Saturday, September 22, 2007

Review – Ali Baba Nights/Chu Chin Chow

September 21, 2007

Ali Baba Nights/Chu Chin Chow – Britain, 1934

Sometimes a movie has to be accepted for what it is; after all, not every movie aspires to be a masterpiece. Ali Baba Nights is such a film. Even though, the film is silly, poorly written at times, and has some very questionable casting, it still provides what can only be described as cult-film-fun. In the film, a king who seems more interested in acquiring wealth that providing for his people is planning a banquet for a representative from China named Chu Chin Chow, whom the king has never seen. Hearing that, one of the king's wife's slaves sends a message to her "master" Abu Hassan, informing him of Chu Chin Chow's journey. Abu Hassan then leads his men to find Chu Chin Chow, kill him, and assume his identity.

The king has a cousin named Ali Baba (George Robey) who seems to have fallen out of the king's favor, so much so that the king sends him into what is called the "dark forest" to look for food for the banquet. It is during this errand that Ali Baba comes upon Abu Hassan's hideout, a cave that opens and closes when Abu Hassan says Open o'Sesame and Close o'Sesame (I'm not kidding.) Ali Baba, knowing a good thing when he sees it, steals a large amount of gold and jewels, becoming a millionaire instantly. Ali Baba has a son named Nur al-Din who is in love with a slave named Marjanah. He views his family's newfound wealth as a means to perhaps marry the love of his life.

Ali Baba Nights contains classic fight scenes, a strange magic water dance, some very short costumes, and a musical number in which someone sings about slaves being for sale as slaves smile and try to look their best, almost as if the slaves are happy about being sold. In another absurd yet humorous moment, Abu Hassan's plan is discovered, and before the authorities grab him, he shouts to his men, “Loot for you lives!”

Films like these do not ask too much of the audience, and perhaps it is best not to expect too much of them. This is not to say that Ali Baba Nights is a good film, but maybe it's not as bad as it's supposed to be.

The makers of Ali Baba Nights gave third-billing to Anna May Wong, who plays the traitorous slave Nahrat. To call this an Anna May Wong film would be misleading, for it is indeed Fritz Kortner (Abu Hassan) who has the most screen time. In addition, Anna May Wong's American accent does seem out of place at times, as the movie is set in the Middle East. However, Anna May Wong has an astonishing ability to express raw emotion physically, and the scenes in which she reacts to being betrayed and begins her quest for revenge are extremely impressive. It is easy to see why she found work in silent films, the kind of film in which that level of physical expression was highly valued.

In 1934, the Gaumont-British Picture Corp. released a film called Chu Chin Chow. Ali Baba Nights is the name given to the film for its release in America. Chu Chin Chow has a running time of about an hour and forty minutes and has several musical numbers. Ali Baba Nights is about twenty-three minutes shorter than Chu Chin Chow, and while it still maintains a compact story, Ali Baba Nights is a very different film than Chu Chin Chow. Cut from Chu Chin Chow were most of the scenes and musical numbers between Nur al-Din and Marjanah, a nice duet between Ali Baba and his wife, and a scene in which Abu Hassan's men stab the king, which was perhaps deemed too violent for a musical. These cuts may also have been made in order to speed up the action, but while they do accomplish that, they also remove much of the film’s emotion. The viewer has less invested in Nur al-Din and Marjanah's love, and their union is almost an afterthought. The cuts also removed much of George Robey's screen time, which is unfortunate because he is rather humorous in this film.

Ali Baba Nights (2 and a half stars)
Chu Chin Chow (3 stars)

*In 2005, VCI released a three-disc set that contains both the British and American releases. The set also includes Abdul the Damned starring Fritz Kortner. VCI's release has several moments in which the dialogue is hard to understand, which may frustrate some viewers.

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