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This one works in all departments a 1930's British film of a British
stage musical that ran from 1916 to 1920 the sheer artistry involved
in this production disguised the staidly primitive techniques. And the
production is breathtaking at times it shows just what can be
achieved with a little money but plenty of intelligence. George Robey,
three decades past his Prime Minister Of Mirth heyday was perfect in
the main role of Ali Baba. Just in case you ever wonder: even when
young he never had a singing voice, it was his down to Earth silliness
playing with words that endeared him to British Music Hall audiences.
It's the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and his sudden rise to wealth and power, from the finding of their cave and robbing the robbers of their treasures. The magnificent Chu Chin Chow of the title and his coterie travelling to Baghdad are reduced to dust in double quick time, leading to the imposture by Abu Hasan and his Thieves at the court of Kasim Baba. The sets are astounding, probably gossamer but believable. Fritz Kortner as Head Thief is suitably savage, and Anna May Wong (again playing the treacherous insider, as in Fairbanks' Thief Of Bagdad) as his slave is in a difficult position for the entire film. Along the way are some lovely songs: The Cobblers Song, the incredibly romantic Corraline (sung in the sparkling "moonlight" to every camera angle imaginable), I Love Thee So (languid and atmospheric photography) but especially the gorgeous Any Time's Kissing Time. Robey and Thelma Tuson gave it their all and succeeded in creating the most delicious idiotic/romantic 2 minutes in film history just look at the slaves laughing in the background!
It's one of the best British films from the decade even so I don't expect UK TV to ever show it again, but it's one I trot out on video to watch every few years with no loss of enjoyment. It might have been better in Technicolor because a lot of people who might have liked it today could be put off by the black and white photography. But if you can sink into the first 10 minutes or so you'll find a little gem worth the taking.
This film would have been shown in New Zealand when I was about 7 or 8 I'm now 78. There are some films from that era that stand out in my mind and this is one of them. I must have seen thousands of films since, 95% now forgotten but I always remembered Chu Chin Chow and have waited for it in vain on TCM. Checked it out on Amazon and there it was on DVD, it arrived this morning and I have watched it in full. I'm not disappointed. It is hard to believe that this was a British production because it is way up there with the best of the Americans of the era. George Robey is great and Anna May Wong a gem. It is a DVD I'll watch more than once.
CHU CHIN CHOW (1934) is one of the best films from Anna May Wong's British
period. Disappointed that her career had been stuck in a succession of
oriental vamp roles, she went to Europe and accepted an invitation from E.
A. Dupont (director of VARIETY with Emil Jannings) to do PICCADILLY.
First filmed in 1925 with Betty Blythe, CHU CHIN CHOW is the Arabian Nights story of Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves, with musical numbers as you might expect to see them in a British music hall of the era---------including some pre-Busby Berkeley choreography. It was London's longest running musical and is given an elaborate screen adaptation. The production boasts sumptuous sets and lush cinematography, meant to suggest the Western view of the mysterious orient, and has a lavishness usually missing from the films of depression era Britain. The choreography, while interesting as a record of the time period, gave Busby Berkeley few sleepless nights.
An international cast, with wildly varying accents, lent CHU CHIN CHOW an odd otherworldly flavor, which fit nicely with the Arabian Nights fantasy. Besides the very beautiful and American Anna May Wong, the role of Ali Baba is played by comedian George Robey, known in Great Britain as "the Prime Minister of Mirth."
Austrian born Fritz Kortner brought a malicious enthusiasm to the role of Abu Hassan, the bandit chief. Kortner plays the part with his usual over-the-top expressionist style-------almost as if he were a very wicked little boy----------cruel and murderous one moment, cuddly and boyish the next. It was only in his American films that he approached a role with anything like restraint. He had been something of a popular curiosity in Europe for staging "eccentric" versions of Shakespeare. His right hand man in the film is Dennis Hoey, best known to American audiences as the baffled and long-suffering Inspector Lestrade opposite Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes.
Pearl Argyle, one of the most beautiful leading ladies in British films, has the romantic lead of Marjanah, but is best known for her appearance as Katherine Cabal opposite Raymond Massey in THINGS TO COME. The part of Abdullah, the singer with the very low voice, is the famous Mr. Jetsam (Malcolm McEachern), the deeper half of the popular singing duo of Flotsam and Jetsam.
Most amusing of all, though, is Francis L. Sullivan, who specialized in comically pompous and officious types, playing the Caliph toward the end of the film. The famous story told about him is from the early days when British television was still live. He was reputedly playing a passenger on a plane in flight, but had evidently forgotten his lines. On camera, he blithely ad-libbed to the passenger next to him, "Excuse me, this is my stop" and left the set. But whatever his eccentricities, he and his broad girth gave an immensely enjoyable performance in one of the most fondly remembered British films of the 30's.
Sumptuous British Gainsborough Pictures production with a huge budget
for its day ($500K) plays a lot like a cross between THE THIEF OF
BAGHDAD and KISMET all bumbling through meters of silk and pearls on
their way to a Gilbert and Sullivan convention.
Anna Mae Wong is just so beautiful and this very funny - delicious- farce is a pleasure to watch. Often referred to as an antique musical in that creaky British manner of 30s films - it is actually a lot better than that and viewers will find the whole concoction quite intoxicating. I am sure it did influence Hollywood and had Selznick known it was possible to make such a lavish fantasy musical I am sure he would have made in color too. Instead he made THE GARDEN OF ALLAH which this gives more than a veiled nod towards. Of course if Howard Hughes press-ganged RKO onto it we would have got ...huh? we did? oh yes...THE SON OF SINBAD. Chu Chin is good Chow. Enjoy!
The sets are wonderful, there are songs popping up in the least expected places, the direction has a verve rarely seen elsewhere in British film and the story is adapted with guts and no fear that restraint (any) must be employed as it usually is, it seems necessarily, in British film. It's a film which goes all the way in all departments, astonishing for any age let alone for 1934, just a year after Korda's Private Lives of Henry VIII had opened things up a bit for Britfilm. It is an Arabian Nights fable, a better fantasy film even than Michael Powells (and others) Thief of Bagdad. WHY IS THIS FILM UNAVAILABLE ON VHS???? NOW THAT SOME LACK OF RESTRAINT IS ALLOWED AND POWELL AND PRESSBURGER CAN BE RECOGNISED AS GREATS, WHAT ABOUT THIS ONE WHERE ALL RESTRAINT IS THROWN OFF??
Think of Michael Powell/the Korda brothers' Thief of Bagdad but better, even! An Arabian nights adventure but no stops for spectacle, rather a seamless story and an unrestrained telling almost unprecedented in British film. The sets are wonderful, there are songs popping up in the least expected places, the direction has a verve rarely seen elsewhere in British film and the story is adapted with guts and no fear that restraint (any) must be employed, as it usually is, it seems neccesarily, in British film. It's a film which goes all the way in all departments, astonishing for any age let alone for 1934, just a year after Korda's Private Lives of Henry VIII had opened things up a bit for Britfilm.
With an enjoyable old-fashioned mix of humor, melodrama, musical, and
pageantry, this adaptation of the stage show "Chu Chin Chow" is still
well worth seeing. It does a good job for its time of blending
everything together with a consistent pace and without any dull
stretches. It makes good use of the Arabian Nights' story setting,
while not taking itself too seriously.
The plot is based on the well-known story of Ali Baba contending with Abu Hasan and his cave full of thieves and cutthroats. George Robey as Ali Baba and Fritz Kortner as Hasan both seem to be having a good time, and they give pleasantly exaggerated performances, slightly over-emphasizing their expressions and their characters' traits.
But the star of the cast is Anna May Wong, who plays a slave girl who spies on behalf of Hasan. The role offers little challenge for someone of Wong's considerable acting talents, but it gives her a chance to grab numerous scenes. She gives her character a formidable presence and a very attractive appearance that make her the center of attention when she is on the screen.
Overall, it's nothing to take seriously, but it is very good escapist entertainment for those who enjoy the movies of the era. There was also an American release, "Ali Baba Nights", which cut out the musical numbers and some other material, giving it a quicker pace but a less lavish style, without quite as much atmosphere.
