Fri 17 Feb 2017
BABES IN BAGDAD. United Artists, 1952. Paulette Goddard, Gypsy Rose Lee, Richard Ney, John Boles, Sebastian Cabot. Written by Joe Ansen and Felix Feist. Directed by Edgar Ulmer.
You can gauge the quality of a fabric by the way it wrinkles. In this case Paulette Goddard, in the sputtering last days of her movie career, brings a surprising vigor and cheerfulness to what must have seemed like a desperate cheapie.
There’s some real talent involved here, though. Ms Goddard, a delightful presence by herself, worked brilliantly with Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith, Mitchell Leisen, Jean Renoir and Cecil B. de Mille. John Boles was never an electrifying screen presence (he drops out of Frankenstein halfway through and no one notices!) but he had a colorful background as a spy for the allies in World War I and apparently came out of retirement just for this. Director Edgar Ulmer helmed some genuine masterpieces, and Gypsy Rose Lee… well she was a better actress than anyone with a body like that really needed to be.
And here they are, all together in Spain (a lot of fading stars and maverick filmmakers found themselves in Europe at the time; think of Welles, Chaplin, Flynn….) amid a jumble of cardboard sets and costumed extras trotting through the Arabian Nights and doing it with real panache.
Edgar Ulmer shows a remarkable touch for humor — unexpected from a director famed for lugubrious stuff like The Black Cat, Detour and Bluebeard — moving his camera fluidly through palaces, harems and marketplaces with assurance, and pacing the comic scenes at a brisk tempo.
Unfortunately, there’s a story to get through here, of the sort that is generally and mercifully described as El Stinko. Something about neglected harem girls lobbying for equal rights, a conniving tax collector, hero Richard Ney falling for defiant slave girl Goddard, switched identities… it all gets a bit hard to follow and frankly not worth the effort.
The film itself is a pleasure to watch, however. Ulmer keeps it interesting to look at, Sebastian Cabot throws in a fine bit as a eunuch, you can glimpse Christopher Lee (if you don’t blink) as a slave trader. And Ms. Goddard plays it with all the enthusiasm she gave to movies like Ghostbreakers and Modern Times: writhing, struggling and cursing as a reluctant captive, playing for laughs as a scheming vixen, and finally simply sweet and seductive for the happy ending.
Babes in Bagdad isn’t an easy film to find, and the print I finally located is pretty dismal, but it’s still fun and, in its own way, a fitting coda to a memorable career.