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A poor but honest young man wins the hand of a beautiful Princess after facing a series of exciting adventures involving apparitions, cartwheeling skeletons, a dragon, and plump dancing girls from the Folies Bergere. Written by
Georges Méliès' Palace of the Arabian Nights is one of the large scale fantasies produced by this pioneering filmmaker once he'd moved past his early, simple trick films. The great popularity of his Voyage Dans la Lune ("A Trip To The Moon") prompted the director to emphasize spectacle, with troops of actors in exotic costumes, painted scenery flying in and out, camera trickery, contortionists in animal suits, etc., and all of those elements are on display here. There's plenty to see, but I must admit I sometimes prefer those earlier films, even the ones where Méliès himself is simply standing on a stage performing his magic tricks for an unseen audience. Those first films are so engaging and fun, and convey a fresh excitement about the possibilities of the new medium which still comes across a century later. Audiences today certainly enjoy Voyage Dans la Lune, with its charming sets and dreamlike atmosphere, but even there one can see that handling actors was not the director's strong suit. We are carried along by the sheer novelty of the thing and the narrative momentum, not by the performers, who barely register as people.
Arabians Nights is enjoyable, but even Méliès' fans will concede that it has some drawbacks, deficiencies which suggest some of the reasons behind the director's eventual decline and fall from public favor in later years. From the beginning, the pace is slow and stately, and for long stretches we feel as if we're watching a stage pageant deprived of sound rather than a silent movie. Solemn actors march past while the static camera sits somewhere in the middle of the auditorium. It took me a while to figure out which actor is the protagonist (Hint: he's wearing a striped robe and has a big mustache), and there are no title cards to explain the action. I gather that when these films were first shown narration was delivered to help clarify the story, but that doesn't help us as we watch today. The story concerns a virtuous young nobleman who must endure various hardships in order to win the hand of the Princess he loves. Does this sound familiar? Well yes, but the action is so vague in the opening scenes that it takes a while for viewers to get their bearings, even alert and sympathetic viewers.
Nevertheless, Palace of the Arabian Nights has its moments, especially in the second half. There's an encounter with a fire-breathing dragon, a fight with skeletons which prefigures Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts, and transformations and other mystical effects along those lines. Méliès also liked to arrange dancing girls from the Folies-Bergère into picturesque configurations, like a Gallic Busby Berkeley, and several of these tableaux are presented here. This film is a pleasant diversion over all, but when we consider that Méliès' Star Film company continued to produce these pageant-like films year after year, recycling the same elements without developing or updating their cinematic technique any further, we start to understand why the company was out of business by 1914.
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