Friday 1 December 2023

The Wizard of Baghdad (1960)

Director: George Sherman
Writers: Jesse L. Lasky Jr. and Pat Silver, based on a story by Samuel Newman
Stars: Dick Shawn, Diane Baker and Barry Coe

Index: 2023 Centennials.

I’ve been lucky with my last few centennial reviews. I’d seen The Return of the Living Dead before and I was looking forward to seeing it afresh, but it was research that led me to The Man in the Glass Booth and The Glass Wall, two impactful features with impeccable lead performances that resonate through the years to be as important today as they were so long ago. Even The Siege of Sidney Street and Cell 2455, Death Row, which, to be fair, aren’t in the same league, are still fascinating. The Wizard of Baghdad, on the other hand, well, it isn’t any of those things. It probably wasn’t very good when it came out and it’s very much a product of its time. However, it’s also a glimpse at a new star in the making, who strides through the picture with such utter confidence that it’s easy to believe that he felt that he was about to be the biggest name in Hollywood. That star is Dick Shawn, who didn’t become the biggest name in Hollywood, but did foster a habit of stealing scenes from pretty much anyone, even in a film as star-studded as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

This wasn’t his first picture—he’d cameod in The Opposite Sex in 1956 and then co-starred with Ernie Kovacs in Wake Me When It’s Over—but it was his first stab at a lead role and he embraced it with abandon. The opening scene, against which the credits roll, is almost an audition to the audience. It’s Shawn in a genie outfit, down to the dinky gold slippers, flying through a sky murkier than Mumbai in pollution season, singing a song called Eni Menie Geni, which thanks to Steve Martin in Only Murders in the Building, I now know is a patter song, because it’s a tongue twister of a song with fast paced rhythmic rhymes and plenty of alliteration. It takes a singer with impeccable enunciation to deliver a song like this and Shawn nails it what feels like a single take, though there is one cut to a close-up, so it could be two. It may not be quite as challenging as Pickwick Triplets or the most famous example of the form, namely Gilbert and Sullivan’s I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General from The Pirates of Penzance, but it’s highly impressive nonetheless.

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there because, while Shawn does indeed play a genie, Ali Mahmud, which practically seems like typecasting for him before he’d built a career, he’s a very bad genie. In fact, he’s about to get demoted, by Asmodeus, King of Genies, on the basis that he’s the only genie under his rule not to obtain promotion in half a millennium. He has a pair of major weaknesses: wine and women, which naturally combine to screw up pretty much everything he tries to do. So Asmodeus gives him a last chance to do his job, sending him back to Earth to become the Wizard of Baghdad. You see, the Caliph Raschid has many wives but no heirs. He’s old and remains undecided about who his successor might be (or pretty much everything else). Gossip suggests that it’ll be his two wazirs, Norodeen and Shamadin, but The Book of Books states that it will be their children, Prince Husan and Princess Yasmin, who seem to be getting on swimmingly in genie vision. Asmodeus merely tasks Ali Mahmud with making it so.

Take a wild stab at how well that goes, given that Ali Mahmud’s immediate response is, “Hey chief, how about a peek at the harem?” Well, it goes pretty poorly, given that the palace is promptly stormed, Caliph Raschid is killed and Sultan Jullnar seizes the throne, all while Ali Mahmud is passed out drunk. Now Prince Husan has been banished and Princess Yasmin is betrothed to Jullnar, though he’ll have to wait seven years to actually marry her, on account of her youth. The only reason he’s doing it is that Shamadin shows him a decree that Husan and Yasmin are the legal successors to the Caliph, so marriage to the girl will give Jullnar legitimacy on top of the power he’s already taken. Needless to say, Asmodeus is pissed. “Turn in your turban! You’re fired!” he tells Ali Mahmud, then strips his genie powers away and sends him back to fix everything without them. The only assistance he’ll have is from his horse, a far more subtle actor than either Shawn or William Edmonson, who plays Asmodeus, even though he talks, if only to Ali Mahmud.

This isn’t much of a story to hang a feature on, but I have to be generous and assume that this was meant as satire, partly general in nature but partly of the many fantasy movies that Hollywood turned out in the fifties. After all, most of them didn’t have much plot to speak of either and this plays into all their flaws too. For instance, all these Iraqis, or Mesopotamians as they probably were back then, as Baghdad was becoming a world power, are obviously American actors speaking in the American slang of the time and using then current American humour, i.e. watered down Road movies. None of the inevitably flowery language makes any real sense and the acting, as we move into more dramatic sections, is universally basic. It’s not bad, per se, but it’s certainly not good either. It fits the material, which is like a TV show with slightly better production values. I say slightly, because we can literally see all the strings above Ali Mahmud’s flying carpet and Asmodeus looks like a demon from Häxan that the studio ordered on Wish.

Really, the only good aspect at this point is Dick Shawn and that’s debatable. He’s certainly natural here, but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Is he so natural in front of the camera that he can effortlessly make the best of bad material? Or is he just natural for a bad movie? I do tend to lean towards the former, but he has a subversive streak in him that surely came from comedy and that isn’t as desirable in the lead as it is in a supporting actor. I could appreciate what Shawn was doing but wonder if it would have been more enjoyable had he the benefit of a reliable straight man to bounce off. Maybe viewers in 1960 enjoyed what he does but I doubt many of them sympathised with Ali Mahmud, who’s a born loser of his own making. I was certainly on Asmodeus’s side and wondered why it had taken him five hundred years to kick this particular genie to the kerb. He deserved it and I never found a way to sympathise with him, even as he started to try to do the right thing, but I did keep watching Dick Shawn. That’s something.

