Donald O’Conner Stars in Truly Strange ‘Magic Lamp’ Adaptation
DIRECTED BY HENRY LEVIN, MARIO BAVA (UNCREDITED)/1961
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 17, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
“This Hoofer’s Home for Good!” So went the sentiment, and for the most part, the headline (exclamation point added for effect) of a 1961 Hedda Hopper Los Angeles Times piece on the real-life perils of The Wonders of Aladdin (Le meraviglie di Aladino). It’s certainly true that the Tunisian-based location shoot for this international mutt of a film was rife with trouble. Stressful and strenuous trouble, like the arrest and detainment of the lead actor for unintentional trespassing. But also, the kind of trouble that no motion picture production should ever cultivate, namely, the deaths of several people in relation to controversy courted from filming in a sacred mosque.
It’s a quite heavy shadow that’s cast over this otherwise lighthearted affair, itself a comical retelling of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp from One Thousand and One Nights. But even the would-be air of colorful juvenile romp that’s so clearly strived for by director Henry Levin (who reportedly made 80% of the film to uncredited co-director Mario Bava’s 20%, though Bava’s fingerprints are all over everything) is stretched mighty thin. In simple regard to what’s on screen (production challenges aside), The Wonders of Aladdin makes one wonder, indeed.
Film Historian Tim Lucas, the foremost purveyor of all things Mario Bava, in observing critical response on his newly recorded audio commentary, notes the how the blatantly prurient film reflects a kind of vintage “Playboy” sensibility when it comes to women. Though no bona fide nudity is ever shown, there’s a pervasive randiness that goes beyond that cheeky adage often attached to youthful fare, “something for dad!”. Ladies skinny dip in a lavish pool; a presumably topless killer female automaton crushes men in her arms and bosom; the lead heroine is captured and strung up naked, twice (!). Watching this with kids, it became glaringly apparent that kids’ entertainment certainly ain’t what it used to be.
Then there’s the representation stuff. Not to be another well-intentioned “politically correct” film critic hurling contemporary correctives at a sixty-year-old movie, but wouldn’t an audience of 1961 have snickered to some degree at this all-Caucasian Middle East? Putting aside the sheer absurdity of a middle-aged Donald O’Conner playing teenage hooligan Aladdin (an absurdity not lost on O’Conner himself), it’s nutty to think that the filmmakers took this project all the way to the authentically sandy Tunisia only to whiten the place up something fiercely artificial. Toss in tone-deaf bed-of-nails gags, random herds of camels here and there and an abundance of come-hither ladies belly dancing in the streets, and you’ve got some package. Lest we forget the capper, a huge prolonged desert massacre right in the middle of this supposed comedic romp. There’s “What were they thinking?”, and then there’s “They weren’t thinking at all”.
All of that aside, The Wonders of Aladdin just isn’t a very good movie. It does, however, get irony points for being just so incredibly strange in terms of tone, effects, and intent. Though not a musical, O’Conner whisps, glides, and prances his way through this, appealing somehow even amid the weird incongruity of his hambone takes, wacky faces, and unending kooky pronouncements. It’s as cringeworthy as it is morbidly compelling. Ordinarily the question of “who is this movie for??” is too loaded to be properly considered in a review. But, danged if the notion didn’t spring to mind again and again while watching The Wonders of Aladdin.
Today, it stands to reason that this new Blu-ray edition of this film would primarily appeal to fans of director Mario Bava. As mentioned previously, the great Tim Lucas is on hand to detail everything we ever wanted to know about this film. As always, Lucas is brilliantly researched and academic in his approach. The movie itself looks quite good in parts, but rugged in others. This is apparently due to multiple sources having been used to assemble this best possible presentation.
Seminal Italian director Vittorio De Sica plays the Genie of the Lamp, implementing his magic by spitting through his teeth. Relegated to an every-once-in-while shoddy composite visual effect (with all the eye-line troubles that come with that in this era), it’s safe to say that Robin Williams’ performance in the animated Disney Aladdin is in no danger of being overshadowed upon rediscovery. One wishes this review could end with the proclamation that the wonders of The Wonders of Aladdin will never cease, but they in fact do- right at the ninety-three-minute mark, as it drifts back away on a flying carpet into the hazy desert sky.
The images and promotional material used in the review are present only as a reference to the film and are not meant to reflect the actual image quality or content of the Blu-ray.