New This Week
Aladdin, Disney’s latest live-action version of one of its animated classics to hit the home video market, is a film I wasn’t expecting much from given its mostly negative reviews but was instead pleasantly surprised to find that I liked it.
Most of the negative reviews of the film come from comparing it to Disney’s 1992 animated version but my go-to version of the Arabian Nights story is 1940’s live-action The Thief of Bagdad, which was a remake of the 1924 silent classic of the same name. Although the stories are somewhat different, I find the live-action version of Aladdin closer in spirit to The Thief of Bagdad than Disney’s animated version, which may be why I liked it.
The principal characters in Aladdin are the titled orphan thief, his monkey Abu, the princess Jasmine, the evil Jafar, and a Genie who grants Aladdin three wishes. In one of the wishes, Aladdin is turned into a prince. In the more complex The Thief of Bagdad, the thief isn’t Aladdin but a younger orphan named Abu who is turned into a dog by Jaffar (with two f’s), the evil Grand Vizier who is plotting to become the next sultan. The prince is a separate character. In Aladdin, Abu the monkey is temporarily turned into other animals by the Genie, not Jafar whose name is now spelled with one “f”.
In the 1940 version, Conrad Veidt as Jaffar and Sabu as Abu have top billing with John Justin as the prince, June Duprez as the princess, and Rex Ingram as the Genie also in starring roles. In Disney’s animated Aladdin, it’s the Genie voiced by Robin Williams who dominates. In the live-action version, the Genie is played by Will Smith, but Smith is less dominant in the role, which to me is a good thing. It gives the other actors a chance to make more of an impression in their roles. Smith, as well as Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott as the princess, Jasmime, are equally fine as actors, singers, and dancers. Marwan Kenzari makes an interesting Jafar under the direction of Guy Ritchie (The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ).
Both version of Aladdin are available in various home video formats. The Thief of Bagdad is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
Kino Lorber continues its dominance in the Blu-ray upgrade market with three John Wayne films from 1942 and two cold war thrillers from the mid-1960s.
After the success of 1939’s Stagecoach and 1940’s The Long Voyage Home, Wayne was a major star but not yet a top ranked one. Second-billed to Ray Milland in Reap the Wild Wind, he had the lead role in both The Spoilers and Pittsburgh but was third-billed in both behind Marlene Dietrich and Randolph Scott.
Cecil B. DeMille’s hugely successful Reap the Wild Wind, based on a Saturday Evening Post story, was released in March 1942. It featured Wayne as a sea captain and Milland as a ship’s owner vying for the affections of Paulette Goddard as a strong-willed southern belle in the mode of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, a constant reminder that Goddard was about to go before the cameras as Scarlett when Vivien Leigh was cast in the role at the last moment. She is the true star of the film.
The outstanding supporting cast includes Raymond Massey, Robert Preston, Lynne Overman, Susan Hayward, Walter Hampden, and Louise Beavers. The film’s climax, which took two months to film, is a fight to the death between Wayne, Milland, and a giant squid. It was a box-office phenomenon in the day. Wayne received top billing in the film’s 1954 re-release and formerly seventh-billed Hayward was given second billing in conjunction with their then star status with Milland and Goddard reduced to third and fourth billing.
The Spoilers was the fourth of five film versions of Rex Beach’s 1906 novel set in 1900 amidst the Nome Gold Rush which lasted from 1989 to 1909. In the previous versions, William Farnum in the 1913 silent, Milton Sills in the 1924 silent, and Gary Cooper in the 1930 talkie, were all billed first. Cooper, in fact, had solo over-the-title billing. Dietrich, who starred opposite Cooper in 1930’s Morocco was in career limbo when 1939’s Destry Rides Again opposite James Stewart revived her career. She plays a slight variation on that character in The Spoilers. Randolph Scott plays the subsidiary role of the film’s principal villain. The 1955 remake gave top billing to Anne Baxter in Dietrich’s role, but Jeff Chandler in Wayne’s was given second billing with Rory Calhoun in Scott’s role given third billing.
Although classified as a western, The Spoilers technically isn’t, as Alaska was not part of the Old West, but its style is very much in that mode with its climax, a long, drawn out brawl between Scott and Wayne its signature scene. The film, directed by Ray Enright (Dames), features a strong supporting cast that includes Margaret Lindsay, Harry Carey, Richard Barthelmess, George Cleveland, Samuel S. Hinds, and William Farnum, who had Wayne’s role in the original 1914 version.
The Spoilers, which was released in June 1942, was such a huge hit that Pittsburgh with the same three stars was rushed into production and released in December 1942.
Set in the Pennsylvania city, with a story that begins in the present, but is told in flashbacks to the 1920s and 30s before finishing in the present, features Wayne (nicknamed “Pittsburgh”) and Scott as brawling coal miners who rise in the city’s coal industry and later in steel, with Dietrich as the woman they both love. Frank Craven, Louise Albritton, and Thomas Gomez have the principal supporting roles. The film, directed by Lewis Seiler (Molly and Me), was another box-office hit for the starring trio.
Thanks to the huge success of 1963’s romantic comedy-thriller, Charade starring Cary Grant and a much younger Audrey Hepburn, Universal made several single-word titled thrillers starring older actors and decidedly younger actresses. The highly suspenseful Mirage starring Gregory Peck and Diane Baker was easily the best of them.
Peck plays a physicist with amnesia who is suspected of having pushed his boss and mentor (Walter Abel) out of the window of his high-rise Manhattan office building at the start of a blackout. Baker is the mysterious woman who may or may not have been his lover. Walter Matthau, Kevin McCarthy, Leif Erickson, and George Kennedy have the principal supporting roles. The 1965 film was directed by Edward Dmytryk (Crossfire).
Less successful, but still watchable, 1966’s Blindfold starring Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether it was supposed to be more of a thriller than a comedy or vice versa. Directed by Philip Dunne (Ten North Frederick), it featured Jack Warden, Guy Stockwell, Harry Rhodes, Alejandro Rey, Vito Scotti, Angela Clarke, and John Megna among its impressive supporting cast members.
Both The Spoilers and Mirage were given commentaries by Kino Lorber while the other three releases were not. Mirage also features an on-camera interview with the still-lovely 81-year-old Baker who, as usual, only has nice things to say about everybody she worked with.
This week’s new releases include the Criterion Blu-ray releases of Cluny Brown and Polyester.