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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: The tragically camp exotica of Maria Montez

Screen Grabs: The tragically camp exotica of Maria Montez

Plus: Life and love in volcanoes, organic wine's moment, a very French romantic triangle, and delightful Cambodian sci-fi

Though a popular 1971 movie called Summer of ’42 made that time seem gauzy and carefree, in actuality the US 80 years ago was busy, busy, busy—still adjusting to being newly in a war (Pearl Harbor had forced that issue the prior December), with new austerities to cope with just as the Depression was finally receding. At least there was a lot of work to be had, partly because much of the male workforce was being redirected into military service. But plentiful jobs and good wages didn’t necessarily translate into improved leisure time. Strict limits on gas, tire and car purchases (to save resources for the war effort) put the kibosh on many vacation hopes.

One thing Americans could do was go to the movies, which they did—more than they ever would again, in this era just before the arrival of television. If they couldn’t travel, at least they could enjoy its projected illusion, and the wartime thirst for escapism meant the more “exotic” and unrealistic it was, the better. A vogue was started by the 1940 live-action fantasia The Thief of Baghdad, an unusually lavish British production that was a global smash. (At least in Allied nations; it reached Axis and occupied ones after the war.) Hollywood took note, particularly Universal Films, which saw a niche as yet unexploited by its rivals.

Though the studio had tightened its budgetary belt after a series of costly flops in the 1930s (which ousted its founders), no expense was spared on 1942’s Arabian Nights, U’s first feature in three-strip Technicolor. The stars weren’t A-list, but they were certainly photogenic, and minimally clad: Sabu, the ever-shirtless young Indian actor put under contract after Thief; Jon Hall, a standard hunk whose “exotic” bona fides derived from a Tahitian mother and starring in 1937’s tropical adventure The Hurricane; and Maria Montez, a newcomer of complicated multinational origins whom Universal figured it could promote into its own “pin-up girl” sensation to rival other studios’ Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, and so forth.

Bearing very little resemblance to the titular classic tales (nor did Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves two years later), Arabian Nights was pure sword-and-sandal silliness, a string of flimsy cliches and stereotypes too completely divorced from reality to take offense at, even now. There were actors in brownface and yellowface, accents flat as Kansas; male leads like Hall were coated with bronzer. Dialogue generally ran a short gamut from “You are the most beautiful creature in Allah’s creation!”-type mush to the likes of “You will die the death of a thousand tortures!” There was broad comedy relief from such clowns as Billy Gilbert, Shemp Howard, and Andy Devine.

Unlike The Thief of Bagdad, there were no supernatural plot devices or special effects here (nor in any of Universal’s followups); the main lure was cheesecake, beefcake, romance, action, and eye-poppingly colorful kitsch. To watch this Arabian Nights now is to take in a rainbow of hues you’d forgotten existed, all periwinkle, peach, and puce, whether on a harem girl’s see-through silk or a palace made of painted cardboard. There’s no nutritional value whatsoever, but the eye candy is still delicious.

It was indeed a big hit—so the studio rushed into production more films that kept Montez and Hall being thrown together yet thwarted in settings as exotic as the backlot could contrive. (Sabu was there too, until he got drafted, requiring other actors to don dusky shoe-polish makeup in roles intended for him.) Three of those movies are being released on Blu-ray this weekend by Kino Lorber: Not Nights or Ali Baba, or the immortal 1944 camp classic Cobra Woman (in which Montez played “good” and “evil” twins), but…well, the other ones. None were quite as expensive or visually lush as the first entry, either, and their brevity (each just 76 or 77 minutes) is another testament to their nature as assembly-line product. But The Maria Montez and Jon Hall Collection is nothing if not fun.

Released just four months after NightsWhite Savage has La Montez as Princess Tahia, ruler of tropical Temple Island, whose “sacred pool” is lined with jewels that bad honkies would like to get their hands on. As well as on her, of course—gangsterish villain Thomas Gomez says things like “If ya touch her again I’ll kill ya!” Still, she reserves her heart for Australian shark hunter Hall, because “Aye yam thee Preencess! And aye do as a please!!” There is cringe-inducing “inscrutable Oriental”-ism from Scots-heritage Missourian Sidney Toler (then famous for playing Charlie Chan), Hawaiian-style steel guitar, a “native” dance number that’s a bit Busby Berkeley, and an earthquake climax.

