2 August 2011 | jimjo1216
A 1930s cultural curiosity
ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN (1937) is an interesting historical curiosity for classic movie buffs. It stars famed entertainer Eddie Cantor in one of his rare movie roles. The cast includes such familiar faces as Roland Young, John Carradine, Douglass Dumbrille, and Charles Lane, but also features burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee (a.k.a. Louise Hovick) at the outset of her ill-fated film career. "Looney Tunes" fans and music enthusiasts are also in for a treat seeing Raymond Scott and His Quintet dressed as Arabs and "performing" their eccentric jazz ("Twilight in Turkey") on primitive instruments.
Old movies from Hollywood's Golden Age often serve as time capsules for their era, and that is true with ALI BABA. Meant to be shown for a few weeks in theaters before stepping aside for new features from Hollywood's movie-churning machine, films set out to entertain the audience of their time, never dreaming of being resurrected in the age of home video and TCM. Jokes are often topical, reflecting the political climate or world news of the day. Dance sequences capture an era in music history and small cultural references may be lost on modern viewers.
ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN borrows its premise from Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", inserting a modern man (through a dream) into an old and foreign setting. This time, star-struck autograph seeker Al Babson (Cantor) visits the set of a Hollywood "Arabian Nights" movie, dozes off, and imagines he is in ancient Bagdad, where Roland Young is the real sultan and Douglass Dumbrille is the scheming prince. Cantor reforms Bagdad, introducing American principles of democracy and economics. He shapes Arab society in the image of New Deal America, with amusing (if absurd) modern touches (camel filling stations?) and plenty of cracks at Franklin Roosevelt and 1930s politics.
Eddie Cantor was an entertainer on stage, radio, and screen. He was famous in part, like Al Jolson, for his blackface routines, and there's one in ALI BABA. When the sultan is unable to grab the attention of his tribal African servants, Cantor speaks some Cab Calloway jive and gets them on their feet. Rubbing on his minstrel face paint, Cantor leads the Africans in an extended musical number ("Swing Is Here To Stay"), which earned an Oscar nod for dance direction. The scene was an innocuous inclusion in 1937, but can be a bit uncomfortable for modern viewers in this age of racial sensitivity.
Another great time capsule scene is at the close of the film, where the movie-within-the-movie has its glitzy premiere. It's a look back at the red carpet Hollywood premieres of yesteryear, where stars would be announced as they arrived by an emcee at a microphone. Footage from an authentic movie premiere provides cameos from Hollywood icons like Douglas Fairbanks, Shirley Temple, Tyrone Power, Victor McLaglen, Sonja Henie, Cesar Romero, and Dolores del Rio, as well as other stars of the day whose names haven't stood the test of time.
This Eddie Cantor vehicle is a dated comedy in many ways, but is valuable from a historical perspective. With its political satire and its glimpse of vintage Hollywood, the movie is intriguing. Some of the gags are fun, and it's a rare film that shows John Carradine (in an Arabian get-up, no less) doing a silly little dance. The flying carpet effects are relatively primitive, but fairly effective. I'd never seen Eddie Cantor on film before, and I must say I found his eye-rolling shtick tiresome. But that's probably his trademark and he did know his way around a witty line of dialogue.
Check out ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN if you're a fan of old-time Hollywood. (It helps if you're familiar with the 1930s and recognize names like Eddie Cantor, Gypsy Rose Lee, Roland Young, John Carradine, and Raymond Scott.) It's mildly entertaining, but it's certainly a neat curiosity. Keep an eye out for it.