Sunday, October 20, 2013

Son of Sinbad (RKO, 1953; released 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Son of Sinbad, one of Howard Hughes’ personal productions during the seven years (1948 to 1955) he owned RKO Radio Pictures, and a pretty generic Arabian Nights adventure but one with some truly weird curveballs thrown at the audience that probably reflect Howard Hughes’ own obsessions. As is well known, Hughes maintained a sort of Hollywood harem; he would sign literally hundreds of attractive, hot-looking Hollywood girls with hopes of breaking into movies, put them up in motel rooms or small bungalows, maybe occasionally visit them (or not), maybe actually offer them a minor part in a film (or not), and then forget about them, leaving them to collect a regular paycheck from his organization but otherwise do nothing. Son of Sinbad is the sort of movie a man with that sort of hobby might make — especially if he were also a recluse who was increasingly out of touch with normal humanity and normal standards of human behavior, and whose whole idea of the rest of human existence came from everybody else’s movies. Son of Sinbad was made in 1953, though it wasn’t released until 1955 (which probably reflects both Hughes’ obsessive tendency to pick things apart and the reaction of the Production Code Administration to the many scenes of exotic dancing in this film and the scantily clad harem girls and other female performers), and it was recently shown by Turner Classic Movies as part of their “Star of the Month” tribute to Vincent Price.

Sinbad, son of Sinbad, is played by Dale Robertson, a rambunctious young scamp (and quite a hot-looking man, especially in the frequent shots of him shirtless, but for all the attempts of Hughes’ more recent biographers to “out” him posthumously as Bisexual, Hughes was far more interested in cheesecake than beefcake and the movie shows it), who’d much rather crash the harem of the Caliph of Baghdad (Leon Askin) and dally with the harem girls than do anything particularly heroic. His sidekick Omar Khayyam — yes, that Omar Khayyam — feeds him lines of poetry, Cyrano-style, to make Sinbad’s wooing more effective. Omar is played by Vincent Price, who approaches this part with the same double game he would use in a lot of his horror films (especially the dementedly silly ones he made in the 1960’s at American International): he rolls his eyes, smiles at the audience and overacts so relentlessly that to a sufficiently savvy viewer he’s letting us in on the joke: “I know you don’t take any of this seriously — and I don’t either!” Sinbad son of Sinbad is attracted to so many women in the story it’s hard to keep track of them all — and though some of them are dark-haired and some of them are blonde, they’re otherwise pretty much built to the same specifications: lithe, almost boyish and (mostly) small-breasted (despite Hughes’ much talked-about breast obsession that led him to sign Jane Russell, one of only two women — Jean Harlow was the other — who passed through the Hughes machine and became enduring stars) — but the three who stand out, at least in terms of screen time and billing, are Ameer (Sally Forrest), Nerissa (Lili St. Cyr, a star stripper whom Hughes signed for the role), and Kristina (Mari Blanchard, who later signed with Universal-International and remade Marlene Dietrich’s role in the 1954 version of Destry Rides Again).

For about the first hour of its 91-minute running time not much happens in Son of Sinbad except Sinbad breaks into the harem, dillies with one girl, dallies with another, and the action periodically stops for a belly dance — indeed, there are at least four major dance sequences in the film, practically enough to qualify Son of Sinbad as a musical even though no one sings (which is probably just as well) — until an action plot finally develops. It seems Baghdad is being menaced by the conquering Mongol hordes led by Tamerlane, who isn’t shown as an on-screen character but his lieutenant Murad (Ian McDonald) is. Sinbad and Omar have just been captured by the Caliph, who’s threatening to execute them, but they come up with a way to evade it: they offer to crash Murad’s camp and steal back the secret of “Greek fire,” a primitive explosive which apparently really existed; as an contributor explained, “Attributed to the ancient Greeks, it was composed of pitch or bitumen, sulfur, and other ingredients. It was used in naval warfare and the Romans also made use of it. With the fall of the ancient Western world, it was temporarily forgotten, but it was rediscovered by the Arabs, from whom European Crusaders also learned the method of making it.” Sinbad and Omar are counting on the help of the Forty Thieves, who have lived in a cave redoubt in the desert since the days of Ali Baba — only it turns out [spoiler alert!] that the Forty Thieves are women, the daughters of the originals who took over the family business after Ali Baba had their dads put to death (at least I think that’s what the script said). All of a sudden, this heavy-duty male-chauvinist fantasy becomes a proto-feminist film, as the chiffon-clad women take on Murad’s men and, armed with Greek fire — which they use partly as a sort of primitive bomb (Sinbad takes metal canisters full of it, attaches them to chains, swings them like bolos and lets them fly at the enemy) and partly to tip their arrows with so they can shoot flaming arrows at the baddies.

