THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA: Blu-ray (Allied Artists, 1954) Twilight Time
Under a unique marketing strategy, producer Walter Wanger made the unintentionally dreadful scimitar and sandal quickie, The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954). Directed with lackluster aplomb by Don Weis, the film tells the tale of a charismatic misanthrope and his accidental encounter with the beloved sexpot from a royal house. Since the late 1920’s, tales of the Arabian nights had been fashionable film fodder. And although The Adventures of Hajji Baba has an amiable leading man in handsome John Derek in the title role, and, the as equally striking, auburn-haired Elaine Stewart to play the part of the sultry, but morbidly defiant Princess Fawzia, there is not a whole lot to recommend this picture as anything better than a mismanaged stab by Wanger to reawaken the fairy-tale of his 1942 classic, Arabian Nights, costarring Maria Montez and Jon Hall. Screenwriter, Richard Collins’ scrap is so one-dimensionally situated, not even the colorful comings and goings, as depicted in James Justinian Morier’s timeless novel, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Isfahan - first published in 1824, and still very much in print at the time this movie went into production - can resurrect a shred of hope for 1001 memorable escapades amidst these imported sand dunes. The picture, shot in California – and looks it too – is a badly bungled affair with the clean-shaven/outspoken Derek doing his damnedest to feign disdain for the caustic shrew of a princess he has inadvertently fallen for midway through their harrowing journey from wed to bed. Stewart’s tart-mouthed mannequin in silken threads, though undeniable ‘eye candy’, is about as appealing as a bitch in heat for the wrong guy – so, utterly cruel and insubordinate it is a sincere wonder why more than one man would find her a worthy ‘prize’ to be won or wooed away from the royal house of her father, the Caliph (Donald Randolph).
Stewart is incapable of conveying passion. The smolder within her high-maintenance heart is like the sting of a hot poker stuck in the eye; the flash in her imperious lust – more daggers than dandelions, to remind the weary traveler no woman – particularly this one – is a garden of Eden (or Allah, as the case may be) without weeds…a lot of them! For most of the next thoroughly forgettable 94 minutes, Stewart and Derek spar as though they sincerely detest one another and the material as written. Even when their alter ego’s ambitions align, they still seem to be hating virtually every minute spent together. The experience was not altogether a happy one for Wanger either, whose previous alliance with Allied Artists had basically resurrected his career after an indiscretion committed three years earlier. For those unaware (and interested in such sordid details), Wanger’s wife, actress Joan Bennett, was having a clandestine affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. Not about to let bygones be…well…Wanger walked up to Lang after one of their late-night rendezvous and pumped a pair of bullets into his crotch and thigh. Jennings lived, albeit without the use of his twig and berries, and Wanger, despite pleas for mitigating circumstances and temporary insanity, was nevertheless booked for his crime – serving a thirteen month stay in prison before being released. In the interim, Wanger was to discover his Hollywood career all but wiped out. Allied Artists took a gamble on him in spite of his reputation as a jail bird, and later, were well rewarded for their blind faith when Wanger’s savvy as a producer made unlikely smash hits from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and I Want to Live (1958) – the latter, winning an Oscar for Susan Hayward.
There is nothing about The Adventures of Hajji Baba to even remotely hint at Wanger’s later successes; Wanger and his director, Don Weis both flying on auto-pilot, fumbling their way through a spectacular entanglement of bad writing, terrible acting and some lousy production values that render everything an indistinguishable gumbo. Through an arrangement with MGM, Allied Artists borrowed Elaine Stewart and Weis. Inexplicably desiring a piece of the action, 2oth Century-Fox offered Wanger the use of Cinemascope, wider distribution and 50% of the budget to complete the movie – a deal too good to pass up. The barely remembered Amanda Blake signed on as Banah, the Turkamen Leader, after actress Linda Christian bowed out. In viewing The Adventures of Hajji Baba today, one is distinctly confounded by the proliferation of ‘phoned in’ performances. Apart from Derek and Stewart’s dull as paint affair du Coeur, we also get Paul Picerni as the neurotic Nur-El-Din – a paramour, vanquished in his pursuit of the princess, and, Rosemarie Bowe as the comely and enterprising dancing girl, Ayesha. The only genuine performance in the picture is Thomas Gomez as the lively and opportunistic merchant-trader, Osman Aga. The actor steals virtually every scene in which he appears.
The Adventures of Hajji Baba is not terribly interested in plot, nor even accuracy in its sets, which is rather perplexing – and equally as disappointing – since imminent art director, Gene Allen is responsible for the production design and noted costumier, Renié gets the nod for sheathing our stars in an assortment of cheaply woven silks, tricked out in colorful hues and a garish amount of beading. Okay, so neither version of Kismet (1944/1955) – an infinitely more memorable ‘Arabesque’ fantasy - was interested in authenticity either. But at least each of those movies gave the viewer something curiously stylized to look at and admire. Perhaps owing to budgetary constraints herein, the sets for Hajji Baba look like some inexpensively cobbled together papier mâché and plaster of Paris facsimiles of fire sale left-overs from both productions, quickly given a fresh coat of paint to hide the fact they are hand-me-downs; the Caliph’s palace, sparsely populated by some busty concubines and handmaidens; Aga’s tented desert retreat, more closely resembling a clothes line of striped and patterned canvases strewn about to fill in gaps in the production design – lest we see a parked car or honey wagon in the distance. The location work, mostly shot on the Fox ranch near Malibu Creek, never professes to be anything but uniquely Californian and looks it too. Renié’s costumes are as badly butchered – particularly the uncredited ‘slave maiden’ who briefly enters the frame as mere background roughly an hour into the story, wearing what looks like a twist mop on her head. Nelson Riddle conducts some predictably adventurous-themed music cues, submarined by a thoroughly atrocious pop tune/ballad, warbled by Nat King Cole for the main titles, and thereafter heard ad nauseam throughout the movie as a faintly echoed reminiscence of the utter joylessness in crass commercialism. No, it never went to #1 on the hit parade!
