A lavish and old-fashioned musical, 1934's Chu Chin Chow was one of the bigger English productions of its time, an adaptation of an Oscar Asche stage show that ran for years. It's a loose retelling of the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves done on a huge scale, with large dance scenes, knockabout comedy and unexpectedly gruesome violence. Very much an English fantasy version of exotic happenings in the mysterious East, it is said to have encouraged the artistic fad of 'Orientalism' -- according to liner notes writer Jay Allan Fenton, there's still a Chu Chin Chow restaurant in London.
The uneven movie survives as an oversized curiosity and a record of English stage styles of the time. Its most interesting character turns out to be Fritz Kortner's murderous bandit chief, a wicked fellow who is most happy when dishing out horrible deaths to his enemies.
Chu Chin Chow takes a bit of getting used to. Some amusing comedy numbers are hidden among the tired love ballads and spirited orchestral compositions accompany the big dance numbers, but overall the musical score sags. Walter Forde's direction doesn't match Ernö Metzner's undeniably impressive sets, as the camera simply records the scenes without entering into the magical spirit of the story.
A lively cast makes all the difference in this broad farce. Dumpy comic George Robey played Sancho Panza twice and was Falstaff in Olivier's Henry V; his Ali Baba is an unscrupulous fool from the first scene to the last. No sooner does he become rich than he starts to court his brother's chubby wife. Francis L. Sullivan is the feared Caliph, an enormous, bored tyrant. Sullivan looks much younger than his bravura turns in Joan of Arc (1948) and Night and the City (1950).
The motivating factor for this disc set appears to be the growing cult around Anna May Wong, a Los Angeles model-actress who went to England to get decent roles. She's already been favored in Milestone's fine restoration of the 1929 silent Piccadilly; several books about her have appeared in the last few years. May figures in two exotic dances amid beautifully costumed women arranged as if in a Ziegfeld pageant. Her character is always trying to lead the thief Abu Hasan into a trap; the writers of Chu Chin Chow probably felt her strangely ambivalent attitude to the villain was appropriately "inscrutable."
Less impressive are the ingenue leads, John Garrick and Pearl Argyle. She mostly poses while John's lovesick Arab sings melody-challenged ballads. Argyle is as pretty as a picture but received a far better showcase two years later as Raymond Massey's astronaut daughter in William Cameron Menzies' Things to Come.
The real reason to see Chu Chin Chow is to enjoy Fritz Kortner's thoroughly self-satisfied villain. It was the celebrated German actor's first film after leaving Hitler's Germany, where he had played Louise Brooks' ill-fated bridegroom in G.W. Pabst's legendary classic Pandora's Box. Kortner later had unrewarding Hollywood bits in Sorry, Wrong Number and Berlin Express and a slightly larger part in The Razor's Edge. His Abu Hasan is the most ebullient character on the screen. Kortner's eyes roll with delight with each new crime and torture. He uses considerable style when coercing a street cobbler to lead him to Ali Baba, the thief foolish enough to steal from thieves.
The movie is not without its highlights. An early musical number does tricks with the water from a fountain, until the screen is filled with dancing girls sprouting waterspouts (we wonder who mops up afterwards). A slave auction flirts with implied nudity. Anna May Wong's final dance becomes a rather gruesome assassination, and equally disturbing acts of violence jar the light-comedy mood. A merchant victim is buried alive. Another is stabbed by twenty swords at the same time and must be stitched together by a cobbler to make an appearance at his own funeral. Behind the happy finale, scores of men are apparently being boiled alive. The emphasis on killing keeps our attention, to say the least.
The appeal of Orientalism must have been important in 1934, for the movie's title is the name of a relatively unimportant character, a victim of Abu Hasan that he then impersonates in the film's first act. Chu Chin Chow leads us to expect a Chinese setting and instead we're given an Arabian Nights fairy tale.
VCI's three-disc special edition of Chu Chin Chow gathers together a lot of material of varying quality. Disc One has the main original feature in a decent but un-restored transfer of the original full-length show -- subsequent reissues cut it by as much as three reels. The soundtrack is from the optical track and isn't the greatest for clarity, although most speeches are easily understood. Robey's Ali Baba sometimes betrays a distinct Cockney accent! Film restorer Jay Allan Fenton's commentary track makes many comparisons between the film and the stage version. Disc one also has galleries of Anna May Wong photos, her comedy scene from Elstree Calling and a battered dance scene from Piccadilly.
Disc Two has Lippert's much shorter 1950s American re-cut, the more appropriately titled Ali Baba Nights. The picture and sound quality are much improved but most of the songs have been removed, leaving awkward continuity gaps and making the picture begin on a dull dialogue scene. Extras on this disc are more lobby cards and Max Fleisher's cartoon Popeye Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves, with Bluto as Abu Hassim. It's one of Fleisher's Technicolor efforts that used three-dimensional settings for some scenes. The cartoon is a tiny bit soft but otherwise is in great shape, with good color.
Disc three presents a Fritz Kortner follow-up feature called Abdul the Damned, a 1935 thriller about intrigue and assassinations in the Turkish court of Abdul Hamid II in 1908. Kortner also plays the tyrant's actor-double in sort of a Kagemusha arrangement. The print for this feature is reasonable, with good sound; it also stars Nils Asther and has an interesting score by Hanns Eisler.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Chu Chin Chow rates: