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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.
Here we go again: she's smarter, more tenacious, and of course more beautiful than anyone else. And boy, is she rugged too! This film is apparently a historically famous effort, but comes up short because there's not enough of the real star. We'll just have to take what we can get and be happy. (By the way, they've got the "Open O Sesame" bit all wrong--as Popeye showed us it's really "Open Sez Me!" And there's even a song about olive oil--but the wrong kind--they sing about the stuff you use for food, not the real Olive Oyl.)
Chu Chin Chow was a well-known stage musical that started during the
First World War years and lasted through the twenties and the thirties.
Then mention of it suddenly stopped and was heard of no more. Of the
songs used in the musical, only the Shoemaker's Song was catchy enough
to survive outside the musical, and was covered by all kinds of
musicians from trad jazz bands to Paul Robeson.
As others have said, the musical is set in Baghdad and is a variant of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The costumes are exaggerated, with grotesque turbans and fezzes.
What is unusual for a British film is that the background music is almost non-stop. Often the background music has nothing to do with what is happening in the scene, and is thus more like Muzak in a supermarket or an elevator. This was sometimes done in early thirties films by First National/Warner Brothers. This is the first time I have encountered this in a British film.
The orchestration is adventurous and the higher pitches feature unusual instruments. These include domras that tremolo in the string section, and - soloing in the woodwind - are a sopranino recorder, and even an ocarina, to accentuate clownishness. As big jars, each containing a thief, are rolled into a pit, we hear the timpani making a thunderous noise - inappropriate due to the size of the jars, but unbelievably effective.
With one exception, the singers are not very good. The exception is the Australian basso profondo, Malcolm McEacharn, who is billed as "Jetsam," because he was a member of the Flotsam and Jetsam duo. An exceptionally rich and powerful voice that can reach down, down, down to depths that a basso cantate like myself can only dream about.
I have never seen anything quite like this in a British film of the period.
This movie is adapted from the incredibly popular British musical stage show that had over two thousand performance on the London stage. It's based on the Ali Baba and Forty Thieves story. The sets are lavish and highly stylized and a large number of extras are used - the production values in this movie are stunning. The uncut 102 minute version is available from VCI Entertainment - it's a very good print. For me, the major reasons for seeing this film are that it is of such historical importance and that it features Anna May Wong. It was nice seeing her in such a prestigious film. That said, some of the acting was overdone and not really suitable for film, although undoubtedly fine for the stage. It's purely a matter of taste but I didn't find the story interesting or the music memorable or enjoyable. I think the movie is too long and slow going. I probably should have watched the 78 minute version - which VCI includes with the uncut version set.
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