I am not going to waste a lot of time on plot here, if only because so little of it has purpose. We are in Isfahan, Persia, and quickly meet the barber’s son, Hajji Baba, aspiring to leave the mundane future of his father’s shop to seek his great fortune. Meanwhile, back at the palace, the vial Princess Fawzia is stirred from her slumber by a sect of scantily clad handmaidens, each fearing reprisals. This gal is no princess, admonishing her faithful subjects with needless threats, flinging light furniture and other set decorations as a spoiled ten-year old might, occasionally slapping a servant or two in the chops, just to show them who is in charge, and, gritting her teeth, while demanding to be pampered to perfection. What a little dumpling! Fawzia is in love with Nur-El-Din, a neighboring prince as shallow as she. Nur-El-Din is renown. But there is something about the man the Caliph just does not like. Smart man. Recognizing the ill-fated quality in his daughter’s smoldering passion, the Caliph intends for Fawzia to wed a friend, closer to his own temperament, who will help forge an alliance to stabilize the realm, but also – hopefully – Fawzia’s unwieldy temper.
No soap. So, Fawzia, disguised as a boy, skulks away with an escort to Nur-El-Din’s tented oasis to wed on the sly. A case of mistaken identity follows: Hajji, having first encountered and defeated the escort-warrior at the prearranged rendezvous, is now mistaken for the escort by Fawzia. More misdirection, as Hajji believes the emerald ring sent by Nur-El-Din to Fawzia is the real prize to be delivered. Having figured out for herself Hajji is not the man she was supposed to meet, Fawzia makes a break for it – her turban stripped, revealing her to be the princess. Vowing to serve as her escort to Nur-El-Din, Hajji elects to spend the night inside Osman Aga’s hospitable tents. Predictably, the Caliph's imperial guard arrives. They are momentarily dispatched by Hajji, who helps Fawzia escape yet again. The Caliph’s army is thwarted by the Turcoman women, a band of glamorously fierce warrior princesses led by Banah, who has been wounded in battle. She makes Hajji a promise. Restore her to health and she will spare his and the princess’ lives. Hajji binds Banah’s wound. But her passion play for him is discouraged and…well…something about hell having no fury like a woman scorned…you know. So, Hajji and Fawzia are strung up, destined to cook in the hot sun.
Mercifully, Nur-El-Din and his armies have captured Banah and her Turcomen warriors. Discovering Fawzia’s ring on Banah’s finger, the prince beats Banah until she reveals the location of the two she left for dead. Nur-El-Din and his men free Fawzia and Hajji. Only now, Fawzia’s lust for this man she once worshipped has decidedly cooled – or rather, shifted to Hajji. Nur-El-Din reveals his truest self to Fawzia. He never much wanted her to begin with and will gladly allow her return home. But first, she will be exploited as a pawn to force the Caliph to surrender Isfahan. Meanwhile, Hajji is forewarned of Fawzia’s fate. Realizing she is being sold into a marriage of state, Hajji employs Osman Aga and Ayesha to help him infiltrate Nur-El-Din’s encampment and stage a daring escape. After some minor machinations and a lot of pointless charging of horses this miracle is accomplished. Nur-El-Din is defeated and a grateful Caliph, knowing how much his daughter is grown in her outlook on life…well – sort of… gives his blessing for Fawzia and Hajji to wed. In the movie’s final moments, we see Hajji, exalted to the status of a prince via marriage, admiring the throngs of adoring well-wishers (whom we never see) from his balcony. Fawzia beckons her master to bed, closing the doors behind her. Oh yeah – our Hajji is in for the greatest adventure of them all.
The Adventures of Hajji Baba is silly C-grade fluff. In its time, it likely appealed to the kiddie sect as a Saturday matinee programmer with better than average production values. I cannot imagine it had much of an audience as either a romantic epic or an actioner – since both the amour and the stunts that intermittently interrupt it are of the amateur summer stock vintage. Certainly, this picture allowed Walter Wanger his foray back into picture-making and to go on making movies of increasingly better entertainment value made shortly thereafter – an arc of retribution thoroughly dismantled by the debacles incurred on another would-be epic: Cleopatra (1963). Viewed from any vantage today, The Adventures of Hajji Baba sorely lacks the good sense the movie gods gave a lemon. Bad movies occasionally become camp or cult classics – so bad, they’re good. The Adventures of Hajji Baba is not one of them. It’s just embarrassingly second rate. A real turkey, released just in time for American Thanksgiving. Regrets.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is adequate, though only just. Given this is not a 2oth Century-Fox picture, despite being released by Fox, the elements are in reasonably good shape, give or take an age-related artifact. Colors appear slightly anemic, but on the whole will not disappoint. Flesh tones lean toward orange. We’ll blame all that outdoor location shooting in the hot California sun – also, bad pancake makeup to add a touch of the ‘tanned-face’ to white actors who otherwise possess none of the identifiable physical features of Arabian born men and women. If any of these folks had ever seen a camel before, it was likely on a package of cigarettes. Truly, everyone here has come either from Actors’ Equity or Central Casting. Contrast is generally solid and fine details are present, though the ‘scope’ production sports the residual softness we are used to seeing around the edges of the screen. There are two audio options: 5.1 DTS or 2.0 DTS. Honestly, the differences are minimal here; the score possessing more obvious spread in the 5.1. Sound effects are just as tinny, and dialogue is always front and center. Extras are limited to an isolated score and theatrical trailer. Bottom line: easily pass, and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)