I’m hereby declaring a new film genre: the Harem film. I don’t know if it’s been officially designated yet, so I’m tossing the first veil into the ring. I realize that harem movies are probably not the most politically correct type of film to enjoy, but I like them. They’re farces, with all the fun features of classic farce: hide-n-seek action, use of disguises, confusion between the sexes, double entrendres, double takes, and girls. And speed. Everyone runs around like Charley Chase with his pants on fire, and it all ends happily. And I’m fine with happy endings. Not everything has to end like a Jacobean tragedy, the skies darkening with blood and any survivors lugging the guts from the room. Harem films are like cotton candy for the mind. I know, cotton candy is empty calories, but when seeking relief on a humid August night in an apartment lacking AC, I won’t grouse.
So when did these deep thoughts on harem movies begin? With a movie, of course. A while back I discovered a film on YouTube called Babes in Bagdad, which, as it happens, takes place in a harem. I know what you’re all asking: did I watch it (your nostrils curling with horror)? Readers, I jumped on it. Even though the upload looked as if it came out of someone’s decades-old stash of six-degrees-of-copying-from-television VHS tapes—you know, where the print is so bleached out it looks like it’s been shot through Mr. Kane’s snow-globe. It would have taken the combined power of a Mack truck and a herd of stampeding pachyderms to keep me from watching something that sounds like a Bowery Boys flick mated with a Maria Montez extravaganza.
I sense a collective brow-wrinkling out there in Internet land. Hmmm, Babes in Bagdad—isn’t that the Something that starred Someone, about Something-or-Other, and wasn’t there Some picture of it Somewhere? I know the Something you’re all thinking of: Bride of Bagdad, that never-seen masterpiece produced by Oscar Jaffe for his light ‘o love Lily Garland. There’s even a poster for it. (Based on just that, it looks like it might’ve been a honey.) I’ve always been curious about that unseen production. Per the glimpses we’re given of Jaffe’s other plays, I’ve an idea how this one might go. Something about poor little lost Betty Lou showing up at the harem one dark and stormy night. Selling olives, of course (when she isn’t tripping over chalk marks).
No, Babes in Bagdad is not Bride of Bagdad. It doesn’t even have olives. But it does have Paulette Goddard and Gypsy Rose Lee, and it’s directed by Edgar Ulmer. Wow, I hear you all saying, Wotta combination! (Yes, I can hear what you’re saying out there in cyberspace; my blog’s built that way.) A cult director, a beautiful movie star, and a famous strip-ah-artiste—as well as harems—it just can’t miss, can it? Quick, you all cry, where’s the link?
Well, two things. First, some sad news. Babes in Bagdad is no longer on YouTube. Evil third-party copyrighters seem to have got ahold of it, and now it’s gone, vanished, disappeared, vamoosed, fallen off the cliff. A check on Amazon shows that the film has apparently never been out on home video; nor is it due for a viewing on TCM. So, for the time being, it’s wandering in that limbo of the lost, where decrepit, decayed, forgotten, misplaced, and hazily copyrighted movies circulate like celluloid Flying Dutchmen. You all must be gnashing your teeth with frustration at that. (I know you’re gnashing, I can hear that, too.)
I do sympathize. There’s nothing like the agony of the bereft classic-film fan, deprived of seeing some lost cinematic gem. I’m one of those lucky few, I guess—like those once privileged a peek at the lost reels of Greed; or granted a glimpse of London After Midnight (the moving picture, not the stills); or the truly blessed who snaffled a sneak of Convention City. I, too, can now declare that I’ve been sanctioned a sight of Paradise: I have seen Babes in Bagdad. Something to tell the historians about in my old age. (Although Babes in Bagdad is not exactly lost or destroyed or shoved in the back of a drawer in a disused bureau in someone’s attic; it’s just temporarily departed from circulation. The more ambitious of you can vote at the TCM site to have it released on DVD. I’m number 16 on the list.)
Anyway, all you gnashers may want to spare the teeth enamel. I have even sadder news. Honesty compels me to admit that Babes in Bagdad isn’t very good. It’s a mild little comedy from 1952, about two harem ladies outwitting the harem ruler (harem husband?) by proving that women are just as smart as men. The story was already old hat when Rossini sent his Italian Woman to Algiers. That piece had the advantage of Rossini’s music. Babes in Bagdad, however, has an air of had-and-been. Miss Goddard tries her darndest to pump up the action, as if we’re back in 1939 and she’s still romping with Rosalind Russell at that dude-divorce ranch; only it’s some thirteen years later, and everyone, including Paulette, is a bit past romping days. Miss Lee (who curiously resembles Russell) gives some of her lines a vinegary spritz, but she often looks a tad weary, as if she’s realized she’s too grown-up for this and has something better to do.
