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The Bootleg Files: Babes in Bagdad

BOOTLEG FILES 607: “Babes in Bagdad” (1951 romp directed by Edgar G. Ulmer).

LAST SEEN: It can be found on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is not entirely clear why.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Lord, I hope not!

One does not approach a film titled “Babes in Bagdad” expecting a provocative cerebral challenge. But, at the same time, one should not expect an unfocused mess of half-baked feminist politics and burlesque antics molded together by several great talents who hit respective career lows with this nonsense.

“Babes in Bagdad” takes place in the typical B-movie fantasy concept of an Arabian kingdom, with an emphasis on flashy arabesque production design rather than a genuine Islamic cultural protocol. The film is centered on the harem of Hassan, the Kadi of Bagdad, who has 12 wives – and these women look and behave like Minsky showgirls in their dressing rooms. Hassan’s favorite wife is the shrewd Zohara, and she is recruited to tame the wild-natured Kyra, who has been brought to Hassan by slave traders. But Zohara and Kyra team up with the other wives to write a letter to the Caliph, the Kadi’s superior, demanding gender equality and the end of polygamous relations.

The Caliph is an old-fashioned conservative who is not happy with this challenge to the social structure and insists that Zohara be executed. But Ezar, his handsome godson, approves of what the ladies are preaching and announces that he would prefer having only one wife.

From here, the 79-minute film seems to go in 20 different directions with subplots and sub-subplots involving hidden identities, mistaken identities, dishonest tax collectors, the Kadi being drugged and dumped outside of his palace dressed in rags, anvil statements on women’s rights and a couple of dance numbers that look as if they were improvised rather than choreographed. This is not a film that you watch while munching on popcorn – instead, a couple of aspirin and an antacid tablet would help make it palatable.

Of course, Arabian fantasies from Hollywood’s Golden Era are mostly harmless and entertaining – from the artistry of “The Thief of Bagdad” to the Technicolor distractions of Maria Montez’s career, this genre was meant to be benign yet fun-loving. But “Babes in Bagdad” is such a complex jumble that it is impossible to imagine whether its creators were winking at the audience or choking on their own pretentions. To understand what went wrong, it is important to recognize who was responsible for this problem.

The film was fueled by Edward J. Danzinger and Harry Lee Danzinger, a pair of New York brothers who independently produced low-budget features. The Danzingers hired the excessively prolific director Edgar G. Ulmer to helm their 1951 comedy “St. Benny the Dip” – which was an odd choice, considering that Ulmer specialized in thrillers and noir, and comedy was never his forte. But the film turned out to be an acceptable effort, and the Danzingers opted to bring Ulmer back for “Babes in Bagdad.”

However, the Danzingers relocated their productions to Europe, and “Babes in Bagdad” was shot in Spain, where studio costs were far less expensive than in Hollywood. The Spanish location also enabled the Danzingers to simultaneously shoot a second version of “Babes in Bagdad” with a Spanish-speaking supporting cast – including singer Carmen Sevilla in a role that was absent from the English-language film – that could be released across Spain and Latin America. The Spanish-language version, however, ran 17 minutes longer than the English-language version, which makes it a completely different experience.

But the Danzingers faced a dilemma in casting their film: in order to ensure box office returns, they needed stars with name recognition. But they also had to find actors that would agree to appear in such a ridiculous fantasy. As the free-spirited slave girl Kyra and her savvy comrade Zohara, they brought in 47-year-old faded Hollywood leading lady Paulette Goddard and the 41-year-old Broadway striptease star Gypsy Rose Lee. Despite generous amounts of make-up and creative costuming, both women looked as if they were the mothers of the harem girls rather than the seductive young maids. Goddard seemed to be furiously rehashing her gamin character from Chaplin’s “Modern Times” while Lee didn’t even bother to phone in a performance – though, oddly, their mix of hamming and somnambulism offered a strange balance.

Not helping matters much was 1930s musical star John Boles as the Kadi – the man looked pained throughout the film, as if ruing this casting choice, and he retired from acting after completing the role. Rotund Sebastian Cabot turns up briefly to skirt Production Code censorship as the harem’s bitchy eunuch – a bit of coded language hints at his condition – while a young Christopher Lee has a wordless minor role as one of the slave traders.

For no very clear reason, “Babes in Bagdad” was never released in the U.S. in any official home video format. Indeed, the film has not been properly presented since its 1952 theatrical release, which was screened in Cinefotocolor, a Spanish color process called Exotic Color in the U.S. market. The film turned up on television in the late 1950s and later in collector-to-collector exchanges as a murky black-and-white print. A crummy dupe of this inferior print of the film can be found on YouTube. However, color stills from the Cinefotocolor version can be found online, but it appears that the color cinematography called harsh attention to the poverty of the film’s production. Thus, it seems “Babes in Bagdad” doesn’t work in either color or black-and-white – maybe this would have worked best if someone left the lens cap on the camera!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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