Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Joan of Arabia

Posting may be spotty the next day or so because I’m finishing up a pair of projects for the fine people at First Generation Radio Archives (ask for them by name!). But I took a brief breather yesterday to wallow in a bit of nostalgia, courtesy of TCM. The film? Harem Girl, a 1952 comedy romp starring TDOY fave Joan Davis and directed/written by noted Three Stooges auteur Edward Bernds.

Let me give you an idea of how long it’s been since I’ve seen this film. The last time I watched Girl it was on TNT; yes, before that channel knew drama (and not just in the biblical sense) it showed a good many movies that would later turn up in light-to-heavy rotation on its sibling classic movies channel. Now, I’m going to be the first to inform you that Harem Girl is not going to make many best-movie-comedy lists; in fact, your tolerance for the movie is going to rest on your tolerance for Joanie’s zany antics. Still, it’s a breezy little time-waster: Davis is a chocolate dipper from Grand Rapids who quits her job to take a trip to the Middle East—she becomes a traveling companion to a beautiful princess (Peggie Castle) and when Princess Peggie’s future kingdom falls in the hands of some unscrupulous bad men (led by one of the baddest bad guys of them all, Henry Brandon), Joan agrees to impersonate her pal while Peg gets help from the underground, headed up by boyfriend Paul Marion.

Joan’s got some pretty nice comedy vignettes in this film: she does a hysterical exotic dance that looks as if she improvised it on the spot and later in the film plays rabble-rouser to a group of other harem girls, convincing them they need to organize a union. (When Peggie is trying to explain to Joan that her kingdom is loaded with black gold and Texas tea, she asks her pal: “What does my country have more than any other?” Joanie wisecracks: “Fleas!”) Yesterday, however, the funniest thing in this film wasn’t in the actual film: in the teaser before the film, the movie was identified onscreen as “Harlem Girl”—and even the announcer referred to it as such! (Imagine my disappointment when I couldn’t find any trace of Pam Grier in the movie.)

Bernds contributed the story and co-wrote the screenplay with longtime partner Elwood Ullman; it was about the time of Harem Girl’s release that the two men left Columbia (Bernds’ supervisor, Hugh McCollum, had been ousted due to the machinations of producer Jules White and Bernds followed his boss out of loyalty) and went over to Monogram/Allied Artists—where they wrote some of the better Bowery Boys vehicles, including The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (1954) and Bowery to Bagdad (1955). Naturally, this being a Bernds film you’ll spot an Emil Sitka cameo (Emil’s a lackey for potentate Arthur Blake); other familiar faces include Minerva Urecal, Shepard Menken and Mister John Dehner.

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