Thursday, July 24, 2008

Harem Girl (Columbia, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I managed to squeeze in a movie, one of the Columbia “B”’s from faraway places I’d recorded on DVD earlier in the week, and it proved to be surprisingly good: Harem Girl, a vehicle for wisecracking blonde comedienne Joan Davis, directed by Edward Bernds (a former sound recorder who’d made his directorial debut with the Three Stooges’ short Micro Phonies in 1945 — and it showed) and written by him and Elwood Ullman (another Stooges veteran). Davis plays Susie Perkins, a woman from Cedar Rapids who suddenly chucks her job and fulfills her dream of emigrating to the Middle East in hopes of finding one of those hot sheiks that didn’t exist outside of Rudolph Valentino movies.

By screenwriters’ fiat, her traveling companion is Shareen (Peggie Castle), princess of a fictitious and unnamed Arab country (most of the stock footage we see representing it is from Egypt, including a beautiful overhead shot of one of the pyramids, though judging from the court intrigue and the presence of oil it appears that the filmmakers were thinking of Iraq), only while she’s been gone the government has been seized by the usurper Jamal (Donald Randolph), who alternates between wanting to have Shareen killed and have her married off to Ameen (Peter Bracco), the Bey of Amar — though Bracco’s performance is so queeny I joked he’d better have been called the Gay of Amar. The gimmick is that Shareen’s now-deceased father had the idea of banning all citizens of his country from owning guns, thinking that would prevent a civil war — but instead Jamal and his gang just got guns from outside and the rest of the people were sitting ducks. Majeed (Paul Marion), Shareen’s boyfriend, wants to lead a revolution but knows he doesn’t stand a chance without firearms, so Susie hits on the idea of going undercover in the palace to find out the location of Jamal’s arms stash so the rebels can steal the guns and use them to take over.

This is one of those comedies in which the plot is just a pretext, but Bernds and Ullman do a great job of maintaining the tension between the old-fashioned Arabian Nights costume-picture tropes and the contemporary setting (including the MacGuffin of an old scroll that indicates the location of an oil field that will make everyone in this country fabulously wealthy — some things never change!), and Davis (in her last feature film, though after this movie she’d spend three years on TV in a series she starred in and produced called, natch, I Married Joan) is a riot throughout, nervy and wise-cracking but also adept at doing physical comedy (the scene in which her bed falls in on her is especially delightful), as if someone cross-bred Joan Blondell and Charlotte Greenwood. The anti-racist crowd would probably make a grim feast of all the racist Arab stereotypes in this movie (and, curiously, religion isn’t mentioned at all — at least most of the Middle Eastern period pieces had phrases in the dialogue like “By the beard of the Prophet!” that at least acknowledged the existence of Islam), but overall Harem Girl holds up as a very funny movie, one that aimed low but hit its target squarely and offered a lot of joy doing it.