‘Many years ago in Baghdad, a maiden postponed her execution for ‘a thousand and one nights’ by telling a Sultan a different story each night…’
So begins Alfred E. Green’s A Thousand and One Nights, a light-hearted, satirical re-think of the classic swashbuckler genre. The opening preface foreshadows the fantastical rhetoric tall-story that pervades most of film. Of course, all cinema requires a suspension of belief, but Green challenges the audience to truly immerse themselves in a lavish world of make-believe that’s populated with magical lamps, brave heroes, beautiful princesses, treasure and a supporting cast wonderfully (un)dressed by costume designer Jean Louis.
A deliberate attempt to capitalise on the success of Universal’s 1930s swashbucklers, producer Samuel Bischoff threw exotic locations (or at least the appearance of them), a not inconsiderable budget and a talented script-writing trio at the production. By 1945 (the year A Thousand and One Nights was released) it’s likely that audiences were tiring if the genre (the popular Thief of Baghdad was released in 1940), so perhaps Bischoff was attempting to divert attention from a tired trope with comedy and visual razzle-dazzle. If the movie is considered on those merits alone it’s a resounding success. In a contemporary take on a (fairly) classic story, the script is awash with 1940s references that were surely inserted to offer a point of identification for audiences; it’s a historical fable with a resoundingly modern feel. That extends to the characters too – forget magic carpets, talking animals and flying horses – this fairy-tale land is populated with elegant females.
The plot is fairly sparse: Aladdin (Cornel Wilde) is a charming vagabond who dares to fall in love with the Sultan’s daughter (Adele Jergens). Somewhat inevitably, trouble ensues – Aladdin resourcefully attempts to navigate his way out of it with a magic lamp which, when rubbed, dispels an impish female genie (Evelyn Keyes) who’s not all she seems and actually results in more trouble.
Wilde was well cast as the romantic lead. Fresh from his performance in A Song to Remember (which garnered him a Best Actor nomination), his athleticism (Wilde was on the US Olympic fencing team) is the perfect foil to Phil Silvers’ buffoon-ish sidekick. The comedian, who wears horn-rimmed glasses throughout, isn’t the comic star of the show though – that accolade surely belongs to Evelyn Keyes, whose performance is easy, natural and spontaneous but was never allowed to reach her full potential, kept in the side-lines with lightweight gags that mostly revolve around keeping the romantic leads apart.
Though A Thousand and One Nights was only Jean Louis’ seventh film, he was confident enough to bring an understated elegance to the production. Of course, it’s a Technicolor film, but it’s Louis’ costumes that introduce a real rainbow spectrum, uplifting shades that are used gladly and with bold abandon. There’s a lot of sheer lightweight fabric that suits the supposed climate but might have been necessitated by the rationing of fabric, a directive implemented by the US Government in 1942, an attempt to conserve resources in the light of WWII. Most of the costumes have a lot of fabric, but it’s mostly lightweight chiffons and there are no unnecessary pleats, ruffles and frills. Several aspects of the costume – notably the colour palette – recall Edith Head’s designs for Samson and Delilah (1949). Jean Louis, who joined Columbia in 1944, was swiftly promoted to head designer following the departure of Travis Banton. The costumes for A Thousand and One Nights were designed the year before Jean Louis designed that dress for Rita Hayworth in Gilda, and before he was given the ‘Gowns by Jean Louis’ moniker.
Despite the played-for-laughs, escapist aspects of the film, A Thousand and One Nights feels surprisingly polished. It’s not on the scale of The Thief of Baghdad for example, but the art direction, sets and costumes all help to elevate the movie to something close to an epic – in fact, the movie was nominated for Best Art Direction (Interior Decoration, Color) and Best Special Effects in 1946. It might sacrifice substance of frivolity and style but that’s not to the film’s detriment and is probably the reason it remains a favourite for moviegoers who like their cinema with a slice of unsophisticated nostalgia.