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The Sultan's Wife (1917)

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On a sailing trip, sweethearts Bobby and Gloria arrive in a very sinister-looking India, where an evil rajah attempts to force Gloria into his harem.


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Cast overview:
Joseph Callahan ...
The Rajah
Frank Bond ...
The Prime Minister
Blanche Payson ...
Harem Matron
Teddy the Dog ...
Teddy the Dog


On a sailing trip, sweethearts Bobby and Gloria arrive in a very sinister-looking India, where an evil rajah attempts to force Gloria into his harem.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Comedy | Short





Release Date:

30 September 1917 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Caught in a Harem  »

Company Credits

Production Co:

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Technical Specs

Sound Mix:

Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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User Reviews

Plucky Americans Confront Wicked Foreigners in Turbans (*sigh*)
23 February 2003 | by (Westchester County, NY) – See all my reviews

This two-reel comedy was the final entry of a 1916-7 series which cast young Gloria Swanson opposite boyish Bobby Vernon, but it also holds the melancholy distinction of being the one of the last comedies produced by Mack Sennett for Keystone, the company he founded. By the time The Sultan's Wife was finished, and well before it was released in September of 1917, Sennett had departed to set up a new studio under his own name. For a few more months, other hands attempted to run the studio and hoped to profit off the well-known Keystone name, but the new arrangement obviously didn't work out, and eventually they threw in the towel and shut the place down.

So much for background. Is The Sultan's Wife a good comedy, still worth a viewer's time? Well, in my opinion, "No." It's slapdash and perfunctory, perhaps reflecting the low morale of a studio on the verge of disbanding. There's very little here for anyone seeking laughs, although this movie may be of interest for historically-minded viewers, not because it's one of Sennett's last Keystone productions but because of the rather ugly picture it paints of American attitudes towards foreigners at a time of world crisis, six months after the U.S. had entered the Great War.

The story concerns a young couple, Gloria and Bobby. Bobby is in the Navy, and Gloria is the daughter of his commanding officer, who disapproves of the relationship for unexplained reasons. There's no explanation for Gloria's presence on this voyage with hundreds of sailors either, but then, the plots of Keystone comedies were never their selling point. As swiftly as possible it's established that Gloria and Bobby have landed together in India, where the rest of the U.S. Navy promptly vanishes until they're needed later on. It's too bad the filmmakers didn't concoct a more appropriate name for the exotic, sinister-looking place where the action is set -- something along the lines of Sylvania or Klopstokia -- because calling it "India" would be insulting if the movie weren't so lightweight. Let's just say that the story is set in Hollywood's idea of the Mysterious Orient, an imaginary land that looks as if it was designed by Dr. Seuss, where evil rajahs keep harems and the girls dance a lot. Bobby is immediately interested in flirting, and calls what the girls are doing "the Hindoo hop." The homely, buck-toothed rajah who is the villain of the piece sees Gloria and, of course, wants to add her to his collection, so he has one of his henchmen capture her by throwing a switch which opens a trapdoor underneath the bench where she's sitting. The switch is located inside a bust of a Buddha. That's right, a Buddha. Do you suspect that the people who made this movie didn't know much about India?

Eventually the plot goes out the funny-shaped window as the rest of the running time is taken up with chases, mistaken identity, and weak gags based on illogical behavior. Teddy the Keystone Dog, who was so memorable coming to the rescue in Teddy at the Throttle, reappears here to considerably less effect. It's typical of the sloppy film-making on display that when Teddy is shown running past the cyclorama, i.e. the familiar revolving background of trees seen in so many Sennett comedies, nobody cared that it looked nothing at all like the "India" where our story is supposedly set. But the most striking thing here is the depiction of the natives: "India," it seems, is made up of filthy beggars, sexy dancing girls, evil rulers and their henchmen. The second most striking thing here is that the story quickly becomes incoherent. Finally, as things get completely chaotic, American sailors show up with guns firing in all directions, mopping up the situation in customary fashion.

So, in short, The Sultan's Wife is hackwork. I suppose one shouldn't read too much into it, but considering the historical period when it was made it's hard not to draw parallels with contemporaneous American attitudes towards the outside world. After resisting for almost three years, the U.S. had been drawn into a "foreign" war, and our boys were being trained and sent Over There in large numbers. To a lot of Americans, the outside world was a nebulous concept -- vague, and scary. It's difficult for us to recapture the cultural isolation of that era, long before T.V. or the Internet or even radio were bringing information from around the world into most American homes. The "India" of this film wouldn't have looked at all ridiculous to a lot of unschooled viewers, and it may be worth pondering just how much misinformation about other cultures Americans have absorbed from the movies, even inconsequential short comedies such as The Sultan's Wife.

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