By the time of Gypsy Wildcat in mid-1944, Montez—apparently determined to live up to the “fiery,” “tempestuous,” “haughty” etc. characters she invariably played—was loudly tired of deserts, islands, and desert islands. So they stuck her in this sort of “Hungarian Crapsody” in which she wears more clothes (albeit occasionally the see-through kind), waves a tambourine, travels with a very Hollywood “Roma” caravan, and turns out to be a princess anyway. Hall swashed a lot of buckles saving her from a “wicked Baron” (Douglass Dumbrille).

It was back to the sand with 1945’s Sudan, where her Queen Naila is kidnapped by slavers and rescued by roguish thief Hall. Torn between him and ex-slave rebel leader Turhan Bey (who was also in most of these films), the incognito royal is eventually won over to the side of truth, justice, and the American Way… or whatever its equivalent in this fanciful notion of Middle Eastern antiquity. She’s ready—after all, her hairdo is already fit for the jitterbug floor. Hall, on the other hand, gets stretched on the rack, a not-uncommon occurrence in movies whose mildly kinky “barbarian” thrills also included brandings and whippings. Egypt here looks so much like the Southwest, you’ll expect the US Cavalry to come riding in.

Then the war, and the vogue, was over. Universal wasn’t quite sure what to do with demanding Maria Montez, who couldn’t demonstrably act, sing, or dance, and whose genre (in which she could get by looking “imperious” and “enticing”) was no longer box-office. Her movies were demoted to B&W, dimming “The Queen of Technicolor’s” appeal considerably. Dropped by the studio, she headed to Europe with actor husband Jean-Pierre Aumont, where they made films in a similar vein like Siren of Atlantis—but audiences were no longer interested. (Their daughter Tina became a staple in both exploitative and adventurous European movies in the ’60s and ’70s, including ones by Losey, Bertolucci, Fellini, Philippe Garrel, Rosi, Tinto Brass, Jean Rollin, and Catherine Breillat.)

Still pursuing an increasingly unlikely comeback, she died in 1951 at age 39, of a heart attack induced by excess dieting—a fate not untypical for actors at the time. In fact, Sabu died under similar circumstances 12 years later, at the same age. Jon Hall lived much longer, eventually leaving the profession, though not before a single directorial feature: 1965 drive-in beach party-creature feature Monster from the Surf aka Beach Girls and the Monster, a camp classic to treasure right up (or down) there with Cobra Woman.

This week’s big new commercial releases are derived from beach-read bestsellers old (Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris) and recent (Where the Crawdads Sing), plus Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles—in the unlikely semi-remake form of family animation feature Paws of Fury. More interesting prospects are four lower-profile arrivals at local theaters:

Adult Beverages: Organic Wine, Hot Lava

Two new documentaries examine professions much engaged with the natural world. Lori Miller’s Living Wine (which opens Fri/15 at the Elmwood and plays Sun/17 only at the Smith Rafael) roams from Santa Cruz to Yuba County sampling vineyards in the emerging “natural wine movement.” Still comprising under 1% of California wine production, these growers eschew the “chemical dependencies” that have long invaded most agriculture, preferring purer, less mechanized methods—including, yes, barefooted people stomping grapes in vats. The result isn’t just good for soil health and the general eco-system, it also results in a more distinctive, varied end product.

Attractively shot in handsome NorCal settings, this film offers the pleasant buzz of a weekend in Napa or Sonoma. There is some discussion of traditional sexism in the wine industry, as well as the escalating challenges of climate change, with crops risking damage from excess heat, not to mention the smoke and ash from wildfires. But mostly Living Wine feels like a kind of informercial for its half-dozen or so spotlighted growers, one that is well-crafted but maybe (at nearly 90 minutes) TMI for those with just a casual interest in the subject. Of course if you’re serious about wine, its process and future, you may well be fascinated.

