Friday, December 11, 2009

The Magic Carpet (Columbia, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The second film I ended up running last night was one I’d screened before and which had also turned out to be surprisingly good: not a classic by any means but an entertaining movie with a lot of charm. The film was The Magic Carpet, an Arabian Nights tale made by Columbia in 1951. It was a sleazy little project, produced by Sam Katzman and directed by Lew Landers, and the female lead — Narah, sister of the usurping Caliph Ali (Gregory Gaye), who in the opening sequence murdered the rightful Caliph Omar and his wife Yashima (Doretta Johnson), who was able to send her newborn baby to the safety of the home of her uncle, Dr. Ahkmid (William Fawcett), via the titular magic carpet — was offered to, of all people, Lucille Ball. This was Harry Cohn working at his Machiavellian best: Ball had just accepted a major role in Cecil B. DeMille’s circus extravaganza The Greatest Show on Earth but that was a Paramount production and she still owed Columbia one more film on the three-picture deal under which she’d made The Fuller Brush Girl and Miss Grant Takes Richmond.

Ball asked for a loanout and Cohn refused; then Cohn sent her the script of The Magic Carpet, thinking she’d turn it down and he’d be able to fire her without paying her the contract salary he owed her for a third film. On the advice of a friend, Ball accepted the script, thinking that since it was a “B” and her role was small (Patricia Medina actually has more screen time in the final film than Ball does, and it is Medina who ends up with the hero, played with his usual stiffness by John Agar) she could make it in a hurry and finish it quickly enough to keep her date with Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount. Only as she started making The Magic Carpet, Columbia’s wardrobe people kept having to let out her Arab princess’s costume again and again, and Ball finally realized that after 11 childless years she and husband Desi Arnaz were about to have their first baby, Lucie. (So Lucie Arnaz joins the ranks of future stars, including Liza Minnelli and Mia Farrow, who made their screen debuts — sort of — before they were born.) So she had to drop out of The Greatest Show on Earth (Gloria Grahame replaced her) and all she had left to show for her year’s work was a big paycheck from Harry Cohn and the promise of TV mega-stardom once I Love Lucy debuted that fall.

Given that background — and the presence of hacky micro-talents like director Lew Landers and male star John Agar — one would expect The Magic Carpet to be almost unwatchable trash. Surprise: it’s actually good fun, thanks mainly to its screenwriter, David Mathews, who manages on a far smaller budget and scale to achieve the balance all the mega-talents involved in the 1967 Casino Royale tried for and failed dismally at; his script follows the Arabian Nights conventions closely enough that the pre-pubescent boys in the 1951 movie audiences would have taken it as an exciting “straight” tale of derring-do, while the adults reluctantly accompanying their kids to the theatre would have enjoyed it as a campy spoof. Agar’s role, Ramoth a.k.a. “The Scarlet Falcon,” is of course the son of the martyred Omar and Yashima and the apprentice of his foster-father, Ahkmid; and he insinuates his way into the palace of the Caliph of Baghdad by slipping the Caliph (who by the way is drawn as yet another Iraqi precursor of Saddam Hussein, ruthlessly suppressing any hint of political dissent and taxing the population unmercifully to pay for his royal palaces — no wonder it was so easy for both Presidents Bush to demonize Saddam: he was playing the Hollywood script of a villainous Arab ruler!) a drug that gives him hiccups, then “curing” him by being the only one there with the antidote.

The elements are pretty predictable — Ramoth has a comic-relief sidekick, Razi (George Tobias); Razi’s daughter Lida (Patricia Medina, Mrs. Joseph Cotten), is a tomboy who wants to join the band of the “Scarlet Falcon” (in which guise Ramoth stages daring raids on the Caliph’s caravans and, like an Arab Robin Hood, distributes stolen grain to the starving people of Baghdad) and also is in love with Ramoth and has some jealous hissy-fits towards Narah; and bad Caliph Ali has a Karl Rove-like grand vizier, Boreg al Buzzar (Raymond Burr — interesting to find two 1950’s TV icons in this film! — who isn’t as good as the superb George Zucco in a similar role in Sudan but is certainly acceptable), whom Ramoth defeats in the climactic swordfight to regain his rightful throne but only after he uses the titular magic carpet to take Lida on a honeymoon ride while Ali and Narah are taken to Abu Ghraib (or whatever was serving that purpose in this particular part of Iraqi history). The carpet itself is quite convincing; Columbia’s special-effects people were able to get it to fly without any discernible flaws in the process work (like the black lines — caused by shrinkages in one of the films before a scene is double-printed — that generally marked attempts at this kind of shot at cheaper studios) — and so is Agar as the hero; he was never any great shakes as an actor and he can’t compare to Douglas Fairbanks or even Jon Hall, but he’s far better than the outrageously miscast Tony Curtis in the contemporaneous The Prince Who Was a Thief and his well-known friendship with John Wayne led him to imitate Wayne’s famous halting cadences whenever he wanted to sound butch — to surprisingly good effect.

Lucille Ball seems hardly to be in the film at all; she doesn’t get any comedy scenes, her manner is too modern to suit an Arab costume drama (though she does haughtiness and jealousy quite well) and her flaming-red Sydney Guilaroff hair seems odd in the court of Baghdad, though at least it makes her stand out in the sometimes murky Supercinecolor process in which this film was shot. (David Mathews actually offered to write more scenes for Ball and fatten her part, but Lucy — whose only motive for making this film was a quick paycheck, the quicker the better — turned him down and said she’d accept the part as it stood.) Though it tends to drag towards the end as the plot lurches towards its predictable resolution (I was rather hoping that since this was taking place in a Muslim country, Ramoth would be allowed to marry both female leads — but the Production Code would have rendered that unthinkable even to a writer with his tongue so firmly in his cheek as David Mathews), overall The Magic Carpet is a surprisingly fun, engaging minor film that pleasantly fills 83 minutes.