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Siren of Bagdad

Siren of Bagdad(1953)

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teaser Siren of Bagdad (1953)

Paul Henreid pokes some fun at himself in Siren of Bagdad (1953), a campy costume romp in which he stars as a magician whose troupe plays gigs around the Arabian desert. When his dancing girls are kidnapped and taken to Bagdad, he teams with an ex-sultan and his daughter (Patricia Medina) to get them back, with his magic coming in handy, too. In one spoofy scene, he lights two hookahs at once -- a la Henreid's lighting of two cigarettes in Now, Voyager (1942).

Siren of Bagdad was produced by Sam Katzman, prolific producer of low-budget, often schlocky films who worked in every genre imaginable throughout his long career. He ground out films cheaply and quickly, and they usually made money. In 1953 alone, seventeen releases bore his name, including titles like Killer Ape (a Jungle Jim movie starring Johnny Weissmuller) and Prisoners of the Casbah.

Henreid later wrote that Siren's director, Richard Quine, "wanted to do the film as a satire, a Chaplinesque burlesque of pirate films in general, and he succeeded. I was a little fed up with the swashbuckling life, and I went along and had a great deal of fun making it. All of us at the studio thought it would be great."

At a preview, Henreid recalled, "every situation joke worked, and the audience howled. I came out of the theater beaming, and Katzman, Quine and I congratulated one another on the very funny picture." But Katzman's wife did not believe the film would be a hit despite the strong preview, and when Henreid pressed her as to why, she told him, "Because people who go to pirate pictures want just that, a pirate picture. They aren't as sophisticated as this preview audience... You can't kid around with them. They want it played straight. This picture pokes fun at the sacred formulas -- and I don't think they'll accept that."

"As it turned out," wrote Henreid, "she was absolutely right... The picture was a flop!"

The critics were more mixed, however. The New York Times didn't even review the picture, while the Los Angeles Times called it the "funniest spoof of Oriental melodrama in years."

Trade paper The Hollywood Reporter declared, "The kidding mood comes over successfully with plenty of laughs...[and]...Henreid turns in an enjoyable tongue-in-cheek performance... [He] demonstrates his all-around versatility, showing he is as skillful at comedy as he is in dramatic or straight roles... Sam Katzman [gives] the film his usual lavish production, with Technicolor, impressive settings and a bevy of gorgeous, thinly-clad beauts."

But Variety echoed Mrs. Katzman's comments: "Fans of this type of high romance aren't likely to accept the spoofing of a favorite form of escapism, which, when played straight, has enough chuckles for the cosmopolite without straining for more... The players get into the spirit of the script and directorial aims, but there was no need to pad the hokum for comedy... Not near as funny as the makers may have hoped."

Variety also added, "Miss Medina wears harem briefs attractively."

Appearing as Henreid's bumbling assistant is Hans Conried (yes, "Henreid and Conried"), who in one scene gets turned into a beautiful woman (Vivian Mason) who speaks with Conried's voice. This was one of five feature films Conried made in 1953 (including voice work), three of which contain his most notable performances: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), Peter Pan (1953), and The Twonky (1953). Siren of Bagdad, on the other hand, was hardly a high point from his perspective. He called it "shameful... a terrible film, the kind we called 'tits-and-sand' -- sort of a Western in burnoose. I think in two weeks we had a musical number, the burning of a city, an attack; it was unbelievable." He also said that any verbal flubs that exist in the film are there because there was no time or money to shoot additional takes.

Siren of Bagdad opened on a double bill with The 49th Man (1953), an atomic-themed spy thriller starring John Ireland and Richard Denning, and also produced by Sam Katzman.

By Jeremy Arnold

Suzanne Gargiulo, Hans Conried: A Biography
Paul Henreid, Ladies Man

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