Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lost in a Harem (MGM, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Lost in a Harem was the second, and generally considered the best, of Abbott and Costello’s three films for MGM (the big studio signed them in 1942 to make the one film a year they legally could make for another studio under their original contract with Universal) — a movie with a surprisingly lavish “look” because it was filmed on the original sets for the 1944 MGM version of Kismet (non-musical) with Ronald Colman and Marlene Dietrich. It co-starred Marilyn Maxwell (the other blonde movie star named Marilyn!) as an American singer who calls herself “Hazel Moon” and is stranded in an Arab country with Abbott and Costello; John Conte (in the kind of role Jon Hall was simultaneously playing back at A&C’s home studio, Universal) as the rightful caliph deposed by his wicked uncle (Douglass Dumbrille); and Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra as the wicked uncle’s marching band — it seems Dumbrille has a pair of cat’s-eye rings which can hypnotize anybody into doing his will, and he has managed to hypnotize Dorsey’s entire band into doing a rendition of “Long John Silver” (expertly staged by director Charles Riesner with lots of split screens and shadow effects — obviously he was going out of his way not to make this look like just another performance shot of a big band on screen!) and a ballet troupe to come in and do a dance to the opening movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (“to show this wasn’t one of Universal’s A&C quickies,” joked Jon Douglas Eames in his book The MGM Story). The script (by Harry Ruskin, Harry Crane and A&C’s favorite gag writer, John Grant — the man who gave them the legendary “Who’s on First” routine and most of their similar dialogue routines) was serviceable and often quite amusing (especially when the villain hypnotize A&C into thinking they’re termites — and they devour most of the furniture in the room they’re being held in — and later when they turn the tables on the villain and, after stealing his rings, hypnotize him into thinking he’s a dog!), though the plot was slow going at times and neither Maxwell (whose performance peaks early, with the song “What Does It Take to Get You?” — which she pre-recorded with the Dorsey orchestra but does on-screen with a group of musicians in Arab costume) nor Dorsey are all that well used. (After this showing Turner Classic Movies offered an outtake, an extra song by the Dorsey band with Bob Eberly singing, but it was a ballad and its inclusion would have slowed down the plot even further.) — 1/2/99


Charles asked if the next movie we watched could be something lighter than the Lifetime thriller The Husband She Met Online, and he suggested we reach into the Abbott and Costello boxed set and pick out the next in sequence. I actually went a bit farther back in their oeuvre and grabbed one of the movies I’d recorded off TCM during their Abbott and Costello tribute on the last day of 2012. Abbott and Costello made 36 feature films in all, 28 of them for their home studio, Universal, plus three for MGM, two for Warner Bros., one each for independent companies Nassour Films and Eagle-Lion, and their final film as a team, Dance with Me, Henry, for United Artists. Their contract with Universal allowed them to do one film per year for another studio, and so in 1942 they signed with MGM for three films that would be the one film per year they were allowed to make for a company other than Universal. The MGM films were Rio Rita in 1942, Lost in a Harem from 1944 and Abbott and Costello in Hollywood from 1945 (the reason there wasn’t one in 1943 was that year Lou Costello got seriously ill with rheumatic fever and had to take most of the year off), and having recently watched Rio Rita as part of a double bill with the 1929 RKO version of the same story (with Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey in the Abbott and Costello roles), I picked out Lost in a Harem. This was a spoof of Arabian Nights fantasies — particularly the ones with Jon Hall and Maria Montez that were being made just then back at A&C’s usual studio, Universal — that also ridiculed The Desert Song and the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy movies. Hazel Moon (Marilyn Maxwell) is a cabaret singer in the Café of All Nations in an Arabian village known only as “the Devil’s Inferno,” where she and her entire troupe — comic magicians Peter Johnson (Bud Abbott) and Harvey Garvey (Lou Costello), plus Jimmy Dorsey and his entire band — were stranded when their tour promoter went belly-up.

Hazel attracts the attention of both a good Arab and a bad Arab; the good Arab is Prince Ramo (the surprisingly personable John Conte, who one would think would have had more of a career; he gets to lead his band in a number called “Sons of the Desert” that sounds like it came out of The Desert Song, particularly in its deathless lyric, “We don’t break the laws/We slightly bend them”), rightful ruler of the decidedly fictitious principality of Barabeeha, and the bad Arab is Prince Nimitiv, played by Douglass Dumbrille, specialist in suave villainy against comedy teams (notably in his two films with the Marx Brothers, A Day at the Races and The Big Store), whose secret weapons are two cat’s-eye rings, which when he wears one on each hand and puts the ring fingers through the eyes of a painting in his palace, he can use to hypnotize anybody into obeying his will. Prince Ramo wants to sneak Hazel and Our Heroes into the palace to get the rings from Nimitiv. Along the way Marilyn Maxwell gets to sing a nice song by Don Raye and Gene DePaul (A&C’s regular songwriters at Universal, too), A&C get to do some good comic dialogues (written by their specialist in such things, “Who’s on First?” author John Grant) and there are some nice running gags, though the ones with the derelict who’s imprisoned with A&C and he’s as nice as can be except when someone says the name “Pocomoco” — which was where he caught up with and killed his wife and her lover — in which case he freaks out and launches a murderous attack prefaced by the words, “Slowly I turned … ” (which became a catch phrase after this movie came out, even though the gag had undoubtedly been done earlier in vaudeville), get oppressive after a while.

Lost in a Harem is generally considered the best of A&C’s three MGM films, and while it’s a pity MGM didn’t spring for the budget to film it in color (for which, after all, those spectacular sets had been designed!), it’s genuinely amusing, filled with clever gags — including one in which Nimitiv’s rings convince A&C that they’re termites and they chew through a whole room full of furniture (one wonders what the MGM prop department made it out of, since the scene certainly looks like they’re eating something that looks like furniture); one in which A&C, having got the rings and turned the tables on Nimitiv, get him to think he’s a dog (“You gotta go to the kennels … go to the kennels!” whines Lou Costello in that unforgettable voice); and a copy of the mirror scene from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup in which Bud Abbott, disguised as Nimitiv, and Dumbrille get to do the round-robin routine Groucho and Harpo had done to even greater effect in the Marxes’ 1933 masterpiece (though the mirror gag — two identically dressed people looking at each other in an empty mirror frame and each trying to convince the other that he’s just a reflection in a mirror — had previously been done on film by Charlie Chaplin in The Floorwalker and Max Linder in his masterpiece, Seven Years’ Bad Luck).

One missed opportunity was in Abbott and Costello’s posing as Hollywood talent scouts to get Bobo (J. Lockard Martin, who as Lock Martin later played Gort the giant robot in the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still), Nimitiv’s head bodyguard, to go on their side, and later to get Nimitiv’s previous 37 wives — led by the decidedly zaftig Teema (Lottie Harrison) — to betray him and help Prince Ramo take control of the palace in the final scene. I hoped that was leading to a climax in which, back in the U.S., Hope would be performing in a huge nightclub with Bobo as the bouncer and the 37 previous wives as waitresses doing an Arabian Nights-themed number (much like the one we do get in Nimitiv’s palace, an elaborate ballet sequence to bits of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade that’s far and above anything Universal would have done for a production number in an Abbott and Costello film in 1944 — though three years later, after the Universal-International merger, the company would actually do a color biopic of Rimsky-Korsakov with ballerinas similarly cavorting to Scheherazade) — instead, in what writers Harry Ruskin, John Grant and Harry Crane may well have intended as a spoof of the surrealistic ending to the 1930 Sternberg/Dietrich film Morocco, A&C go tearing off through the desert to get away from the derelict, who was in the car with them and predictably freaked out when he heard the word “Pocomoco,” much like the bittersweet endings of many of the Laurel and Hardy films when some fresh catastrophe happened to them in the final frames just when it seemed like they had their battles won … — 1/11/14