Thursday, June 22, 2017

Lubitsch of Arabia

Janaia (Pola Negri) is a breathtakingly beautiful dancer who travels with other performers in a caravan…and who’s attracted the attention of a Bagdad slave trader, Achmed (Paul Biensfeldt).  Achmed has been commissioned by Zuleika (Jenny Hasselqvist), the current favorite in a harem maintained by “The Mighty Sheikh” (Paul Wegener), to procure women for her hubby…because she no longer wants to be the favorite, preferring instead the romantic attentions of Nour-Ed Din (Harry Liedtke), humble (and handsome) clothes merchant.  His Sheikhness, learning of Zuleika’s perfidy, condemns her to death…but she is spared when the Sheikh’s son, Sheikh, Jr. (Carl Clewing), pleads for her life.  Janaia is not so fortunate—the cruel despot bumps off both her and Sheikh, Jr. (they were having a little thing on the side) but before he can add Zuleika and Nour-Ed Din to the body count he is dispatched to the Great Beyond by the hunchbacked Abdullah (Ernst Lubitsch), who’s avenging the murder of Janaia.

All this palace intrigue has been condensed into a fifty-minute cut-down of Sumurun, a 1920 melodrama directed by Ernst Lubitsch before he emigrated to the U.S. and exhibited “the Lubitsch touch.”  (“Sumurun” is the name of the Zuleika character in the original German movie.)  The movie would be released in America the following year and retitled One Arabian Night; the (always reliable) IMDb lists the movie’s running time as a longer eighty-five minutes (another DVD version clocks it at 105).  The 50-minute version is from an Alpha Video release that came out in mid-May.

The shorter running time on the Alpha DVD really hurts the viewing experience, sad to report.  It makes One Arabian Night confusing and often difficult to comprehend, which is a shame because I had heard a good many positive things about the picture and I was looking forward to sitting down with it.  It’s not entirely unrewarding; it’s interesting early Lubitsch (his later themes of infidelity and naughtiness are on full display in this tale based on the pantomime by Friedrich Freksa), and it also showcases the appeal of Pola Negri, who would go on to a prolific career as a silent screen siren.  It was with the success of Night in the U.S. that Mary Pickford was encouraged to invite the director and his star to make movies in Tinsel Town.  Lubitsch would continue to direct classics like Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Ninotchka (1939) until his death in 1947 (his valedictory feature, 1948’s That Lady in Ermine, was assigned to Otto Preminger after Ernst died during production) but Negri, despite box-office hits like Forbidden Paradise (1924—directed by Lubitsch) and Hotel Imperial (1927—the only other Pola film I’ve seen), went back to Europe to work toward the silent era (her thick Polish accent would have been a problem)—only resurfacing in two later American films, Hi Diddle Diddle (1943) and The Moon-Spinners (1964, her final movie).

Sadly, Lubitsch abandoned a promising career in front of the camera with this film (he made cameo appearances in a few of his talkies and in the Ed Sullivan film Mr. Broadway [1933]; he’s also in the trailer for The Shop Around the Corner)—he’s quite good as the sympathetic hunchback who pines for Negri’s character from afar, then later gets an opportunity to be a hero at the end.  I’ve mentioned on the blog before that while I have a tremendous admiration for Ernst as a director his movies just aren’t my particular cup of Orange Pekoe (it’s not him—it’s me) save for To Be or Not to Be (1942), which I will watch at the drop of a hat.  (In Milt Josefsberg’s The Jack Benny Show, he includes an anecdote from his famous boss in which Lubitsch “acted out” how he wanted Benny to play Josef Tura in To Be…so the director never got performing completely out of his system.)  Lubitsch fans will want to check this one out if they haven’t already; many thanks to my friend Brian Kray at Alpha Video for providing me with the screener for this review.


b piper said...

"...his movies just aren’t my particular cup of Orange Pekoe (it’s not him—it’s me) save for To Be or Not to Be (1942)."

What, no love for NINOTCHKA? That's both my favorite Lubitsch and my favorite Garbo film --- AND it's got Bela Lugosi!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

b piper held up a sign in protest:

What, no love for NINOTCHKA? That's both my favorite Lubitsch and my favorite Garbo film --- AND it's got Bela Lugosi!

Ninotchka does get points for the Lugosi factor...but I'm not a Garbo talkie fan (though I do like Anna Christie) and my position on Melvyn Douglas is known the length and longth of the Internets. Ninotchka is every bit deserving of its classic film status -- I just can't warm up to it.

b piper said...

You can't warm up to it, I can't resist it. But then again, I'm a big Melvyn Douglas fan...