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Shemptember: Arabian Nights (1942)

Shemp, the stooge who went on from the comedy group to have a minor movie career as a solo talent, and then returned when his brother Curly died, has a devoted fan base. His agent touted him as the ugliest man in Hollywood, which could be why fans enjoy superimposing Shemp's face into inappropriate scenarios including Obama's presidential portrait or creating memes like "Legalize Shemp." Join us this month as we explore the varied career and many talents of Shemp Howard.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: I’ll just say right now. This movie has a very confusing plot, and trying to put it into words makes it somehow more confusing than it was while I was watching it. Maria Montez stars as Sherezade, a dancer in a small-time acrobatic troupe that gets noticed by Kamar (Leif Erickson) due to her beauty and the fact that a prophesy has foretold that she would be a future queen. Kamar winds up taking the throne to Baghdad through nefarious plans. The acrobats band together to overthrow this illegitimate government rule. Of course, Haroun, the rightful ruler, Sherezade and their friends are victorious. Whew--make sense? I did the best I could.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: I'm glad you made the attempt so I wouldn't have to. Writers True Boardman and Michael Hogan adapted stories from One Thousand and One Nights. Boardman called the film, "a western with camels."

RB: Yep, and producer Walter Wanger responded something to the effect of, “Yes, and it’ll make a million dollars”. He was off by a couple of million. This was a massive hit, providing lots of escapism during a time when the country really needed it.

SG: During my college internship I met a woman who invited me to watch old movies with her and her neighbor, who was also a movie fan. We watched them at Chet's house, and it turned out he was a Cinevent attendee too, and a massive Maria Montez fan. Gina, Chet, his friend Larry and I watched Arabian Nights and ate Mama Mimi's take and bake pizzas. It was a wonderful night. Oddly though my memory of the social part of the night are strong, I didn't recall much about the movie itself. It was fun to revisit this movie, this time with eyes trained on Shemp and his flabby dad-bod.

RB: One thing that we know is that the circumstances around when you see a movie for the first time can color your opinion of the film. Yours sounds like a great time, and definitely captures the type of vibe that we keep in mind when we meet to plan out the Picture Show schedules. We want everyone to have a great time and fond memories of watching good old movies with friends and family.

Shemp is uncredited in this film, but has a moderately sizable role in what can only be described as a glorious casting move.

SG: Shemp is the most unlikely of characters to find himself in such a setting, kind of like Dick Powell and James Cagney doing Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream, yet there he is doing his trademark "me me me me me" schtick and getting laughs. There is a creatively-shot scene where Sinbad believes a giant is in their midst, only to realize it is an exaggerated shadow on the wall.

Billy Gilbert is another unlikely candidate, and he plays the comedy broadly, using his big belly to bump people in the fight scenes-- boing!

RB: Not long after this was released, Monogram attempted to create a comedy team out Shemp and Billy Gilbert, which resulted in one film Crazy Knights (1944). I wonder if their performance together in this film had any impact on the decision to try to do this. I haven’t seen it, but it seems to me like this combo has fantastic comedy potential. I’ve been wrong before, though.

SG: There is an air of unreality about the entire movie. This isn't history. These people aren't Arabs. The colors are too saturated and everything is so clean. Where is all the sand? Sure, we get glimpses in longshot, but it doesn't get into anyone's eyes. It doesn't muss their clothes or hair. No one is sweating.

The reactions of the girls and Sabu would have us believe the harem was swimming in the nude, but they are fully clothed in their colorful belly-dancer attire. This is likely one of the scenes deemed "unfilmable" but modified for the censors' tastes.

RB: The beautiful saturated Technicolor and sparse sets create a dreamlike, story-book quality to the film, which is only aided by the complicated plot with bizarre comedy set pieces. It sounds like I’m slagging on the film, but I’m not. It works.

SG: This was the first Technicolor film Universal made. Producer Walter Wanger chose Arabian Nights because The Thief of Bagdad had been such a massive hit in 1940. He cast Sabu who appeared in that film for this one, and later chose him to appear in other Jon Hall/Maria Montez starring vehicles White Savage and Cobra Woman.

RB: I feel like these films have all been sort of immortalized in my mind, particularly in the writing of Alan Barbour who adored them and had fond memories of seeing them as a youngster. They’ve since gotten a reputation as great examples of camp, but I hae not really seen them that way

SG: Montez, Sabu, Gloria Jean, Donald O'Connor, Peggy Ryan, Elyse Knox and Nigel Bruce were among the celebrities who attended the premiere in New England at the RKO Memorial Theatre.

RB: A veritable who’s who of Universal film stars!

SG: Hollywood magazine awarded it three stars and wrote, “Complete with a duel to the death, a desert battle, a fire, a slave market and an enticing dance sequence, Arabian Nights provides tingling entertainment.”

“The musical score, featuring weird and lovely Oriental tunes, deserves special mention,” wrote The Film Bulletin. “Lacking a big star name, the title and subject matter should be stressed — and the public is sure to respond… If the proponents of ‘escapist’ entertainment are correct in their contention that a war-minded people desire to go a million miles away from the turbulent world of reality during their brief hours of film relaxation, Walter Wanger has served up the ideal dish in Arabian Nights.”

RB: Contemporary reviews praised the color, which indeed must’ve been stunning in nitrate. “A very good production. Has what it takes, especially the color which will amaze you,” praised Mel Jolley of the Century Theatre in Trenton, Ontario, who booked the film for four days. “Business well above average. Grand color in this…there were some walkouts,” stated C.A. Smith of the Regent Theatre in Chapleau, Ontario in a confoundingly contradictory review. Meanwhile, in Lyndon, Kansas, Raymond Rutsinger of the Realto Theatre felt this was a “glorified western in color with plenty of corn. Too much fairy tale for adults.”

SG: The story isn't exceptionally well-told, but the gloss of the visuals and the inserted comedy make this a great escapist movie. Three stars.

RB: I felt that the movie was incredibly confusing, but beautiful to look at and ultimately a really good time. Three stars. I had hoped for better, but somehow wasn’t disappointed.

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Correction: Shemp is not billed in the opening credits, but is included with the cast at the end. Weirdly, he also gets optical billing in the trailer. Probably a space issue. BTW, did you know the titles were painted by the legendary Mary Blair? This and many more fascinating facts can be heard in the forthcoming commentary by yours truly and Courtney Joyner.

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