I hate to blame poor Mr. Ulmer, who had enough problems scraping a living out of Hollywood, but he’s the last guy I’d think of for directing a harem movie. Ulmer is the cult director supreme, the poverty-row genius who made the ultimate fate-is-out-to-screw-you film noir, Detour. He also directed the perverse and deliriously Art Deco-ed horror classic The Black Cat (1934), which features Boris Karloff staging a Satanic Mass in what looks like a Bauhaus-styled dormitory for dominatrixes. Ulmer had cinematic flair, all right, just not for cheese with cheesecake. He does manage one astonishing feat in this film, though, and that’s to draw a humorous performance out of John Boles as the harem master. Considering that any Boles performance is pretty much a 90-minute-long pained expression, that’s an accomplishment. The rest of the movie, however, is basically a 90-minute-long meh.
How hard is it to make a harem film? I mean, veils and girls, what’s so tough about that? The plot can write itself, and it wouldn’t break any studio budget. And how hard is it to cast? Gosh, Maria Montez practically cornered the cinematic harem at Universal, all by her auburn-haired-and-peach-skinned self. But you don’t need La Montez. Joan Davis did a harem film, Harem Girl, in 1952 (must’ve been a boon year for harem flicks), in which she’s the “Houri from Missouri” leading the harem on strike (as an old union maid, I must see this one someday). Shirley MacLaine pops up (and I do mean pops!) in John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!, hootchying to a kootchy version of the Notre Dame fight song. And MGM, of all studios, made a harem film, or at least let their premises be used for one. Starring Abbott and Costello, and called, appropriately enough, Lost in a Harem, it plays like a gussied-up Universal effort. A&C were Universal contractees, but were loaned for one picture a year to MGM. My guess is that the A&C presence gave MGM an outsider excuse to indulge in Harem cinema. The film has the usual A&C burlesque routines, songs and dances, and dumb gags that you will either like or not, depending on your A&C tolerance (I own a well-watched DVD of this movie, so mine is pretty high).
I’ve some modest ideas of my own on how to make a Harem movie. And, as produced under the old studio system, I think it’d be a whopper. I even know the director I’d choose: Billy Wilder. When you think of it, Wilder’s greatest farce, Some Like It Hot, could, with a few tweaks, easily become a harem opus. You’ve already got a blonde (Monroe), a great guys-in-drag set-up, and the mad, giddy, non-stop pacing, like The Three Stooges let loose on the Coney Island Cyclone. What I’d do is make the all-girls band an all-girls dance troupe instead. Call it the Hollywood Haremettes (Seven Veils a Specialty), cast it in a summer-stock staging of The Abduction From the Seraglio, then bring in the two men on the lam and disguise them as dancing girls, et voilà—Some Like It Hotter in the Harem. Just change Joe E. Brown from a drunken millionaire on vacation to a drunken millionaire backing the production, and have him nose around backstage, pinching Jack Lemmon’s veiled ass as he tries to persuade him to take it all off. Then the finalé, mixing girls, gangsters, and gats with Mozart, music, and mayhem, for your socko finish. “Nobody’s perfect,” says Brown as Lemmon removes his last veil; but I guarantee you this movie will be.
You’re all now collectively pursing your lips (that’s right, I can also see you in cyberspace). Do we, you’re saying, want to tamper with an established movie classic? Maybe we don’t. It might be smarter to begin from the beginning. And if you’re gonna have music, then make a musical; none of this highbrow classical stuff. Ok, ok. Maybe do it as one of Darryl Zanuck’s glitzy, gaudy Fox musicals, staged with the full Technicolor panoply: plush purples, blinding whites, electric blues, acid greens, and flaming-lipstick reds—the more it look like an explosion in a tutti-frutti ice cream factory, the better. Instead of one blonde, we’ll have two, Alice Faye and Betty Grable, as a hootchy-kootch sister act looking to escape the harem and get into show-biz.
That’s when Don Ameche and John Payne show up, as a down-and-out songwriting team hoping to produce a show called Ali Baba Goes to Broadway, for which they just happen to have a hootchy-kootch song (“I Found My Dream in the Sultan’s Hareem”) that only needs some oomph to put it over. Everything’s resolved when Grand Vizier Charlotte Greenwood suggests to harem husband Edward Everett Horton that they stage the show in the harem, using the local talent. The highlight would be the Carmen Miranda number. I insist on that. All stops must be pulled here. The lights go up, the samba music starts, and out struts Carmen, in seven veils, eight-inch platforms, and a ten-foot topping of dates, pomegranates, and bananas. Sheer heaven. And if Zanuck could squeeze in the Ritz Brothers roller-skating to “The Streets of Cairo,” I know I could leave the theater happy.
