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Saadia has got one big plus going for it, and that's Rita Gam, an exotic-looking early fifties' star who made an impressive publicity splash (the cover of LIFE magazine) in a non-speaking role in the odd Cold War noir The Thief. Married for several years to the young TV director Sidney Lumet, Gam's lasting fame was more social than professional, as she remained a close friend of Grace Kelly and was even a bridesmaid at her wedding in Monaco. With beautiful skin and interesting features, Gam was born too soon to find her proper place in films -- at this stage of the cultural game, actresses with her looks were restricted to a narrow range of roles. She plays Saadia, a sensual Moroccan woman of mystery, who comes between two important men.
Saadia isn't the best career move for writer-producer-director Albert Lewin, once a favorite of cinema-loving intellectuals. In the 1940s Lewin directed a trio of well-reviewed movies about cultured men that also happen to be complete dastards, The Moon and Sixpence, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami. All three pictures featured star George Sanders, who had a way with Lewin's overwritten scripts. By 1951 and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman Lewin was working in Europe and had lost his sense of balance. That MGM-released romantic fantasy has a world-class cast and luminous Technicolor cinematography, but the script is overlong, repetitive and pretentious.
With Saadia Lewin takes another step backwards to a colonial fantasy that just doesn't wash in the post-war years. At a time when most of Africa was seeking to escape from European bondage, Saadia proposes a harmonious French Morocco in which the enlightened sheik Si Lahssen (Cornel Wilde, a step up from his turban & scimitar costume pictures) is fast friends with the soulful, unlucky-in-love good doctor Henrik (Mel Ferrer). Scene after scene emphasizes respectful relations between the civilized French authorities and grateful Moroccans. If this aspect of the film wasn't a main condition to secure permission to film, I'll eat my fez.
The main conflict is between the modern rationalism that both the doctor and Si Lahssen want to bring to the 'backward' country, and the alternative, which is not Islam but a form of tribal witchcraft, as practiced by the witch Fatima (Wanda Rotha). Like a zombie master, Fatima has imposed her will on the mysterious Saadia, to keep the beautiful young woman as her companion. Henrik operates on Saadia's burst appendix and saves her life. The locals also believe that he's exorcised her of evil spirits. As in umpteen tales about 'savage' beauties in relationships with handsome Europeans, Saadia dedicates herself to her new unofficial master.
In the company of the heroes, Saadia proves to be no shrinking violet. When the region is struck by the plague, it is she who rides off into the desert to obtain essential medicine held by the unscrupulous Berber pirate Bou Rezza (French star Michel Simon!). Murdering the bandit chief, Saadia takes a knife to the leg while eluding fierce brigands yet brings back the life-saving serum without fail. And she cooks, too!
These amazing feats rouse Henrik from his existential funk. His romantic sap begins running again, and he considers proposing to Saadia. But he's concerned about the cultural issues involved, and must deal with the influence of Fatima's black magic. Si Lahssen is deeply in love with Saadia as well, but stays silent. He respects the good doctor so much, you see, that he'd rather sacrifice his own happiness to see Henrik permanently installed to help Morocco move into the 20th century. How will this romantic triangle be resolved?
Saadia is the kind of colonial balderdash one expects in novels written back at the turn of the century -- noble white men, noble savages. Good Moroccans take their medicine and shut up, while bad Moroccans are scurvy cutthroats living on the fringe of civilization -- no dashing Raisulis in sight. We get the idea that Albert Lewin is writing well below his ability, seeking a popular hit by whatever means possible. The 'wild native girl' Saadia looks great but behaves like a cardboard figure from 1,0001 Arabian Nights. She also seems to have more testosterone in her body than both the male leads put together -- their participation in a weak action scene near the conclusion is nowhere near as dynamic as the swath Saadia cuts through the Berber camp. 1
Although both are likeable personalities, neither Cornel Wilde nor Mel Ferrer were ever accused of being exciting screen presences. Their combined charisma here leaves a hole where a male lead should be. As if to compensate, Lewin stirs some sensation into his story with the Fatima character, who, witch or no witch, seems to have a strong lesbian attraction to Saadia. Everything Fatima does is an attempt to return Saadia to her control, and Fatima even makes a personal appeal. The witch's sensual trances would also seem to be an expression of Sapphic desire, unless I'm way off base with this entire line of interpretation. Too bad for Fatima, as the nature girl Saadia is content to have two handsome, courteous men vie for her attention. Whichever Saadia catches, she'll probably be the one taking the initiative.
