This Russian émigré production is a visual feast thanks to gorgeous sets and the location filming in Tunisia. It’s the familiar tale of a certain young woman and her rare talent for creating cliffhangers…
One down, a thousand to go…
Arabian Nights fantasies were beloved entertainment throughout the silent era but this is one of the rare productions that takes the story back to its original source. The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights has a frame story, the adventures of the resourceful Scheherazade. Newly married to Shahryar, a deranged monarch who murders his brides after the wedding night, Scheherazade manages to keep her head by entertaining her husband with exciting stories and always trailing off at the most infuriating cliffhangers. Nowadays, Scheherazade would have a bright future at HBO but in the story, she is just happy to keep her head.
Tales of the Thousand and One Nights (Les contes de mille et une nuits) has fallen into obscurity since its initial release and no complete print is known to survive (though partial prints have been recently screened). We’re going to be taking a look at an abridged version prepared for home release in 9.5mm. Even the title was abridged, cut down to The Arabian Nights.
This review is the culmination of several months of work. This film is obscure, barely a footnote in film history, and this review would not have been possible without a little bit of help.
I have a lot of people to thank and I hope you’ll join me in giving them a hand. First, a huge thanks to Christopher Bird for providing the print, arranging for the transfer and sharing his research. The excellent transfer is courtesy of Dino Everett and the USC Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive. I also wish to thank David Shepard and Ben Model for lending their time and expertise to my research efforts and Lenny Borger for kindly allowing me to use his production stills in this review. This was very much a group endeavor and I am extremely grateful for all the kind assistance I received. #TeamSilentMovie!
The film opens with Scheherazade beginning to weave her tales. Her story starts on the ocean, Princess Goul-y-Hanar (Nathalie Kovanko) is enjoying a pleasure cruise but her ship is caught in a storm and sinks. The princess is the only survivor and she washes up on the shores of a strange, pagan land. That’s not just a colorful phrase, these are literal pagans. She is caught in the act of praying, a severe crime in the pagan kingdom, and is brought before the sultan to be judged.
The sultan’s son, Prince Soleiman (Nicholas Rimsky), swears to inflict punishment on the princess himself but it is all a ruse as he is a secret convert to Islam himself. He frees her but does not realize that he has become the target of investigation himself. Soon, he is marked for execution and could really use some divine intervention… which he gets. Soleiman rejoins Goul-y-Hanar and they set out for her home country.
While the narrative frame of Tales of the Thousand and One Nights is based on the original, the story Scheherazade tells is a mashup of several tales in the collection. It’s one of those “out of the frying pan and into the fire” narrative, with our hero and heroine constantly wandering into danger and being forced to extricate themselves. Well, Soleiman does most of the extricating as Goul-y-Hanar is well and truly damseled.
One interesting story element is its inclusion of real world religion in the narrative. The Islamic faith is treated with respect, on par with how a Christian protagonist’s religion would be presented in a Hollywood production, up to and including divine intervention. Most Arabian Nights stories will drop semi-religious phrases, show a mosque or two and even incorporate prayer but it is more for local color than an actual driving force in the narrative. It is interesting that this inclusion was barely mentioned in reviews of the film. (Please, no political comments. Thanks.)
The leading performers wear their costumes well but Nicholas Rimsky seems vaguely embarrassed in his role as Prince Soleiman. Maybe it’s the shoes, who can say? (At least we can say that the “running around in heels” thing is unisex, which is more than can be said for certain modern films.) In any case, he lacks the spark and dynamism that one hopes for in a brash fairy tale hero. Nathalie Kovanko (wife of director Victor Tourjansky) is more game for the material but she is basically stuck in an endless cycle of kidnap, rescue, costume change, rinse, repeat.
Tourjansky, Kovanko and Rimsky were all part of the Russian filmmaker community that had fled the revolution and set up shop in France. Fans of the émigré productions will spot some familiar faces. In addition to Rimsky and Kovanko, the film also features Bartkevich (last seen getting murdered in The House of Mystery) as yet another wicked sultan and Varvara Yanova (who played Dorian Grey in a lost 1915 adaptation) as an erstwhile harem favorite.
The cinematography is wondrous but the direction is rather staid. The characters are stylized in their movements and seem more interested in striking poses than in acting like living, breathing people. This is the tendency of silent fairy tale films in general but one expects more from the accomplished Russian emigres. That being said, the film does have some excellent scenes of wonder, particularly when the prince discovers that everyone has been frozen in time. Perfectly eerie.
I have no idea how the original film played but the cut down version zips along at a furious pace and in the process manages to avoid the leaden quality that prevents The Thief of Bagdad from being a true masterpiece. We skip from setting to setting and the film takes full advantage of its setting. Much walking across desert sands and crawling along beaches. This solid reality helps prevent the picture from slipping into cartoonishness, another common risk of fairy tale pictures.
Let’s take a moment to feast our eyes:
While it was unusual for a European or American film crew to schlep their gear to North Africa or thereabouts, it was not unheard of. In the pre-war days, the merry lunatics of Kalem famously shot From the Manger to the Cross in Egypt and what is modern Israel. Rex Ingram packed up Alice Terry and Ramon Novarro to make the 1924 version of The Arab in Tunisia.
The picture was released in the United States in 1927 but it does not seem to have made much of an impression. While Michael Strogoff, another Tourjansky-Kovanko production, was given a gala premiere and considerable press coverage in American movie trade periodicals, I have had difficulty tracking down much information on Tales. Mordaunt Hall’s review on the New York Times is lukewarm. He praises the film’s look but states that the story is dull and that Scheherazade’s husband must have been humoring her by pretending to be diverted by her tale.
This raises an interesting question: is this a case of abridgement actually helping a film? As far as I can tell, the cutdown version does not remove any major plot elements. Does it pick up the pace of the picture by simply compressing everything? We will never know as we do not have an original print for comparison but it is an interesting question.
(By the way, the abridged version also compresses runtime by overlaying text onto scenes. It’s pretty cool.)
Is Tales of the Thousand and One Nights a lost masterpiece? No. Is it a capable and fun piece of entertainment? You’d better believe it. Nathalie Kovanko makes the most of her role, the picture is gorgeous and while it does not break any new ground, it is still fun and diverting.
Where can I see it?
Available on YouTube! Enjoy, kiddos!