The staging of the final battle scene is a dead giveaway that the film was originally shot in 3-D — we get plenty of those flaming arrows aimed directly at the camera — though by the time Hughes had finished battling with the censors over the sexually explicit dances he insisted on putting into the film (Production Code Administration head Joe Breen had ruled the film in violation of the Code for “indecent dance movements and too scanty costuming”) two years had gone by, so many rotten films had been released in 3-D that it was the kiss of death at the box office, and instead Hughes cropped the film to wide-screen format and issued it as an RKO SuperScope presentation (RKO’s competitor to CinemaScope after other studios realized that though 20th Century-Fox had trademarked the CinemaScope name, the basic technology — French inventor Henri Chrétien’s anamorphic lens, which “squeezed” the image during filming, and the decoder lens for the projector that opened it up again so the people looked normal but the frame was twice as wide — was in the public domain, so any studio could use it as long as they called it something else and could get someone to grind the lenses for them, which was tougher than a lot of them realized). The Turner Classic Movies print was obviously from the original 1.33-1 version, since it was framed for that screen aspect ratio and did not betray the God-awful framing typical of a wide-screen movie that’s been panned-and-scanned to fit into the 1.33-1 box of an old-fashioned TV set. (Modern-day TV sets are at the digital-TV and digital-theatre projection standard of 1.78-1, and I’ve seen TCM showings on a modern digital TV in which the top and bottom of the screen disappear — leaving a lot of actors with the tops of their heads cut off.)

Son of Sinbad was directed by Ted Tetzlaff, a former cinematographer (his most famous credit in that craft was Hitchcock’s Notorious) who turned director and scored an early hit with The Window, a 1949 film noir that managed to be quite exciting, unnerving and properly despairing despite the leading character being a child — and an obnoxious Disney child, Bobby Driscoll, at that. (Driscoll had starred in Son of the South and So Dear to My Heart for the Mouse Machine and, since RKO was still Walt Disney’s distributor at the time, it was easy for RKO to borrow Driscoll from Disney for the role.) Alas, Tetzlaff’s directorial career never took off the way it should have, and for a quite common reason: lack of good material. Here he got stuck with a script by Aubrey Wisberg (who in the 1940’s had written some of Universal’s sillier horror films) and Jack Pollexfen (who would become an independent producer-director specializing in science fiction), apparently with an uncredited assist on the screenplay construction by one Jeff Bailey (what, did Howard Hughes catch him talking to a real-life Leftist one day?), which makes little sense as a movie but is a lot of fun in terms of its reflection of — and indulgence in — Howard Hughes’ obsessions, even though Wisberg and Pollexfen seem bizarrely unaware of the campier aspects of their script and aren’t playing anywhere nearly as artful a balancing act as David Mathews did in an even cheesier but better Arabian Nights film from 1951, The Magic Carpet. Still, no doubt Son of Sinbad gave Howard Hughes what he wanted — lots of glimpses of nubile female flesh and a chance to amortize at least some of his investment in all those young starlets he had stashed all over Hollywood — and seen today it’s an amusing movie, and to this Gay male viewer at least Dale Robertson is fun to look at (despite his underdeveloped nipples) and to any viewer Vincent Price ought to be fun to watch, playing with an awareness of the idiocy of his material without condescending to it: a skill that would keep him at least a niche-market star for decades to come even though he’d get saddled with even worse scripts than this!