The vagaries of the film going audience are spectacularly fickle. Take, for example, Miss Maria Montez. Dubbed "The Queen of Technicolor," and pretty much solely responsible for filling Universal's coffers with bucket loads of moolah in the 1940s, she's largely forgotten today, a camp relic confined to lovers of kitsch and Hollywood's penchant for faux "exotica." Though Montez married well (Jean-Pierre Aumont), and had a string of very successful features, many pairing her with Jon Hall, her early death in her late 30s didn't lead to the legendizing that greeted similar die-youngs like James Dean. Instead it only brought a rather quickly encroaching forgetfulness on the part of the viewing public. While Montez is certainly never going to go down in history as one of the world's greatest actresses, or even a remarkably competent one (truth be told), the fact is it's sort of a sad testament that were it not for home video, she'd probably not be generally remembered at all today.
Montez, eyes flashing, temperament abounding, and thickly accented English spewing from her ample lips, is one of the chief attractions of 1944's Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Universal's second attempt (after Arabian Nights) to mine the well of "A Thousand and One Nights," by which of course I mean they took certain plot elements (thieves, a hidden cave that opens to the cry of "Sesame!") and then marginalized any hint of authenticity and veracity, drowning it in a three strip sea of garish colors and fanciful action. It has absolutely nothing to do with its source material, but Ali Baba was just what the war weary audience was searching for in those long, dreary days--a colorful escape with nothing much to think about and a lot to look at and listen to. If you approach the film on those merits, you're in for at least some passable entertainment, and if you, like I do, enjoy a film for its high camp quotient, you are in for much more than something merely passable.
There is camp, and then there is High Camp, and then there are those rare instances, as in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, of something I can only make superlative enough by calling it Himalayan Camp. When you have someone like Andy Devine playing an Arabian thief, you know you're in a sort of Twilight Zone where things have gone beyond surreality to achieve something rather inexplicable. When you have a scene of the 40 thieves, led by the shall we charitably say wooden Jon Hall, riding transparently fake horses in front of wretched rear projection, while they sing one of the most hilariously bad "fight" songs ever written (one built on the "unsingable" interval of a tri-tone), you're in a territory of dropped jaws and bugged out eyes. Add to that last scene the fact that Hall evidently has no clue what the words are to the song, so that in his close-ups he's mouthing nothing even approaching the actual lyric, and you have the makings of a laff riot, if you're so inclined.
I don't want to be too mean about this film, because the fact is, I actually love it, and not just for its unintended hilarity. Those of you who pay attention to reviews at DVDTalk may have noticed I tend to do a lot of "highbrow" releases like operas and ballets, but the fact is, I have an indelible soft spot for "lowbrow" entertainment like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The absolutely fake ethos that permeates all of these similarly themed Universal features simply must be accepted on its own terms, and enjoyed for what it is. The lack of compelling performances, in the leads at least (Hall and Montez are joined by another flash in the exotica pan, Turhan Bey, who makes Hall look like Olivier by comparison), really doesn't distract from the film's overall feel, and in fact, in a sort of bizarre way, actually helps it. There are some relatively fine supporting turns (as is usual in these features), including a nicely nasty turn by Frank Puglia as Cassim, who murders Ali's Caliph father early in the film and turns out to be the father of Amara (Montez), setting up a sort of awkward family dynamic should Amara and Ali tie the knot (and I'll let you guess if that happens).
This is pure, unadulterated escapist fantasy. It has little of the wit or imagination of, say, The Thief of Bagdad, but it's colorful and perfectly in tune with that mid-40's overblown attempt to give the audience 90 minutes or so of blessed relief from the real world's impending disasters. It may be hard for current more jaded audiences to put themselves in their parents' or grandparents' viewing shoes and enjoy the film on that level, but as a curio of camp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves simply cannot be beat.