Filmed on location in Technicolor by Christopher Challis, Saadia powders Morocco with a light coating of European actors. Besides Michel Simon's brief appearance as the gross Berber bandit, Irishman Cyril Cusack impersonates a wise Moroccan mullah, rather well, actually. Wanda Rotha would appear to be Austrian by birth, and both Peter Bull and Marne Maitland get bits as swarthy marketplace types. The direction favors some attractive travelogue views and dialogue scenes always manage to inject bright color into the frame. Every Gam close-up is a keeper. It's too bad she didn't catch on; plenty of actresses made their names as 'native beauties', from Myrna Loy to Hedy Lamarr as "Tondelayo". The name "Saadia" is nowhere near as condescending, and Rita Gam keeps her dignity intact. 2
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Saadia is a very good flat transfer of this bright Technicolor production. A few shots (mostly opticals) suffer minor registration flaws but overall the picture looks great. The movie came out late in 1953 when the majority of releases had shifted to widescreen 1:66, and the text blocks in Saadia's title sequence reflect an aspect ratio wider than the old flat academy shape. But compositions throughout the picture look severely cramped when cropped to match, which leads me to believe that the movie was intended to be flat. This may be a case similar to 1953's From Here to Eternity, that was filmed flat but thrown into many theaters as a wide screen presentation. Projectionists presumably had to ride the framing up and down throughout the film, looking for an acceptable composition. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. More Production Code hypocrisy: Saadia stabs Bou Rezza to death, but never has to atone for her crime. As she and Rezza are just ragged non-Christian natives, they apparently aren't subject to the same Code rules that strictly mandate the screen behavior of "real people". Face it ... Racism is a traditional American value.
2. The now mostly forgotten movie White Cargo featured Hedy Lamarr as a ridiculously glamorized native girl in full MGM brown face and eyeliner, provocatively named "Tondelayo". The prevailing joke, of course, renamed her "Comeoniwannalaya". Pahrump.
3. Figuring out aspect ratios for 1953 films can be complicated by a further wrinkle: some had their title sequences re-shot to create credit blocks in a widescreen format. Carol Reed's The Man Between (1953) plays widescreen on TCM, but its entire title sequence (with a live-action background) has been stretched out horizontally to reformat it from 1:37. The film's compositions are mostly wide enough to play well cropped, but the producers probably repositioned the image lower, to keep heads from being cut off. As The Man Between is an English film, and the aspect ratio change in England was delayed by a couple of years, this may only have been done for later reissues. Confused yet? 4
Since you wrote about the OAR issue for the picture, I thought you would find the background of interest. When we were getting ready to work on this release indeed I was concerned about the whole issue of proper OAR, and at this particular juncture in our film history, as you know, it can get very dicey. I first checked the MGM release schedule from the '53-'54 season, and saw that they were suggesting 1.66 as the aspect ratio. However, when we looked at the film, aside from the titles, which had obviously been positioned for widescreen, as you indicate, heads were cut off, and the film looked plain wrong.
So, I did research into the production history of Saadia, and found that shooting began on 2/16/53 and was completed on 4/18/53. MGM made the shift to "widescreen" production after shooting was already completed. The studio announced the change in their policy in early May, which was covered with a big article in the 5/9/53 issue of Boxoffice Magazine. They held back the release of the film until early '54, and it seems that films which were shot for 1.33 were given the 1.66 nod, while those truly intended for widescreeen were given the 1.75 nod (with the horrific exception of the GWTW reissue!). So, that's why we went with 1.33.
...and there you have it...More fun in store.... All the best, George
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