Thursday, June 08, 2006

Walking the Plank with Sony's "Midnite Movies"

Later this month, on June 27, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will be bringing back MGM's "Midnite Movies" double-feature discs from the brink of oblivion. You may recall that the disc series was doing well for awhile, then became a Best Buy exclusive (in theory; not all of the MM titles could be found in all Best Buy stores), and the popular horror and science fiction titles that launched the banner were gradually phased out in favor of ho-hum biker and racing dramas. The beloved budget series is now making its comeback with a couple of pirate-themed flipper discs -- most of which, unfortunately, not even I have any interest in seeing, much less owning.

These are FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD/CAPTAIN PIRATE and THE BOY AND THE PIRATES/CRYSTALSTONE ("featuring performances by legendary actors Louis Heyward, Patricia Medina and Charles Herbert," says the press release), each of which will retail for $19.94 -- bumped up from the series' original $14.98 pricing. Perhaps it's someone's idea that these sets are just what mainstream American mateys need to help them count down the hours till the July 7th opening of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST, but they could just as easily kill America's Opening Day appetite for skulls and crossbones. Of the four titles included in these sets, only Bert I. Gordon's THE BOY AND THE PIRATES holds any true cult appeal... but then I'm a sucker for a sullen Susan Gordon asking the question "Am I not a cool kid?" Having Timothy Carey aboard as one of the salty cutthroats doesn't hurt either, nor does the enviable fact that I own the Dell tie-in comic book.

But, as "Midnite Movies" go, even the pirattiest among you must admit, these are some pretty dull double-oons. With so much of infinitely greater interest retained in the MGM vaults, it's my guess that whomever is presently in charge of selecting the "Midnite Movies" titles is out of their depth, possibly someone's relative, or an employee who's being punished with the assignment. So I thought I'd offer this poor individual a helpful hand by recommending a couple of other first-rate family-adventure titles in the MGM archives that would make one splendido double-feature package. And before he/she asks, YES! They're both swashbucklers!

I'm speaking of Arthur Lubin's remake of THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1961), starring Steve Reeves, and Antonio Margheriti's THE GOLDEN ARROW (also '61), starring Tab Hunter and Rosanna Podestà. Filmed respectively in Tunisia and Egypt, these Italian-American co-productions were both lensed in scope and would look absolutely breathtaking on DVD.

THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD has been out on video before, but only as a pan&scanned VHS from Embassy Home Video released before some of you were born. Steve Reeves was fabulous in the first two Hercules films, of course, but whenever I find myself discussing Reeves with people, it's surprising how often I hear confessions of a special liking for THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD; I wholly agree that it's something special, with one of Reeves' most endearing performances, but I have this old and intractable idea in my head that it's an obscure movie no one's ever heard of -- probably because I didn't get around to seeing it till it was released on home video in the 1980s. But when this movie played in US theaters, it was given the full Joseph E. Levine ballyhoo treatment -- constant television advertising, a Dell tie-in comic book, even a paperback novelization.

Reeves plays Karim, a charming thief (of the Robin Hood variety, stealing from those who can afford to lose and giving to those who cannot afford even simple pleasures), who falls in love at first sight of Amina (CONTEMPT's Georgia Moll), daughter of the Sultan of Baghdad, while robbing the palace. He vies for her hand in marriage against the evil, Conrad Veidtian Prince Osman (BLACK SUNDAY's Arturo Dominici), with whom he sets out to claim his bride by being the first to locate the seven doors that will lead the victor to the fabled Blue Rose. The film's direction is credited to Arthur Lubin, best known for the 1943 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and the Francis the Talking Mule movies, and Italian sources also credit Bruno Vailati. The special effects are credited solely to Tom Howard (GORGO), but while researching my Mario Bava book, I was told by more than one interviewee that Bava was the film's true special effects supervisor; it really shows, especially in the scene where Karim and his men are besieged by living trees while camping in the desert, which is redolent with Bavian color lighting. (One highlight promised on all the US advertising -- a "gigantic killer crab" -- never materializes onscreen, not even in European prints.) Also praiseworthy is its extraordinarily lyrical score by Carlo Rustichelli, one of his loveliest and most beckoning creations.