Withstanding heat on a whole different plane is part of the job for the protagonists in Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, which opens at the AMC Kabuki and Alamo Drafthouse this Fri/15 (plus the Smith Rafael the 22nd). When soon-to-be-married French citizens Katia and Maurice Krafft met at college in the late 1960s, they soon realized they had a lot in common—she was a chemist, he a geologist, territories that would overlap in a mutually obsessive career pursuit as volcanologists. It was a dangerous (and finally lethal) profession that took them from Iceland to Indonesia, from Oregon to Colombia.

They shot a lot of footage en route, and there are few things more riveting than watching an active volcano eruption or lava flow. (They even filmed the latter underwater.) A hit at Sundance earlier this year, the documentary also charms with interludes of collage animation. It is flawed by the choice of groggily monotone Miranda July as English-language narrator. But the Kraffts’ curious tale, framed as a winsomely eccentric scientific love story, still impresses as a unique matchup between human idiosyncrasy and awesome natural phenomena.

Both Sides of the Blade

Also French and in love—rather more stormily so, sans need for life-threatening external conditions—are the primary figures in Claire Denis’ new drama, which won her the directorial Silver Bear at Berlin earlier this year. Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) are in a domestic partnership so rapturous that we get six minutes of wordless bliss before anyone speaks a line of dialogue. Yet everything else is complicated: Jean is having a hard time rebuilding a relationship with the motherless teenage son (Issa Perica) raised by his own mother (Bulle Ogier) while he was in prison. He’s commencing a business venture with an old friend (Gregoire Colin as Francois) who happens to also be Sara’s ex—and when she stumbles across the latter’s path one day, all their long-dormant passion reignites.

Both Sides was shot during COVID shutdown, which it incorporates into the plot. But the required filmmaking strictures still weigh heavily on what’s essentially an old-fashioned melodramatic love triangle. One that’s taken very, very seriously—albeit not necessarily with more depth or nuance than when Barbara Stanwyck might’ve been torn between Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, for all the minute attention paid to the principals’ emotions. We spend a great deal of time with them in isolation, but that feels less revealing than a forced pandemic logistical necessity. Too much explanatory intel is withheld for too long, despite the fireworks eventually generated by actors who are Denis regulars.

Given that we spend two full hours with these characters, it seems we ought to know more about them—such as why, for instance, Sara turns out to be a straight-faced compulsive liar. Has she always been that way? What is it about the fleetingly-seen Francois that undoes her self-control? (Perhaps Christine Angot’s original novel was more insightful.) There are some powerhouse elements here, but Both Sides must be considered a mixed bag—another experiment among many by the always interesting if erratic Denis. It opens Fri/15 at the Smith Rafael Film Center.

Karmalink 

Taking a considerable imaginative leap beyond such real-world relationship hangups is this first feature by Jake Watchel. In a near-future Phnom Penh, 13-year-old Leng Heng (Leng Heng Prak) hopes to rescue his poor family from imminent eviction by developers, pursuing the phantom treasure of a gold Buddha statue he keeps seeing in past-life dreams. He soon acquires a helper in older teen Srey Leak (Srey Leak Chhith), who’s already lost her home. While they navigate ephemeral clues from his subconscious, they’re also drawn into experimental research overseen by a “brain doctor” i.e. neuroscientist (Cindy Sirinya Bishop) seeking a link between memory loss and enlightenment.

A sort of low-key, serpentine sci-fi adventure balanced between slum life and high technology, Karmalink starts out looking like a Cambodian Goonies, then edges more towards Matrix territory. But it always has its own, non-derivative personality, in inventive visual presentation as well as unpretentious grapplings with Buddhist concepts of reincarnation, mysticism, philosophy, etc. Neither a fantasy thrill ride or a meditative objet d’art, but a clever halfway point between, this enterprising venture (using lead actors drawn from the US-raised director’s filmmaking course for children) is a small but singular delight. It opens Fri/15 at Berkeley’s Elmwood, simultaneous with release to most major On Demand platforms.

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