English films that were created between the World Wars have the reputation of being fairly bland and unexciting. With the exception of the Hitchcock films, this is largely (though not wholly) true. This is in large part to the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 which stated that a certain percentage of films (20% by 1936) shown in the UK had to be made in Britain. While this undoubtedly did help many British film companies stay in business, the real upshot was the "quota-quicky" a film created solely for the purpose of getting a UK-made film on the screen so more American films could be shown. These films were made on the cheap and in a rushed manner. Predictably, the quality just wasn't there, and British films from the 30's are often sneered at.
This isn't always justified though. Not all British films of the 30's were hack jobs. Some were quite good. Unfortunately these have gotten lost in the shuffle though. Now VCI has released a three-disc set with a pair of very good early British films which are both set in the Middle East. Chu Chin Chow is a musical retelling of the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves featuring Anna May Wong, Ali Baba Nights is an alternate edit of the first film, and saving the best for last, Abdul the Damned is an excellent historical drama about the last days of Abdul Hamid II, the last Sultan of Turkey.
Chu Chin Chow:
This is a musical adaptation of the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves from the Arabian Nights stories. In ancient Arabia, Ali Baba (George Robey) works for his rich brother Kasim (Laurence Hanray). When they run out of wood, Kasim orders Ali to go into the Black Forest for more. While there, Ali sees the notorious bandit Abu Hassan (Fritz Kortner) leave his secret hide out by reciting the magical phrase "Open sesame." Using the phrase, Ali gains access to the hideout and makes off with a small portion of the riches contained inside.
Meanwhile back in Kasim's household, one of his slaves, Zahrat (Anna May Wong), overhears that a rich Chinese merchant, Chu Chin Chow, is going to arrive with a caravan of riches to trade. She sends a message to Abu Hassan via carrier pigeon informing the bandit of the rich plunder just outside of town. Abu intercepts the merchant and kills him and his men and assumes his identity. He then goes into town planning to plunder the entire city.
Though the story was expanded quite a bit, I was surprised how closely the movie stayed to the original tale. The greedy Kasim manages to work out from his brother where he got all of his riches and dies trying to plunder the thieves' cave, the final fate of the bandit group is the same as in the story though slightly altered to make it easier to film, Ali Baba's personality is true to his original character. The major change that they made, which I found disappointing, was that Maryana, the slave who has the intelligence to figure out Abu Hassan's plots in the original fable, is reduced to a romantic interest of Ali's son. She was always a favorite character of mine since she's very observant and smarter than her master. I've always liked strong female characters.
Anna May Wong has just a supporting role in this film, contrary to the cover art for the DVD, but she does a very good job. Her character wasn't in the original story, to the best of my recollection, but fit well into the plot. She does a great job as the traitorous Zahrat, bringing a lot of sexuality and cunning to the role. She really steals the movie, making all of the scenes where she appears very entertaining.
The other actors were a mixed bag. George Robey did a good job as the kind hearted but bumbling Ali, though his British accent made most of his lines seem comical. Luckily his character had more than a bit of comic relief to it, and this aspect of his performance didn't ruin the film.
Fritz Kortner is a very fine actor, but he overplayed his role in this film. He added too much emotion to Abu Hassan's speeches. He had the tendency to pause after every few syllables and with his European accent ended up sounding like Bela Lugosi in Dracula. That is too bad because he really can act, which the last feature in this set proves.
This film is a musical, with people breaking into song every now and again. I didn't think the songs really helped the movie though, and slowed the pace quite a bit. Abu Hassan, posing as Chu Chin Chow plans to raid the town when Zahrat is sold at auction. The audience knows that Maryana is aware of the plans and has to find a way to stop Hassan. When the auction arrives, instead of raising the suspense level as the fateful moment of the attack draws nearer, they decide to put in a song where the auctioneer sings about the slaves he is going to sell. This brings the action to a screeching halt, and the film has a bit of trouble regaining its momentum. I didn't find any of the songs very catchy either, and they often didn't reveal people's emotions or inner feelings, but were just there to explain what the viewers already knew was going on. The songs were the weakest link in the film.
The things that really make this movie are the lavish sets and excellent cinematography. The camera work was preformed by a German expatriate, Mutz Greenbaum. He was trained in Germany's Ufa studios, and his use of shadow and angles gave the production a slight expressionist look. (Mutz also was the cinematographer for the excellent Hindle Wakes.)
The art director was another German, Ernö Metzner. He really is responsible for a lot of the film's feel. The sets give the feel of the exotic times of the Arabian Nights while remaining simple. From the palaces of rich merchants to the cave of Abu Hassan, the sets brought forth the feeling that you were watching a splendid fair tale.
Even with the generally mediocre acting and uninspired musical numbers, this is an above average film.
Ali Baba Nights:
This is an edited version of Chu Chin Chow that runs 76 minutes as compared to the original which last 103 minutes. The main difference is that they cut out all the songs. I didn't like most of the musical numbers, so I thought this was an improvement and it actually makes the movie flow much better. On the other hand, a good number of scenes were cut short, and establishing shots were abbreviated or eliminated which makes the film feel choppy. This shorter version has most of the fantastic elements that the original had, including the fountain dance albeit an abbreviated version. Some of the violence has been toned down a bit, but not much. The scene where Ali's brother Kasim is killed by the thieves is implied rather than shown, but they do show the real Chu Chin Chow being buried alive. When all is said and done, this version is inferior to the original, but not by as much as you'd think. It's a very nice companion to the original film.
Abdul the Damned:
This is another Middle East flavored movie, but this one is a drama rather than a fantasy. It is loosely based on the last year of rule of Abdul Hamid II the Sultan of Turkey, who was known as Abdul the Damned after he met protests of Armenians in 1894-96 with series of violent massacres that left more than 100,000 dead. Though these events are not chronicled in the film, they are hinted at.
Once again the German Fritz Kortner plays an Arab, this time the Sultan Abdul. He is very paranoid, with good reason. His enemies have been trying to kill him for years. The first attempt on his life was when he was eight, and many have taken place since then.
It is also a time of political instability in Turkey, and the Sultan's place is anything but assured. The Old Turks, who favor Turkey's traditional form of government are pitted against the New Turks who want a constitutional democracy and Parliament. When an attempt on the Sultan's life makes him more popular, the conniving ruler comes up with a plan. He'll have one of his strongest supporters killed in public by someone dressed as a New Turk officer, and use that act as an excuse to round up the leaders of the opposition party under charges of treason.
Amidst all of the political dealings and double crosses there is also a romantic story line thrown in. This concerns a singer from Vienna (Therese played by Adrienne Ames) who is touring the world. She is in love with one of the Sultan's officers, but after Abdul sees her preform, the Sultan is smitten with her and wants her to join his harem. In order to accomplish this he has her lover arrested and will only spare his life if the singer marries him, which she does.
I actually enjoyed this film much more than Chu Chin Chow. The political intrigues and crossed plots make the film very compelling. Fritz Kortner did a much better job with this role, which isn't too surprising since it is a meatier part. He was able to make the Sultan seem murderous and almost insane in some scenes, yet tender and vulnerable in others. When he confides in Therese that he can't trust anyone and that no one has ever felt compassion toward him, just fear, you can almost feel sorry for the poor man. Then when he orders the deaths of many people that he knows are innocent of any wrong doing, you realize that he's brought many of his problems on himself.
The movie does a good job of explaining the politics of the time, and showing both sides of the issues. As one Old Turk comments when a constitution is finally signed by the Sultan: They've taken the Parliament from the British and their language from the French, what part of the constitution is Turkish?
This film really works well as a psychological profile of the Sultan and as a political thriller. It's not so hot as a romance movie. The love triangle with the Therese, her over and the Sultan didn't work that well for me. The events are a little too contrived, having the Captain arrested just as the two lovers have decided to leave for France for example, and the story itself is almost a cliche. This didn't ruin the movie, but these sections, which mainly occur in the second half, do slow the pace down a bit.
The film itself was wonderfully rendered. A camera crew was sent to Constantinople to film the city, and this footage was used in establishing shots and as back projection to give the film a more realistic feel. The camera work and lighting were all first-rate and really added to the feel of the film, making some scenes feel claustrophobic while others were open and breezy. Most of the crew, including director Karl Grune and cinematographer Otto Kanturek were German expatriates who fled from Hitler's Germany. They gave the film a realistic and authentic quality that most English films of this period just didn't have. A very good film that deserves a wider audience.
Even though these were made during the era of quota films, these movies
are very good and have outstanding cinematography and sets.
These films are presented on three single sided DVDs. The first has Chu Chin Chow, and the second contains the edited rerelease, Ali Baba Nights. The third disc includes the movie Abdul the Damned. Included with the discs is an insert with notes on the film and restoration, as well as a list of chapter stops. The odd thing is that the they list 32 chapters while the disc itself has only 20. Thanks to Brian for pointing that out.
The audio quality on the first two features left a little to be desired. There was a fair amount of background hiss, and the dynamic range was very limited. There was a bit of distortion in a couple of places, mainly with the high notes in the songs in Chu Chin Chow. Most of this is to be expected with an early sound picture like this one, but the accumulation of various defects made this musical sound flat and uninspiring. The soundtrack didn't ruin the movie by any means, but I was hoping for something just a tad better.
The audio track for Abdul the Damned was the cleanest of all three features. The amount of background noise was significantly less than the other two, and there was only the slightest distortion. A nice sounding disc.
All three of these movies looked very good considering their age. While they aren't perfect, the positives outweigh the negatives. The pictures are very clear with a very good amount of detail. The contrast is generally good, though some details do get lost in the shadows. There is some grain throughout the films, but print defects such as spots and scratches are very minor. A few scenes from Chu Chin Chow were taken from an inferior print, and these were very soft and lacked definition. The first two features were moderately sharp, while the last one is a little on the soft side. Aside from these sections, the transfers look pretty good.
The video to Abdul the Damned looked like it was cropped slightly on the sides. Some of the credits at the beginning were cut off by a letter, and the scrolling introduction crowded the edges. This was a minor flaw though.
This set is really loaded with extras. The first disc, which has Chu Chin Chow on it, also includes a commentary track by Jay Fenton, who supervised the restoration. His comments are a little dry but interesting. He talks about the actors, director, and other people who worked on the movie and gives their background as well as other films they worked on. He also gives some history on British cinema. Well worth listening to.
There is a two minute reel of Anna May Wong publicity photos, a poster gallery, and a three minute reel of press book pages for both the stage play and movie. As if that wasn't enough, there are nine bonus music tracks of songs from the play that were never filmed.
An excerpt from the movie Elstree Calling is also featured. This was a collection of skits made up to look like a vaudeville show, and the one on this disc has Anna May Wong in a comedy bit that is (very) loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew.
A nine-minute excerpt from the silent movie Piccadilly features
Anna May Wong's main dance number and is accompanied by songs from Chu
The second disc includes a cartoon: Popeye Meets Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, a two minute reel of poster and lobby card art, as well as a series of trailers, and the same bios from the first disc. One odd thing is that at the end of the poster gallery, the disc stops rather than going to back to the menu. This isn't a big deal though.
The third DVD has an 11 minute reel of film noir trailers which were fun to watch as well as bios for the featured actors in the film.
These films together show that not all of the British films from the 30's are worthless. Anna May Wong was a lot of fun to watch in the fantasy Chu Chin Chow, and Fritz Kortner does a magnificent job in the title role in Abdul the Damned. VCI has done a wonderful job with this package too. The video quality is just a little above average, but the extras are more than you would expect for this type of film. A very high Recommendation.