Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves: A Romantic Fantasy in the Sand

By Schmidt, Richard J | American Cinematographer, October 1994 | Go to article overview

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves: A Romantic Fantasy in the Sand


Schmidt, Richard J, American Cinematographer


1944 Technicolor adventure mixes musical theater and melodrama.

After the success of the 1942 Arabian Nights, a Walter Wanger production which was also the first full Technicolor Universal feature (1930's King of Jazz was two-tone Technicolor), Universal Pictures conceived a quasi-sequel using many of the same elements of the earlier film, including the potent force of stars Maria Montez and Jon Hall, This was to be another classic public-domain story, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Before Arabian Nights was even completed and earning money, Universal producer George Wagner, realizing what a hot team the studio had with Montez and Hall, announced on July 27, 1942 that he had two additional projects for them: White Savage and Cobra Woman. Both films were eventually made, although Ail Baba - which was actually produced before Cobra Woman - was not put on the production schedule until 1943.

Clearly, three of what became the sixfilm Hall/ Montez "series" took inspiration directly from the 1940 Thief of Bagdad, produced by Alexander Korda and filmed in Europe and the United States. However, these three Universal films, Arabian Nights (1942), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) and Sudan (1945), became not just wholesome, Thief-like Arabic adventures, but sand-and-sex fantasies - melodramas that went beyond the childlike approach embraced by Thief and forged a more "adult" slant in their stories, while unashamedly cashing in, of course, on Thief's appeal. Some of what were deemed to be successful elements of Thief would be copied for the Universal films - the bravura music, the dynamic costumes, the youthful and attractive performers. The filmmakers would also exploit the glories of Technicolor, which was thought to be a valuable commodity for this type of fantasy despite the added expense of time and money. Universal and executive producer Jack J. Gross wanted these same ingredients.

But they also wanted something different. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves owes as much to the 1926 Sigmund Romberg musical The Desert Song as it does to Valentino, Arabian Nights, or even Alexander Korda. Much of the film revels in a light-opera tone - both dramatically and musically. Certainly the "Riding Song of the Forty Thieves," a sort of baritone fight march sung by a chorus of 41, flows right out of this kind of theater; the "Riff Song" from Desert Song is nearly identical in spirit and tempo to the "Riding Song," and it serves the same general purpose. The male chorus typified operetta; it had become a kind of musical shorthand that dramatized affection among men and heightened the force of male groups. Yet in 1943, nonmusical films like this one didn't include male choruses. Though choruses were used occasionally in the Thirties in such films as Captain Blood and Mutiny on the Bounty, by the war years films took on more "realism," and this anachronistic tidbit had been pretty well discarded. Ali Baba uses it because it reflects a romantic tradition - a return to a simpler form, a theatrical throwback to a type of drama in which the appearance of a song mirrored feeling and relationship. So too, the drama of this film demonstrates other theatrical conventions, such as colorful and stagey dialogue ("Yea" and "nay" are spoken seriously here), archetypal characters, and melodramatic conflicts. These conventions hardly represented reality in 1943, but of course that was the point.

A budget of $554,000 was allotted for the new project, including $7,300 for the original screenplay. The script was written by Edmund L. Hartmann (b. 1911) who had previously penned a number of other Universal properties, including Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. He melded historical elements of the Middle East with his primary source book, A Thousand and One Nights, keeping in line with the wishes of producers Robert Arthur and Paul Malvern, both fixtures in B-movie production. Hartmann's May 25, 1943 version became the original "white" shooting script. …

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