To see this film in its correct aspect ratio someday has been a long-cherished dream of mine. The closest I've come to realizing it is a French VHS tape -- even older than the American release! -- called LE VOLEUR DE BAGDAD, which was letterboxed at roughly 1.85 and so still subtantially cropped. This version also included a number of short scenes and snippets cut from the US version, which I hope can be incorporated in the event of a DVD release. It's a wonderful movie.

I recently had the opportunity to see a DVD-R of THE GOLDEN ARROW, one of the very few films which director Antonio Margheriti signed with his own name. (His earlier work had been credited to either Anthony Daisies or Antony Dawson.) His pride was understandable; I've seen a lot of his work and have affection for a good deal of it, but this is one of the best made and entertaining of his pictures. It was made the same year as THIEF OF BAGHDAD, and written by three of the same screenwriters: Augusto Frasinettii, Filippo Sanjust (who seems to have written these and other exotic scripts as a pretext to designing their fabulous costumes) and Bruno Vailati. It's virtually the same story reenacted on some of the same interior Cinecittà sets.

Tab Hunter takes a magic carpet ride in THE GOLDEN ARROW.

Tab Hunter (dubbed by, I think, Jim Dolen) plays Hassan, an orphan adopted and raised by a band of thieves, who is in fact the rightful heir to the throne of Damascus. He falls in love with the Princess Jamila (Rossana Podestà, the heroine of HELEN OF TROY and Margheriti's scary THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG) after kidnapping her. Hassan loves Jamila enough to release her, a deed which helps him to win her heart, but he releases her back into her father's plot to marry her off. Three royal contenders win the right to woo her, but are told that, in order to win her hand, they must participate in a contest to bring her the most precious gift of all. Separately, they find a crystal ball, a magic flying carpet, and a liquid that restores life to the dead, but Hassan finally trumps them all with the help of not one, not two, but three genies determined to help him regain his rightful throne -- but only after he learns some important life lessons. (It's clear from the behavior of these genies that there were hopes of hiring The Three Stooges.)

Taken together, these two movies summon a vivid chapter in early movie-going for Baby Boomers, when the combined success of the Hercules films and the Ray Harryhausen mythologies prompted a window of revival for Arabian Nights fantasy. MGM had a big hand in these; come to think of it, I could extend my "Midnite Movies" recommendation to include two other features of the same period and ilk: THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN (1961, starring Donald O'Connor) and CAPTAIN SINDBAD (1963, starring Guy Williams and Heidi Bruhl). No offense to Gordon Douglas, Ralph Murphy and Antonio Paláez (the directors of FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD, CAPTAIN PIRATE and CRYSTALSTONE, respectively), but CAPTAIN SINDBAD was directed by a heavy-hitter, Byron Haskin (the original THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS), and THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN was co-directed by two, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH's Henry Levin and the Italian Maestro of the Macabre, Mario Bava.

I know that Gordon Douglas was a very able filmmaker; he directed DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL and THEM!, but I was never motivated by their quality to explore the length and breadth of his nearly 100 other films. And I have no idea what CRYSTALSTONE is doing on a DVD with THE BOY AND THE PIRATES; it was made in 1988 -- an entirely different era, with no relevance to nostalgia or double-billing! THE BOY AND THE PIRATES at least has auteur value; in fact, that's just about its only value. I say this with the love.

Unlike these June 27th titles, the movies I've suggested star cult figures whose names people still recognize, they were directed by filmmakers of consequence, and they are fondly remembered by the generation for which they were made. FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD and CAPTAIN PIRATE were made in 1950 and 1951, so the audience for which they were made is 10 years older and therefore, regrettably, smaller. Horror and sci-fi sells regardless of decade because these genres appeal to fans and collectors (not to mention fanatical collectors); but when it comes to iffier terrain like B-movie swashbucklers, sticking with Sixties fare is just good business sense.

If Sony/MGM begins to release double features like THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD/THE GOLDEN ARROW and THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN/CAPTAIN SINDBAD, not only are they going to sell, they'll get enthusiastic press, and send out a signal that the people in charge of "Midnite Movies" actually know what they are doing. We want this imprint to succeed... because there's a lot more MGM cult movies where these came from, and if the current titles flop, we may never get our hands on them.

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