Saturday, July 9, 2011

Action in Arabia (RKO, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Action in Arabia, a 1943 RKO “B” which was actually more or less begun a decade earlier under much more impressive auspices. The filmmaking team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had just finished shooting King Kong in late 1932 and for their next project decided to film a story by Philip MacDonald called Arabia, based on the life of T. E. Lawrence and to have starred John Barrymore. While Cooper stayed in the U.S. and supervised the post-production on Kong, Schoedsack took a crew out to the Syrian desert and shot some spectacular footage of local scenes and massed tribes preparing for war — and then the Lawrence film was canceled by RKO’s top brass in New York. Though there were periodic attempts to revive the project under such titles as The Uncrowned King and A Fugitive from Glory, the Cooper-Schoedsack Lawrence biopic never reached the screen (and in the next 30 years there were enough failed attempts to film Lawrence’s life that it acquired the reputation of a “jinxed” project until producer Sam Spiegel and director David Lean successfully made Lawrence of Arabia, an excellent movie artistically and also a blockbuster commercial hit).

In 1943 the Middle East was a hot topic for filmmakers because a good deal of World War II was taking place there, so RKO decided to commission a script that could use Schoedsack’s old footage and couple it to a wartime setting. Ironically, one of the writers they hired was Philip MacDonald, and they partnered him with future blacklistee Herbert J. Biberman — which made it odd that TCM was showing this film as part of a month-long series on reactionary Hollywood stereotypes of Arabs. Action in Arabia stars George Sanders (one of the few times, other than the Saint and Falcon detective series, he was top-billed) as an American reporter — the casting of Sanders as an American itself strains credibility almost to the breaking point! — named Michael Gordon, who’s supposedly in Damascus just for a vacation (yeah, right) but ends up in the middle of international intrigue when his friend and traveling companion William Chalmers (Robert Anderson) is murdered.

It turns out that there’s a good Arab chief, Abdul El Rashid (H. B. Warner — well, he played Jesus Christ so we know he must be a good guy!), who wants to unite all the Arabs on the side of the Allies, and a bad Arab chief, Eben Kareem (Jamiel Hasson), who wants to unite them on the side of the Axis. The film plods through quite a few situations, and offers some characters of decidedly mixed loyalties — like fellow American Matthew Reed (Robert Armstrong, ill-used as usual after King Kong and its sequel, Son of Kong); supposedly French card cheat Josef Danesco (Gene Lockhart); his daughter, Yvonne Danesco (Virginia Bruce, as generally ill-used as Armstrong; she made one genuinely great film, the 1934 Jane Eyre, but because it was a Monogram production and almost nobody saw it she continued in the salt mines of tacky supporting roles in “A” movies like Born to Dance and almost as tacky leads in “B”’s like this); André Leroux (André Charlot), another pretend Frenchman who seems up to no good (in the opening scene Gordon and Chalmers mention that he’s changed his name and the cut of his beard since they saw him on the plane, but this may relate to footage that wasn’t used in the release print since nothing of this is made in the film itself); and Abdul El Rashid’s daughter Mounirah (Lenore Aubert, a beautiful actress who deserved more of a career — her biggest role was as Count Dracula’s girlfriend in the 1948 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), whom Gordon meets as soon as he gets off the plane in Syria and to whom he reacts so lasciviously, in that marvelously practiced seduction routine of his, we practically expect this film to be called The Saint in Damascus.

By far the best parts of Action in Arabia are the scenes Ernest B. Schoedsack had shot in real-life Syria a decade before (even though they’re noticeably grainier than the new footage), suggesting that this mediocre film is where a potentially great one went to die (and what film buff wouldn’t have wanted a chance to compare John Barrymore with Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia?), and the next best parts of it are the scenes between Sanders and Bruce, playing a part (like almost all of hers) for which she was way overqualified but still bringing it a welcome dignity and grace even though it’s obvious that her casting was fulfilling a Hollywood stereotype — “blonde girl good, dark-haired girl bad.”

The director was Léonide Moguy, a Frenchman who had an odd and not especially successful career — the next year he made Whistle Stop with George Raft and Ava Gardner, not a great movie but at least a reasonably good film noir that led Ava to an even better one, the original The Killers, and the noir world of Whistle Stop was obviously one he felt more at home in than the international intrigue of Action in Arabia. Curiously, Action in Arabia begins with a prologue showing a map of the Mediterranean with a narrator explaining that the Axis was attacking the “Allied lifelines” through the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas and the Suez Canal — obviously the folks at RKO were hoping viewers would watch this prologue and think they were in for another Casablanca, especially since they used the same narrator, Lou Marcelle.