Combustible Celluloid
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With: George Robey, Fritz Kortner, John Garrick, Pearl Argyle, Laurence Hanray, Anna May Wong
Written by: Sidney Gilliat, Edward Knoblock, DuGarde Peach, based on the play by Oscar Asche
Directed by: Walter Forde
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: English
Running Time: 102
Date: 05/01/1934

Chu Chin Chow (1934)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Open Sesame

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Last year, Anna May Wong (1905-61) had something of a "comeback" whenher film Piccadilly (1929) received a restoration and a re-release.Likewise, at least two other Wong films, The Toll of the Sea (1922) andThe Thief of Bagdad (1924) can now be seen on DVD. Experts proclaimedthat the lovely, haunting Ms. Wong would soon have her own cult, muchlike that of Louise Brooks or Josephine Baker.

VCI Entertainment's spectacular new three-disc DVD set Chu Chin Chow pitches in, albeit in a minor way. This 1934 talkie gives Ms. Wong a couple of powerful scenes to play, looking both dangerous and sexy either dancing or brandishing a dagger. The film is beautifully staged and shot, but ultimately its stuffy, inert musical numbers drag it down.

Adapted from a very popular stage success from its day, Chu Chin Chow tells a version of the Ali Baba story, complete with bad guy Abu Hasan (Fritz Kortner) and slave girls Maryana (Pearl Argyle) and Zahrat (Wong). George Robey plays Ali Baba, and John Garrick plays his buffoonish brother. Of course, Chu Chin Chow delves into the secret cave full of stolen jewels guarded by a password ("open sesame") that most Americans probably know from Popeye and Bugs Bunny cartoons.

But just when the plot begins to take you away, one of those leaden songs kicks in, many of them sung in a headache-inducing baritone.

DVD Details: Unfortunately, the biggest problem comes with the disc itself. Supposedly remastered and restored, the image appears dark and fuzzy, and the soundtrack is full of hiss. And as much as I love VCI and the good work they do with rare films, they never include English subtitles, and I have never missed them more than I did here.

The other extras range in quality. Film expert Jay Fenton provides liner notes as well as a commentary track, but his nasally reading quickly made me switch back to the film's scratchy soundtrack. There are some excellent cast and crew bios, photos and lobby cards. The set also comes with Ali Baba Nights, which is the 78-minute edited version of Chu Chin Chow that opened in the United States in the 1930s, and the quality is much the same as the longer version. A second feature film, Abdul the Damned (1935), hails from about the same genre and time frame and also stars Fritz Kortner. Best of all is the masterful Max Flesicher cartoon, Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1937), as well as trailers for several other VCI discs, including Robinson Crusoe, Hannibal, Blonde Ice, The Southerner and ...And Then There Were None.

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