November 5, 2018
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars John Derek, Elaine Stewart, Amanda Blake, Thomas Gomez.
I’ve always been a looney-tunes sucker for Arabian adventures in which caliphs, emirs and peasants look like someone you might see working a Motel 6 desk at 3 a.m. Thus, it was a personal delight a while back to see my old quiz show buddy Hal March in 1954’s Yankee Pasha playing someone named “Hassan Sender” — a casting coup I thought might never be topped. But here we are at the very opening of the same year’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba — and in full 2.55:1 early CinemaScope, we have Peter Leeds, Percy Helton and Claude Akins popping up in the same frame. As is often true, there’s no substitute for verisimilitude, and, of course, we haven’t even gotten to title lead John Derek yet.
So we will. In terms of Derek’s career timeline, this surprisingly lavish ‘B’-plus extravaganza come from fairly deeply back in Derek’s pre-“Bo” era, when the actor was still a couple years away from getting Debra Paget to take part in what amounts to Golden Calf submarine races in Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments before the two repent from sin. But here, he’s cast as the lowly (if confident and handsome) Persian barber Hajji, who shaves and works out the shoulder kinks of his clients who include Thomas Gomez sporting a large enough gap between his upper front teeth for Chuck Yeager to do some stunt flying. You know: A little deep-tissue massaging here and a little Barbasol aftershave (or whatever the going product was) there — though I didn’t see much evidence of Butch Wax. This is almost surprising, given that the movie’s entire 94 minutes are given to palming off ancient times as the mid-1950s.
Lowly or not, Hajji ends up being viable suitor for Princess Fawzia (Elaine Stewart), who never stops letting everyone know that she’s smack atop the uppermost rungs of the “1%” or whatever they called that in those days. Worse, she has the entitled temperament of, say, a Trump Cabinet wife who finds a way to expense imported room service caviar and a new bra (I guess it would have to be Persian silk) out of some Treasury fund meant for hurricane relief. Plus a box of Wheat Thins for the caviar.
The movie thus becomes a cross between The Taming of the Shrew and It Happened One Night amid an assortment of desert adventures once Stewart’s Princess Faksia escapes from her fancy digs in an attempt to run off with a womanizing prince who’s also a rival to her exasperated father. These include being taken prisoner by a hoard of Turcoman Warriors (escaped slave babes who are now marauding land pirates) who string up their prisoners the way John Wayne and Stuart Whitman temporarily are in The Comancheros. Their leader (further minting the Western motif here) is Amanda Blake of “Gunsmoke,” which reminds me: Dennis Weaver’s Chester character wouldn’t have felt totally out of place here had he shown up in a cameo.
And yet all this ticklish nonsense doesn’t matter much on a purely sensual level because a name producer (Walter Wanger, just after Riot in Cell Block 11 but a little before Invasion of the Body Snatchers) sprung for major production values that probably helped the picture become a minor hit after Allied Artists wangled a distribution deal with studio-of-release 20th Century-Fox. So, OK: maybe Allied would stint a little on budget-busting the following year when they released Leo Grocery and Huntz Hall in Bowery to Bagdad (say, I’d better plunder my Bowery Boys archives because I see that the great Joan Shawlee is in that one). But not here.
To wit: Hajji production designer Gene Allen and color consultant [George] Hoyningen-Huene are a large reason why George Cukor’s movies looked so consistently smashing in the period spanning A Star Is Born (the version that ultimately matters, I mean) through My Fair Lady. And for that matter, Hajji cinematographer Harold Listen shot Heller in Pink Tights, which is among the most gorgeous of that bunch. Musically, the movie went all over the way with a score by Dimitri Tiomkin — and from the same year of his Oscar-winner for The High and the Mighty. In Twilight Time fashion, the score is isolated on this exceedingly immaculate Blu-ray’s alternative track, which is welcome.
In keeping with the ’50s, there’s also a Tiomkin-Ned Washington title tune sung by Nat King Cole — a fairly sizable hit that I remember vividly from my pre-rock early childhood. A Nat King Cole inclusion, even one with a really cool Nelson Riddle arrangement, shouldn’t work in this kind of movie, but Hajji is such a ludicrous anything-goes affair that the tune’s employment almost manages to be haunting — and might even be if the acting were better (though I suppose you have to say that Derek half-successfully goes with the flow). Taking a Tex Ritter cue from the frequently reprised Tiomkin-Washington theme to High Noon during that earlier film’s own narrative, a Cole refrain pops up throughout here, almost subliminally on the soundtrack.
Elaine Stewart was a really terrible actress, though I will say there are some beach shots of her in 1953’s A Slight Case of Larceny (from Hajji director Don Weis) that stopped my clock. Weis had a tiny and brief cult (quite so — and on both counts) that rated notice in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema; he had recently directed Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds in I Love Melvin, which, for all its lack of pedigree is a more entertaining musical than La La Land will ever be. Hajji is similarly unpretentious, but it was actually considered to be racy in its day, which no doubt upped the grosses. My same-age friend Kathy from a next-door suburb tells me that she and her 7-year-old cronies really wanted to see it at the Grandview Theater in ’54 but were deterred by that old bugaboo before it became, more specifically, that Jack Valenti bugaboo: “parental guidance.” (My closest friends all ran a fast elementary-school track.)
Just three years later, Derek was back in soundstage Persia, though by this time, his career had slipped enough that he rated only fourth-billing in William Dieterle’s Hollywood swan song Omar Khayyam, which, for reasons unknown, Paramount green-lit for lead Cornel Wilde, the still ubiquitous Debra Paget and, yes, even window-shattering Yma Sumac, whose high notes could have taught Frankie Valli a thing or two. I actually even programmed OK once at the AFI Theater, which was ill-advised even for me, though, frankly, I would have run “The Complete Fred Sears” if I could have gotten 35mm VistaVision prints (I know, buffs: wrong studio). Some guy even drove down from Baltimore to Washington to see it, and that wasn’t even the year the Orioles opened the season at 0-and-21.
There’ve been no good prints I’ve ever seen around of Hajji; the TV prints rip out the transmission when they lurch into pan-and-scan after the film’s lengthy pre-credits sequence. I was more excited about this release than probably any other moderately sane person who’s been capable of attaining, say, a car loan, and seeing it look as intended gave me a huge kick. The scenics are splendid, and there’s more room for the campy acting to breathe (or, if you prefer, wheeze).