Sixty-four years ago this coming week, moviegoers were treated to their choice of two Cinemascope spectaculars of decidedly different stripes, one contemporary and intensely dramatic, aimed at grownups and partisans of musical showmanship, the other a fantastical period piece with an adventure-driven plot more typically designed for the matinee trade. Curiously, both shared two distinctive production credits: production design by Gene Allen and color design advisor/consultation by famed Hollywood and fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene. The first to open was director George Cukor’s emotional and well-regarded Judy Garland/James Mason show-business tale A Star Is Born (1954), which cost a then-record $5 million, got stellar reviews, was hailed as a career peak for its two stars and director, endured a turbulent history of footage reduction and near-complete reconstruction to its original form, and been named to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for preservation.
The other project, not nearly as highly regarded or critically commended, fell through the cracks of movie history, though it proved a more profitable box-office performer in its day in relation to its $816,813 price tag. But like A Star Is Born, The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954) is a visual stunner and, thanks to a signature Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington Persian Lament crooned throughout courtesy of the silken vocal skills of the legendary Nat King Cole, claims a haunting musical undercurrent as well. It had a literary antecedent, British author James Justinian Morier’s fanciful 1824 novel The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, which opened the Western world to the exotic lore and customs of Iran, where he worked a decade earlier in the diplomatic service as a special secretary to England’s special envoy to the Shah. Producer Walter Wanger had 25 years of prior experience ranging from Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940) and Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc (1948) to the more genre-proximate Arabian Nights (1942) and Aladdin and His Lamp (1952). His current home studio Allied Artists was amenable to Wanger bringing aboard screenwriter Richard Collins to prepare an adaptation of Morier’s text, according to Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent profiler Matthew Bernstein, “in a ‘thoroughly ridiculous and tongue and cheek’ tone with ‘a lot of intrigue and Oriental larceny.’ By the time the film went into production in late 1953, Twentieth Century Fox was so anxious to have more titles in its brand-new widescreen process that it loaned Allied Artists the technology for Cinemascope. Wanger also took Fox’s participation as a rationale for greater expenditures and proceeded to hire two associates of Cukor’s from Warner Bros.’s staff of A Star Is Born, production designer Gene Allen and color consultant George Hoyningen-Huene. With costume designer Renie, they coordinated the set and costume colors on the film. Wanger’s presumptuous action triggered several heated arguments with [cost-conscious] Allied Artists executives.” However, there’s no denying that the fanciful tale of a wily and ambitious Persian barber (handsome John Derek) who fights with brawn and wit the predatory forces of an adversarial tribal leader (Paul Picerni) and an equally fierce band of Turcoman women warriors (commanded by Amanda Blake) to protect a pouty, petulant princess (Elaine Stewart) from an ill-starred marriage was a splendid feast for the eyes, even if producer Wanger thumbnailed his project for Life magazine as “a What Makes Sammy Run? in the desert.”
As filming proceeded on desert/wilderness locations at California’s Lone Pine and the Panamint Mountains and within stylishly dressed Hollywood soundstages, the design collaborators, according to the AFI Catalog, effectively “employed a ‘symbolic’ scheme of five colors to represent and differentiate principal settings and characters. Orange, red and brown for the caravans; green for the Turcoman women’s camp; blue for the bazaar sequences; white for Princess Fawzia; and black-against-white for the desert encampment of Nur-El-Din were the primary color schemes used, according to April and May 1954 Variety and Los Angeles Times news items.” Tiomkin (who would also be more predominantly saluted for a Warner Bros.’ Cinemascope flick that year, namely his Oscar®-winning Best Original Music Score for The High and the Mighty) laces his musical programme with quotations from beloved Russian composers as well as his own original, rousing themes. The Adventures of Hajji Baba was directed by Don Weis, who’s probably known more for his large body of television work and his two 1953 features, I Love Melvin and The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, but the DGA Award-winning helmer does have his admirers, including film historian Nick Pinkerton, who expresses his appreciation in a 2014 Bombast: I Love Don Weis essay for Film Comment, accessible here: https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/bombast-i-love-don-weis/.
Indeed, there’s a third talent asset A Star Is Born and The Adventures of Hajji Baba have in common: the aforementioned Blake, the future Gunsmoke saloon proprietress Miss Kitty Russell. Though seventh-billed in the former, as the late historian/author Ron Haver reported in his great A Star Is Born book chronicling his reconstruction of the film, in an effort to tighten up that three-hour extravaganza, “the beginning of the Academy Awards® ceremony was shortened considerably, thereby eliminating nearly all of Amanda Blake’s footage. (But not her credit in the main titles – an oversight that no one thought to catch in the rush to get the film finished for the premiere. All that’s left of Blake are two quick shots, one as she walks off stage, and another of her seated at the table just behind Garland.)” In the latter film, her Turcoman chieftain Banah is a force to reckon with throughout the story, sublimely feminine, surrendering the screen to no man, even the crafty title character. Also starring the marvelous Thomas Gomez,Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray of The Adventures of Hajji Baba, from a miraculously conjured Fox restoration transfer, calls you to adventure and to marvel at the work of Allen, Hoyningen-Huene and Blake October 16. Preorders open this Wednesday, October 3.