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Friday, August 09, 2013

Somethings Never Change

A friend in Toronto wrote me yesterday:

I saw an oddity yesterday.” Ali Baba Goes to Town” 1937. It is the only Eddie Cantor I’ve ever seen, as I don’t find his brand of humour amusing. But I watched it because of a one line description I read.

In it, Eddie is an extra on an Arabian Nights set, and falls asleep and dreams he is in Ancient Baghdad. The Sultan is experiencing social unrest and Eddie’s solution is to have him impose Democracy and New Deal solutions to solve all of Persia’s ills.
He has the Sultan give up his Sultanate, impose elections, and change his position to President. To placate the poor and indigent, he has the Sultan creates breadlines (one wheat, one rye), he introduces high taxes for the very rich, and creates public works projects to put the unemployed to work building roads to nowhere and building bridges in the desert. When the Sultan observes there are no rivers in the desert, Eddie says build the bridges anyway, we’ll find the rivers later. He says this kind of thing works very well in America.

The weaver of the Magic Carpet can’t find the right magic words to make fly. Eddie says that the President in the United States says one word, and everything goes up: “Inflation!” he shouts, and the carpet flies.

There’s one scene where the Sultan has visitors from all countries paying homage to him, but he can’t communicate with the delegation from Nubia. Eddie tries phrases in Arabic, Spanish, French, and Yiddish to no avail, then gets an inspiration and says Heidi-Ho, Heidi-Hay and they connect using Callowayisms.
This is very funny, and would have been just fine had they left it there. But Eddie puts on blackface and leads them in a bop-swing number. The only redeeming feature of this (by today’s standards) is the sight of stone faced Visier-villain John Carridine, tall, dressed all in black, unwillingly succumbing to the rhythms of the music and unconsciously snapping his fingers to the beat. One of the secondary bands names is the Baghdaddies.

Not bad, and surprisingly, pretty trenchant criticism throughout of the New Deal.

Then I wrote back:

You are so lucky.
I did not see Ali Baba, but I wish I had.
One of my fondest childhood memories is an ancient 78 my grandmother had, which we played on a large, wind-up Victrola. It was "That Old Sultan's Harem", or "Give Me That Harem", or some such, by Eddie.

It was done just after World War I, and it referenced the Peace Conference at Versailles, where the Allies were digging into
the assets of the defeated Central Powers. Thus, it was a kind of contemporary satire:

A website had the lyrics as follows:

I dreamed that I was at the Peace Conference,
Where England and France and Italy
Each got her share of her indemnity.
And after they divided up the dish,
They asked me if there's anything that I'd wish.
I was so shy, I thought they'd die,
When I made this reply:

Give me the Harem, the old Sultan's Harem,
That's the only thing I crave.
The Sultan's too old, for he's past eighty-three,
And his thousand wives need a fellow like me.
I'll never beat them, with kindness I'll treat them,
And all the I ask is a trial;
Imagine me sitting on a carpeted floor,
Telling my slave to bring me wife "Ninety Four."
I'll be so gallant, I'm chucked full of talent,
Won't you give that Harem to me?

This, however, is not quite correct.
Since I have heard it many times when I was young, I know that it begins thusly:

I had a dream last night that was immense,
I dreamt that I was at the Peace Conference...

That I am correct is demonstrated by the second stanza, which goes:

The diplomats all listened to my plea,
They wondered just what was the matter with me,
But I kept on asking for a trial,
I tried to show them it was worth the while.
Just then they asked if I was qualified,
And I replied, "You folks will be satisfied,
I'll prove to you, that I'll be true,
But here's what you must do:"

there are 8 lines - count 'em.
The first stanza as they have it only has 7 lines.

Too bad about the blackface, but it was counted a legit art form at the time, and I must really strain
to see anything too vile in a shared stereotype experience. I would like to know more about Cantor and
Jolson and others to learn about what their understanding of it was.

Ah, the Vizier is always the villain.
Even though there were major domos in Old Baghdad, corresponding a bit to butlers, there must
have been a saying: "The Vizier Did It!"

Did they actually locate Baghdad in Persia?

Then he replied:
Yes, Persia is referred to.

In the election the Sultan, Abdullah, is referred to as Honest Abe. He has 365 wives in his Harem. Eddie suggests that they should be unionized and wonders what the Sultan does in leap years.
By the way, the Sultan is running unopposed, and Eddie gets elected as a write in because:
1) his name is Al Babson which the locals construe as Ali Baba Jr, and
2) and that he was really behind all the Sultan's reforms (and they liked his swing tune).

He only loses in two upstate Persian districts Mainisha and Vermontica (or something like that; Maine and Vermont it turns out are the only two states Roosevelt didn't carry in the 1936 election).
Eddie fears the angry Sultan will "berl him in erl". The redoubtable and reliable Douglas Dumbrille once again plays an evil prince and his consort is Louise Hovick (aka Gypsy Rose Lee).

Now you know a lot more about Eddie Cantor than you used to, and have had a peek into some interesting things, and seen that a lot of things back then sound just the same as the things today.

I miss that old... Victrola.... that old Sultan's Victrola, it's the only thing I crave.
You can keep your aeroplanes and Mazda lamps,
and those ball point pens just give me cramps!


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