After by producer Alexander Korda discovered 13-year-old Sabu Dastagir in 1937, the charismatic Indian actor starred in four films in a row for the British movie mogul. But following their Hollywood-shot production of Jungle Book, Korda returned to England alone, while Sabu signed a contract to stay in America with Universal. His first film at the studio was producer Walter Wanger’s attempt to replicate the success of Sabu and Korda’s own The Thief of Bagdad, an effects-heavy Technicolor delight based on the Arabian Nights fables. Wanger more directly titled his adaptation Arabian Nights, removing the fantasy elements while keeping the star and the exotic setting. The very boring and very white Jon Hall plays the overthrown caliph Haroun al-Rashid, plastered with brownface along with most of the other major cast members. Rashid’s villainous brother Kamar (Leif Erickson) has taken the throne, mainly in order to attract the dancer Sherazade (Maria Montez). With the help of Sabu and his company of circus performers, Haroun must fight to reclaim the throne and save Sherazade, who he quickly falls in love with. The film unfortunately relegates Sabu to the background here even more than The Thief of Bagdad, with director John Rawlins and writer Michael Hogan letting the lifeless romance between Hall and Montez’s characters take center stage. Some of the location shooting is nice, but for the most part the film is wildly inconsistent both in production values and its tone. In one particularly uneven moment, a goofy fight full of cartoon sound effects is then followed by a scene where a man is brutally tortured for information and then killed. Expensive looking on occasion, Arabian Nights completely lacks the sense of joy and fun that made Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad the classic it remains today.
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