Now you’re all shaking your heads. I know, I know—for the full harem effect, you need to make it pre-Code. As pre as possible. Done at Warner Bros. and directed by Busby Berkeley, a man who had harems in his blood. Take a number like “By a Waterfall”: it’s really a harem fantasy, with water substituting for veils and cushions. Think what Berkeley could do with the veils, anyway. Or with the girls. Or with the overhead shots. Or with the whole pre-Code-ness of it. Casting is (as they say in pre-Code-ese) a cinch. You get Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell as two fast-talking dames from Schenectady who end up stranded in Bagdad after their vaudeville act goes bust. Between them they’ve got 17 cents and the clothes they stand in, but a gal’s gotta eat and, hey, it’s the Depression, dearie; so they sneak into a harem to get a square meal.
Then blustery, befuddled harem ruler Guy Kibbee is told by Grand Vizier Ned Sparks that the harem is broke and they need to find some rich nobs with gobs of greenbacks they’re just cryin’ to give away (“Nobs, nobs,” grumbles Ned between chomps on his cigar, “can’t you hear ‘em wailing?”). So off they go to the Bagdad harem convention, where they meet nobby businessman Warren William as the Belly Button King (Motto: “A Button For Every Belly”), a guy with a lotta moolah and several eyes and hands for the ladies. Everything goes swimmingly until Chief Eunuch Hugh Herbert (somehow I picture the Chief Eunuch as the perfect Hugh Herbert role) puts the kibosh on, insisting that all bellies must be—er, buttoned. However, Glenda and Joan save the day by tying Hugh up in all those wet veils he tried to throw on them; and then it’s on to the big Berkeley number, the camera pulling back and back until all you see is a swath of veils in the shape of the Warner Bros. shield. I’ve got a great title for it: Babes in Convention City. Terrif, isn’t it? (Though I’ve this strange feeling it might’ve already been used elsewhere…)
OK, you’re sneering, what about a real challenge? What about—MGM? Clean, upright, four-square MGM. The one studio I don’t see cottoning to a harem film. True, it did put out Lost in a Harem, but I think that film was an outlier, a Universal-manqué movie meant to capitalize on a hot comedy team. If I say “MGM,” do you say “Abbott and Costello”? Or “harem”? No, you think Andy Hardy, you think clean and wholesome and Louis B. Mayer standing up for God, Mother, and Apple Pie. MGM was Class; it produced elegantly tasteful films and family-safe entertainments, neither of which caters to the singular affinities of us harem-viewing aficionados, who tend toward beer and popcorn on Saturday nights. (Besides, who at MGM could star in a harem movie? Norma Shearer? Oh, no, NO.)
I think I have it, though. If MGM ever wanted to produce its own, honest-to-God harem film, it would tone down the cheese quotient. No veils; no belly buttons; no hootching or kootching. As I see it, you’d have a King-And-I-meets-The-Sheik storyline, in which our extremely respectable heroines, Greer Garson and Edna May Oliver, who are so upright they can barely sit down in their starched crinolines, come to educate the harem wives in good manners and high-necked clothing. (“Myyyyy word,” mutters a disapproving Edna as she surveys all those nearly bared belly buttons.) Robert Taylor would be the harem ruler, the twist being that he’s not a real harem ruler at all, but a regular, clean-living, all-American guy. He’s actually inherited the harem from his crusty-but-soft-hearted old uncle Wallace Beery, who himself won the harem in an all-night poker game aboard a tramp steamer run by crusty-but-soft-hearted old captain Lionel Barrymore.
Being that neither crusty-but-soft-hearted old geezer knows what the hell to do with a harem (all right, so Wally Beery would know what to do with a harem, but I am trying to keep it clean here), the uncle passes the whole thing onto the nephew, who, with good old American know-how, converts the harem into a capitalist American enterprise by teaching the ladies to knit turtleneck sweaters. This virtuous endeavor so melts Garson’s starchy heart that she marries Taylor and moves back with him, along with girls, sweaters, and knitting needles, to the Midwest town of Carvel, where they set up their own ready-to-wear clothing business, and where, lo and behold! they meet the regular, clean-living, all-American Hardy family, who cotton to the harem girls right away; and then we’ll get a bunch of sequels in which Andy Hardy tangles with various harem babes, played by various MGM starlets, but all of it kept wholesome and proper with nary a belly button in sight, only I guess Lana Turner could almost bare one, being that she’s Lana Turner, just so long as the rest of her stays buttoned up and doesn’t upset Louis B. Mayer’s apple-pie cart…
And if I can think of a way of getting Norma Shearer in there, I will definitely slip her in.
BONUS CLIP: Looks like Fox got there ahead of me, harem-wise. Here’s a clip of “The Sheik of Araby” number from Fox’s Tin Pan Alley (1940). Featured are the Nicholas Brothers, Betty Grable, Alice Faye, and darling Billy Gilbert as a “Bagdad daddy”: