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Aesop is the hero of odd historical romance in Technicolor
NIGHT IN PARADISE (1946) takes place in the kingdom of Lydia, governed by mad King Croesus, in 560 B.C. and involves a visit to the King by Aesop, the famed spinner of fables, who serves as ambassador from Samos. Aesop falls for the King's intended bride, the Persian princess, Delerai, who also falls for him, and complications ensue. Things get dicey for Aesop when the King is urged by his high priests to attack and conquer Samos and he must use his wits to avert disaster. Turhan Bey, star of several exotic Universal B-movies, plays Aesop, while the beautiful Anglo-Indian star, Merle Oberon, plays Delerai. Thomas Gomez perks things up with a lively performance as the lusty and temperamental King Croesus. Gale Sondergaard plays a scorned sorceress who influences the outcome of things by making mystical appearances in mirrors and steam baths to taunt both Croesus and Aesop. In most of Aesop's scenes, Bey plays the character in old-age makeup, coming out of it first at the 43-minute mark for his "night in paradise" scene with Oberon.
This is a rare medium-budget foray by Hollywood into the societies of Ancient Greece and Asia Minor and, as far as I can tell, the only Hollywood film about Aesop. It's a romantic drama, with a bit of court intrigue thrown in, and doesn't have much in the way of excitement. Produced by Walter Wanger (ARABIAN NIGHTS) for Universal Pictures, it's got lavish production design and beautiful, well-mounted sets, all photographed in gorgeous Technicolor by the eminent team of Hal Mohr and W. Howard Greene. Considering that Universal never made a big-budget spectacle in all the years of its heyday (not until SPARTACUS in 1960, that is), the evocation of the ancient world here, as seen in its sprawling cities, spacious temples and luxurious palaces, is quite effective for the budget they were given, $1.6 million, a high amount at the time for Universal, but medium for any other studio. (Despite the effort, the film lost money for the studio.)
Unfortunately, the script doesn't provide much in the way of compelling drama, nor much in the way of Aesop's fabled storytelling gifts. He tells one tale, making up a metaphor on the spot for the king, the princess and himself (as a grasshopper), to get himself out of a jam, but it's not a real Aesop's fable. He spews out a lot of flowery love talk to the princess and gives the King lectures on his ethics and behavior, but it's never terribly interesting. The extended nighttime love scene with Merle Oberon in her most seductive finery could have been hot stuff indeed, had it featured a more viable male lead than Turhan Bey, who may have been sincere but lacks the vigor and passion needed to strike the sparks necessary to bring it off. Had this film included some action scenes, it might have made a suitable star vehicle for Jon Hall and Maria Montez, Universal's star duo of mid-budget Technicolor historical romps (ARABIAN NIGHTS, ALI BABA AND THE 40 THIEVES, SUDAN). Interestingly, Bey does a somewhat better job in his romantic scenes with Montez in SUDAN, also reviewed on this site.
I saw this in a cut TV print, courtesy of syndicator King World Productions, taped off broadcast TV many years ago. The print was dark and grainy and a pale echo of how the film must have looked when seen on the big screen some 64 years ago. I had to view the tape on different monitors to find one with the right brightness level to offer even a hint of its original Technicolor glory. While it's not a particularly good film, I would love to see a restored print just so I can revel in all the splendid Technicolor imagery.
ADDENDUM (Feb. 19, 2012): This film ran on Turner Classic Movies on January 17, 2012, so I finally got to see it uncut. There is, for instance, a very cute and beautifully shot early scene involving attractive serving girls wading in a pool in Croesus' palace that was cut from the earlier showing. Also, a singer named Juli Lynne performs the title song in a lovely festive palace sequence in the film. The quality of the cablecast was a considerable improvement over the local TV broadcast from the mid-1980s that I'd originally taped, yet the print was not much better than the one I first saw. It was much too dark and, as a result, a little soft. I don't believe an original 35mm print of the movie would have been this dark. I'd still love to see a new Technicolor print of this.
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