I knew of this Oriental musical adventure (produced by the pioneering
Michael Balcon and already filmed as a Silent), but wasn't aware that
it was directly inspired by the Arabian Nights fable of Ali Baba And
The Forty Thieves (in spite of its being retitled ALI BABA NIGHTS; more
on this later). The current title is rather misleading, as it gives one
the impression of being set in China and especially since the
character of Chu-Chin-Chow himself, a Chinese merchant, is only a minor
one. Besides, being a British film from the early Talkie era, I fully
expected it to be a stodgy affair merely "a curiosity", as Leslie
Halliwell called it. However, I found it an enthralling and highly
enjoyable piece of work and still pretty much a unique entertainment
after all these years.
Incidentally, prior to viewing the film I re-read DVD Savant's review (if anything to ascertain myself that it was fitting Christmas fare) I was quite intrigued by Glenn Erickson's comments (sharing his view of the ornate sets as being a particular standout), but also ended up disagreeing with his opinion about the static quality of the cinematography as I actually felt that Max Greene's camera was reasonably mobile throughout. Being undeniably archaic by today's standards, the songs, Busby Berkeley-ish dance numbers, and the comedy and romance elements are all a matter of taste in fact, they constitute the film's main source of longueurs, if still intrinsically charming ingredients of the whole package. On the other hand, it turned out to be surprisingly bloodthirsty for what was essentially popular entertainment! The plot has been opened up from the traditional story, while also making Ali Baba a coward but this is the still the most satisfying version I've watched, certainly the most fascinating (for various reasons).
The villain is played by Fritz Kortner (looking like a flabbier, less handsome version of Douglas Fairbanks at times and a Wallace Beery-lookalike at others, but with a voice sounding uncannily like that of Otto Preminger!), gives an entertainingly ripe performance witness his orgasmic thirsting for Ali Baba's blood as he lays out his plans for the final assault (he's even made to don a number of clever disguises throughout). The formidable Anna May Wong has a relatively small role but is quite impressive nonetheless. George Robey's Ali Baba, then, is accompanied by a comically somnolent theme tune every time he appears; I'd only seen his brief performance in Laurence Olivier's Shakespearian adaptation of HENRY V (1944), but I can see how the actor's amiable brand of fooling would be lapped up by audiences of the time incidentally, I need to pick up his DON QUIXOTE (1933) on DVD, a film directed by German émigré G.W. Pabst (with whom Kortner himself had made the seminal PANDORA'S BOX ). Lovely Pearl Argyle isn't the typically bland damsel-in-distress, but rather a resourceful heroine; Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade of the modernized Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series) is Kortner's second-in-command; Francis L. Sullivan is very amusing as the perennially bored Caliph, who's then overjoyed when Abu Hasan's plans are foiled in his presence thinking that it was all part of the evening's entertainment as prepared by Ali Baba!; Malcolm McEachern billed simply as Jetsam! is the burly majordomo with a baritone voice who acts as Chorus throughout.
Curiously enough, a full 19 years later it was re-issued in the U.S. by Robert Lippert in a much shorter version (reduced from 102 minutes to 76!) retitled ALI BABA NIGHTS this version is available on Disc 2 of VCI's surprising 3-Disc Set of CHU-CHIN-CHOW, and accompanied by the Popeye ALI BABA short I viewed recently. Ironically, this re-edit is presented in a better-looking print than the 'original' but the image has been zoomed-in somewhat; many of the songs have been dropped (making the few that remain feel somewhat incongruous), though not the various dances; the romantic subplots are diminished, and so is the role of Robey's elderly wife and plump lover; ditto the allusion during the final banquet to The Caliph's vindictive treatment of disappointing hosts; some of the edits, however, are clumsily done especially the death scene of Robey's brother, which is interrupted half-way through!
One last word: Fritz Kortner followed this with another exotic melodrama, the even better-regarded ABDUL THE DAMNED (1935) which has been thoughtfully included by VCI in this set (see below for my comments about that film).
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