Back in the 1940s, Jon Hall and Maria Montez carved out their own little niche in cinema by teaming up for a handful of nifty fantasy and action adventure films (Arabian Nights (Universal Cinema Classics), WHITE SAVAGE, COBRA WOMAN, etc.), these under the Universal Pictures banner and featuring elements of sword, sand, and sandal. ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES, coming out in 1944, simply exudes this aroma of "remember when" and showcases Jon Hall at his most dashing and Maria Montez's lovely exotic looks. We just won't talk about her acting.
Interestingly, the film does away with the traditional magical trappings (excepting one enchanted phrase) and instead places this story in actual historical context, sometime in the 13th century. Driven back by the conquering Hugalu Khan's swarming Mongol hordes, the Caliph of Baghdad and his child Ali suffer the foulest of betrayals. The Caliph loses his life in an ambush, but the boy Ali slips away and goes into hiding. Stumbling in the desert, Ali meets and comes under the protection of forty far-ranging thieves. In the thieves' cavernous hideaway den, Ali Baba grows to young adulthood, at which time he sets out to overthrow Hugalu Khan and regain freedom for his people and also, in his spare moments, maybe win the heart of a beautiful princess (who, by the way, is bethrothed to the Khan).
There's a warm place in my heart for these spirited old-fashioned adventures on the big screen, stuff that I used to thrill to as a hyper kid on those lazy Sunday afternoons. In watching Hall and Montez's films the audience came to nurse a certain threshhold of expectation. The acting came and went, with Jon Hall mostly serviceable as the male lead, and I don't know that these two demonstrated that much of a spark together, despite the flowery dialogue ("Strange are the fortunes of war which placed a thief beside the Khan's beloved."). But, somehow, Universal kept pairing them up in these things, and it worked. ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES belongs to that era when rugged horse-riding thieves sang songs and no one made fun, and the rousing score rose to a crescendo every fifteen minutes or so. There were the colorful exotic costumes and the fancy stilted script and the promise of high adventure in far away places. The sword, the sand, the sandals. As a kid I loved the derring-do in the desert, the sword fight clashes, the daring rescue at the market place, and that old Trojan Horse trick. I hissed at the despicable villains and even had a soft touch for the corny romance, of which origins spooled back to Ali's early youth and the pledge he made to a young princess. Back when I saw this decades ago, even comedy relief Andy Devine seemed to blend in as Abdullah, one of Ali Baba's stalwart thieves, although, nowadays, it's a bit jarring, hearing Devine's distinctive catchy-croaky-drawly voice trying to do justice to lines like "Me, Abdullah? The Terror of Bagdad, nurse to a whimpering infant?" It's also kinda funny that Ali's henchmen tend to pronounce his name closer to "Ollie" than "Ali."
But, mostly, I look at this movie now, thru old decrepit eyeballs, and I brush aside the flaws. Mostly, I remember the fluttering crimson kafiyas and powder blue robes of the forty thieves and the ringing cries of "Open, oh sesame!" as they once more seek sanctuary inside that treasure-laden cave. Hall and Montez's movies never attained the heights of The Thief of Bagdad - Criterion Collection or The Adventures of Robin Hood (Two-Disc Special Edition), but neither were they meant to. New generations of viewers will look at ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES and may dismiss it as nothing more than a dusty old cinematic relic. For me, though, it's a savory cup of nostalgia and the memories it jolts back remind me of just how good I had it when I was a kid.