reunited with Khairuzan, who was only pretending to hate him. She has a nice smile.

Check out Part 1 of Goofballs in Harem Pants, covering The Thief of Bagdad, Arabian Nights, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and A Thousand and One Nights, here.

Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.

Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:

Seventies Hall of Shame
The Year of Shogun
1981: The Old Order Changeth
The Barbarian Boom, Part 1
Old School Pirates
Weird Samurai
Euro Dumas Trio
The Barbarian Boom, Part 2
The New Zu Review
The Barbarian Boom, Part 3
An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age
Fantasy Salmagundi
Warmongers
Fables and Fairy Tales


LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is deep in his current mega-project, editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle, with the fifth volume, Between Two Kings, available now from Pegasus Books in the US and UK. His website is Swashbucklingadventure.net.

Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he’s writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios for Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3.

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Joe H.

Well, I guess I won’t be rushing off to add any of these to my Netflix queue.

smitty59

I don’t think John Agar was a TOTAL failure as an actor, but wasn’t his primary claim to fame eventually his marriage to Shirley Temple?

John E Boyle

Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? Goofballs in Harem Pants? Oh, no you don’t! I’m not wasting my time on movies that are THAT stupid! Wait, did you say ‘Scorpion Medallions’??? Dem you, Ellsworth!

Actually, I have already seen Son of Ali Baba at least twice (Piper Laurie AND Susan Cabot? Of course), but I have not seen any of the other three films on this list. I think I’ll skip the Thief of Damascus but the other two might be worth a look:

a. The Magic Carpet – Lucille Ball in a harem outfit? John Agar before his SciFi masterpiece The Mole People?
b. The Golden Blade – While I tend to avoid Rock Hudson unless John Wayne is in the movie too, this sounds like it might be fun to watch, once. I mean Piper Laurie makes up for a lot and there are those dang scorpion medallions…

Thank you, Mr. Ellsworth, for once again revealing film treasures (?) that I never knew existed and which I now know to avoid. Great post!

John Hocking

Excuse me, Mr Boyle, but John Agar’s masterpiece is The Brain From Planet Arous.
Indisputable, really.

John E Boyle

I stand corrected, Mr. Hocking. The Mole People is indeed superb, but when you consider the location shots, the casting (a young Robert Fuller!), the near-Shakespearian dialogue and the dozens of dollars spent on special effects for the Brain From Planet Arous…what the heck was I thinking???

The Brain From Planet Arous was clearly not only the apex of John Agar’s career, but a landmark in American Cinema!

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