There are a few other little details that shine, but they’re rare indeed. I liked the cameos, not for stars but for characters from fairy tales. Bill Mumy, who wouldn’t join the cast of Lost in Space for another five years, makes his feature debut here as Aladdin in a brief scene as Ali Mahmud arrives in Baghdad. Later, there are similar cameos for Sinbad and Scheherezade. Each is only there for a joke, but it’s welcome. There are plenty of jokes here that don’t hit, but a few do, even if they’re hardly sophisticated. I laughed when it’s fragrant bath time with that special essence from Egypt: Nile No. 5. There’s a decent pun in the Jerry Lewis style in “You’ll become the ex-checker for the Exchequer.” There’s also a scene that benefits from reminding us of a much later scene in a much later film, so wouldn’t have worked as well in 1960. Husan and Jasmin are back together but the latter doesn’t realise who the new captain of the guard to whom she’s so attracted actually is. So she picks on him, he pouts at her and we wonder when he’ll say “As you wish.”

Much of the rest you can write yourself. Of course, we fast forward seven years so Husan and Jasmin can grow up instantly. They do more than that, because Diane Baker was twenty-two and looked older, while Barry Coe was twenty-six; I think they’re supposed to be playing sixteen. Of course, Husan manages to grow up with the Desert Hawk, Chieftain Meroki, who opposes the Sultan; they get hold of Norodeen too in one of their forays. Of course, they build a substantial resistance movement, which promptly fails during a single scene, while Ali Mahmud is passed out again. And, of course, there are happy endings and they’re exactly the ones that you’ll be expecting. Then again, that was written in The Book of Books, right? How much did Ali Mahmud really have to do with it? Not as much as he’d likely claim to his peers, if any of them actually talk to him. To be fair, he does get a joyous scene winding up a couple of Baghdad guards while benefitting from the power of invisibility. He’s a much better trickster god than a regular genie.

And so that’s The Wizard of Baghdad. I’d guess that, if you’ve seen it, you’ve probably forgotten it, and, if you choose to see it because I wrote about it, then I’m sorry. However, it does hold merit as the debut lead performance for our centenarian, Dick Shawn, who is a force of nature throughout the entire movie. If a scene wasn’t playing his way, he practically ordered it to roll over and beg and it did exactly what he wanted. It’s probably not unfair to suggest that that’s something he applied to the rest of his career, whether he was acting, usually in prominent supporting roles, or performing, as he did on so many television game shows. I grew up in the U.K., so don’t have the memories of The Hollywood Squares or The $10,000 Pyramid that my better half has, but I know what they are and the idea that Dick Shawn would appear on eighteen episodes of the latter makes perfect sense to me. I know him more from films, such The Producers, Water and, much later, Evil Roy Slade.

He was born Richard Schulefand in Buffalo, New York but grew up in the nearby steel town of Lackawanna, sharing a single room at the back of his father’s clothing store with his parents and his brother. He wanted to play professional baseball and actually landed a contract with the Chicago White Sox, but he was drafted a couple of days later and that proved to be a better career choice, as the USO shows, performed by the United Service Organizations to those serving in the military and their families, constantly required a steady flow of new faces. “I could always make people laugh,” he later explained, and so, after attending the University of Miami for a short time for much the same reasons that Ali Mahmud might, he became a standup comedian. His career took a little while to get going, but get going it did and he was able to make eight appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show before moving to Las Vegas, where he performed in Marlene Dietrich’s showroom troupe and replaced Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Stage work led to work on both the big screen and the small one in front rooms across America, but he never truly left the stage and, eventually, he literally died on it, with a sense of impeccable irony, but more about that shortly. He laughed off the notion that “I never got the Joseph Cotten parts. No—for me, they saved the strange ones” and he was absolutely right. Most famously, he was a scene-stealing hippie actor, Lorenzo St. DuBois, or L.S.D., in Mel Brooks’s debut feature, The Producers, a barely coherent drug addict whom the heroes cast as the lead in their guaranteed to fail production of Springtime for Hitler. Before that, he’d become memorable as the obsessive surfer anti-hero, Sylvester Marcus, in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which I really need to rewatch. However, that only scrapes the bottom of the strange parts he found. He also played an amorous psychiatrist in Penelope, a heroic Hollywood drag performer in Angel and an egotistical hack of an American actor relegated to working commercials in Water.

But back to his death, which I should preface by talking about his one man stage show, The (2nd) Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World, which he performed on and off over decades. The L.A. Times ably described a “dark underside of apocalyptic ruin, with Shawn emerging like a sleeping vagrant from beneath a decorative mound of crumpled newspapers to spout stream-of-subconsciousness monologues—a tenuously linked garland of lines, bits of thought and perceptions”. They added that he also often lay on the stage in an apparent coma during intermissions, rising to continue the show when it was time. That’s important context because it makes a lot of sense that audiences at the University of California, San Diego in 1987 would have believed that his lying down on the stage at a random point in the show was part of it. It wasn’t. After five minutes of the audience shouting callbacks like “Take his wallet!”, a doctor examined him and found that he had had a massive heart attack. He died in hospital within the hour. What a way to go.

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