Grade: B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)

“Open Sesame!”

Who hasn’t heard that phrase before, or immediately recognized it as the voice of Ali Baba? For that we can thank French translator Antoine Galland, who in the 1700s added “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to One Thousand and One Nights. Over time it became one of the collection’s most popular tales, but it gets a revisionist spin in this 1944 color film starring Jon Hall, who’s best known to Baby Boomers as Ramar of the Jungle and the director-star of the campy ‘60s sci-fi flicks The Beach Girls and the Monster and The Navy vs. the Night Monsters.

In the original tale, Ali is a common woodsman who happens upon a thieves’ hideout, discovers the secret of gaining entrance, and sneaks a bag of gold coins. But his sister-in-law learns about it and forces Ali to reveal where he got the gold from, so his brother can follow suit. That brother is killed, but with the help of a slave girl Ali gets revenge and emerges victorious.

In this film version, Ali is the rich son of the Caliph of Baghdad who escapes being killed with his father after Mongols seize the kingdom. Ali is taken in by the thieves and becomes the adopted son of their leader, Baba. Instead of a plot revolving around thievery and wealth, Ali and his band are freedom fighters dedicated to killing the Khan (Kurt Katch) and retaking Baghdad for their people.

Though it’s the kind of solid-but-generic sword-and-sandal film that Hollywood loved to make during the Golden Age, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves also has a campy feel to it because of the presence of veteran character actor Andy Devine, who made a career out of being the Western hero’s sidekick and delivering comic relief. It’s hard to see his rotund frame in Arab garb and hear his familiar raspy high-pitched voice without thinking of him in buckskin as Jingles in TV’s Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, or Cookie from the Roy Rogers feature films. Others will recognize him as the driver in John Ford’s Stagecoach, but regardless, seeing him in a different costume adventure or seeing him for the first time is enough to make you smile.

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is pure escapist fare, with a formulaic combination of romance and light adventure. It’s an old-time swashbuckler made more interesting because of a childhood pledge to marry and the Khan’s desire to wed the daughter of the ambitious Prince Cassim (Frank Puglia). Though there really isn’t much sizzle between Amara (Maria Montez) and either man she’s “intended” for, the romantic tug-o-war side plot adds a welcome twist of originality—especially when several climactic scenes seem to draw heavily from the 1939 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Like most films from this era, the violence is less extreme and the romance is toned down, making it more family-friendly than newer adventures. But will it play in your household “Peoria”? I’m guessing yes, because it’s in color, the plot moves along at a decent clip, the costumes are fun, and the characters are engaging enough. Though it was shot mostly on a backlot, Utah and California location filming adds touch of the desert. There’s also an easy sense of story that’s unfettered by uncertainties. That is, the tone of the film lets you know the hero isn’t going to be killed no matter what kind of fix he finds himself in, and nothing other than a single death (common in films of this period) will spoil the mood.

Hall sports the kind of “Pencil Thin Mustache” Jimmy Buffett sang about that was popular in the decade this film was made, but he’s not the only dashing hero. Turhan Bey cuts quite a romantic swath as Jamiel, the princess’s good-looking and loyal servant who also idolizes Ali Baba as a Robin Hood figure. He’s an accomplished knife-thrower and that plays a big part in the action. When you put it all together, this 1944 version of the popular Arabian Nights tale is as good as any that’s been made so far. And once again, Kino Lorber has done a great job with the transfer to HD. The Technicolor looks as rich and fully saturated as it once did in theaters.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 87 minutes, Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Best Buy link
Not rated (would be PG for mild violence and some suggestive scenes)

Language: 0/10—Clean as a whistle

Sex: 2/10—We’re led to believe the princess is bathing naked (she’s shown bare-shouldered in the water) and isn’t shy at all about being discovered, but that’s really the extent of it 

Violence: 4/10—Swordfighting, knives and stabbings, and after the opening scene where the Caliph is killed, just one minor character we care about dies; in another scene, a man is tortured (but we later learn it was staged)

Adult situations: 2/10—Some drinking and festival-style celebrating

Takeaway: There was something comforting in the wartime and postwar movies that gave audiences a chance to escape and become emotionally involved with screen characters, but not overly stressed out