Georges Méliès turns his magical creative vision to the famous Tales of the Thousand and One Nights in this ambitious picture. Beautiful sets, elaborate costumes and a relatively large cast blend together to create a rich cinematic environment.
Georges Méliès is one of the legends of early cinema, one of very few filmmakers from the nineteenth century who is still known by name. His 1902 film A Trip to the Moon contains one of the most iconic scenes in movie history (moon + eye + rocket) and it remains a beloved example of early film and groundbreaking science fiction. However, Méliès had a prolific career that spanned multiple genres and we are going to be delving into one of his fairy tale films.
The Palace of the Arabian Nights was released when Méliès was enjoying artistic success and popularity. Fairy films were enchanting audiences all over the world and no one had a better grasp on the genre than the French. It was only natural to delve into the popular Arabian Nights for inspiration.
Prince Charming is in love with a princess but her father refuses his request to woo her. Despondent, the prince accidentally knocks over an incense burner and summons Khalafar, a powerful magician. This seems to be a rather inefficient method for summoning (suppose the burner was owned by a non-klutz) but the prince is happy for the help. Khalafar then takes the prince on a quest to find appropriately impressive stuff in order to win the hand of the princess. Standard quest, really.
The prince travels through layered paper forests, hidden gold vaults, caverns with giant lizards and a room full of ballerinas. There’s much to see and the audience is shown everything in loving detail. Finally, the prince finishes his tour, finds a treasure and is able to use it to win the hand of the woman he loves. Happy endings for all except the other guy she was going to marry. (Sad trombone.)
As you may have noticed, this story is less of an adaptation of The Arabian Nights than a story set in the “world” of that story collection. We have many of the standard ingredients of the classic tales but they have been pureed into a totally new story.
As was the case with The Adventures of Prince Achmed, released over two decades later, The Palace of the Arabian Nights creates a fantasy based on a European translation of Asian folktales, which results in a hybrid that spans two continents. While Méliès is clearly unconcerned with cultural authenticity (really, considering the time period and film genre, it would have been odd if he had been) he does capture the expected look and feel of these tales, at least to the eyes of a European and North American audience. There are also some touches typical of French cinema of the period. All-woman armies, for example. (The better to display women in short shorts and tight breeches, no doubt, but it does come across as more progressive than titillating to modern viewers now that women in trousers are a common sight.)
While it can be argued that A Trip to the Moon is a clever indictment of colonialism wrapped in science fiction trappings, The Palace of the Arabian Nights keeps its goals simple: create a mashup of Asian culture and display it with maximum beauty. The results say more about the French filmmakers than the culture they are mimicking.
The Palace of the Arabian Nights has no intertitles but we are able to follow the story thanks to the “boniment” or descriptive narration written by Méliès and intended to be spoken as the film plays out on the screen. Méliès also used the boniment to pat himself on the back, as shown by the following narration in his version of Robinson Crusoe: “This new effect in cinematography is obtained by an entirely new method never before utilised, and is of the most strikingly realistic character, the flashes of lightning being an exact counterpart of those in nature, and lends a wonderful sense of realism to the picture.”
The narration varied from market to market and the names of characters changed between languages, much the same way characters may be renamed in different markets when modern films are dubbed. This version of the narration matches the English language descriptions for the film in the 1905 Star Films catalog.
(Incidentally, a print of the film cost $210 in 1905 and $280 extra for a colored version. Distributors could also obtain an abridged print for a discounted price. You can read all these juicy details and enjoy the original catalog description of the film by downloading the Star Films catalog here. Only in PDF format, I’m afraid.)
The look of The Palace of the Arabian Nights is very much in the Méliès style: plenty of elaborate sets, animated backdrops and clever editing tricks to heighten the magical flavor of the film. The use of color is particularly delightful. It’s a pity that the entire picture does not survive in color. The missing segments are replaced by black and white and tinted scenes, which don’t have quite the same oomph. However, we should be grateful that any of the color sequences survive as many archives opted to copy silent movies onto black and white film for preservation. Far too many color films of the silent era are lost and we will never know how beautiful they were on their initial release. At least The Palace of the Arabian Nights gives us a taste.
In many ways, Méliès is similar to the purveyors of fantasy of later eras. Like Cecil B. DeMille and George Lucas, he preferred the control of a studio environment. It resembled the familiar live theater and made it all the easier for him to create his famous special effects. I can see Méliès thriving in our current effects-laden film culture, using motion capture and special effects to create elaborate worlds. The film industry has always resembled a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to the other. One decade, realism reigns and then it is replaced by a period that prizes artificiality. Méliès was caught by one of those pendulum swings but that does not make his work any less worthy.
(I am so ready for another swing of the pendulum. The computer-enhanced everything and that weird overexposed/desaturated color in modern films is giving me headaches.)
However, just because Méliès preferred the old ways of filmmaking does not mean that he was without modern ambition. He wanted to tell longer, more elaborate stories, to create a deeper film experience for his audience. The best example of this ambition is A Trip to the Moon, his most famous film.
The Palace of the Arabian Nights is longer than A Trip to the Moon but it lacks the earlier film’s narrative drive. Simply put, there are not enough people telling the hero “No.” We have the scene where he is refused the hand of the princess but after that, everyone he meets is friendly and willing to help. That’s all very nice for him but it changes the film from an adventure to a travelogue. (For this reason, I actually prefer Ferdinand Zecca’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, produced by Pathe. We get very real conflict and danger, making for a far more dynamic film even if it lacks the visual complexity of a Méliès production.)
To make matters worse, some of the elements lifted from The Arabian Nights are defanged. For example, Khalafar is quite similar to the magician in Aladdin. He meets our hero at a low point in his life, offers to help him find a fabulous treasure and then turns out to be a double-crosser who was only using the young thief to obtain a certain lamp for himself. Conflict! However, Khalafar turns out to be an honest and faithful friend who is helping Prince Charming because he’s such a nice guy. Good for Prince Charming but a letdown for the audience.
The film’s lack of conflict also diminishes its visual interest. While A Trip to the Moon’s most famous scene is the closeup of the rocket embedded in the moon’s eye, there are also memorable scenes of moon men being smashed into smoke with umbrellas and the skin-of-their-teeth escape of the explorers as they plunge into the ocean.
The Palace of the Arabian Nights is staid by comparison, we are merely led to one wonder after another and invited to look around. Is it beautiful? Indeed! Is it dynamic? Not really. It’s no coincidence that the most memorable scene in the film is the wonderfully strange battle between the prince’s posse and a band of skeletons. Prime fantasy goodness, ladies and gentlemen!
Méliès never used half-measures in his pictures and the layered complexity of the film—along with the delectable hand-coloring—make the journey an enjoyable one even if it is not as exciting as it could have been. Come for the color and stay for the clever production design, The Palace of the Arabian Nights is definitely worth visiting.
Where can I see it?
The Palace of the Arabian Nights was released on DVD as part of Flicker Alley’s Méliès collection. The set is spendy but well worth the price. The film has a lovely orchestral score by Robert Israel.