Posted by Susan Doll on November 8, 2010
Last Saturday morning, I spoke before a small crowd at Oakton Community College, advocating the teaching of media literacy to high-school and middle-school students. Among the many reasons for teaching media or film literacy is to understand how movies are cultural artifacts that capture the issues, problems, and concerns of the era that produced it. In my research, I found an article from the journal Social Studies in which education expert Trenia Walker, who teaches media literacy to high-school educators, noted that too often teachers use movies to “illustrate” a historical time period or event. In other words, they show something like JFK or Far and Away, because according to the teachers, “Students would see what a time period was really like” (“Historical Literacy: Reading History Through Film,” January/February 2006). But, the narrative feature film is a fictional mode, even when the story is a biopic or a historical drama based on an actual person or event. So, showing a movie in this manner misrepresents both the history and the film.
Movies can be used as a tool to help teach history but not in such a simplistic manner. Instead, character types, plot events, themes, genre conventions, and bits of dialogue must be interpreted to understand how they recreate, reflect, or recast the issues, problems, concerns, and preoccupations of the era that produced the film. In other words, instead of showing Pearl Harbor (2001) to show the attitudes and concerns of America at the outbreak of World War II, teachers should be showing Casablanca (1942) and explaining the anti-isolationist position that is part of the film’s subtext. Unfortunately, as Ms. Walker pointed out in her article, the vast majority of teachers and schools associate “literacy” only with print media, and their methodologies and teaching models are all geared toward print literacy.
These ideas were still swirling around in my head when I attended the classic movie series at the Bank of America Theater that evening to see Eddie Cantor in Ali Baba Goes to Town, a vehicle tailor-made for the musical comedy star that turned out to be a perfect example of history via the movies. Released in 1937, Ali Baba Goes to Town is a snapshot of Depression-era America, offering jokes, wisecracks, characters, and musical styles reflective of the politics, tastes, and culture of the time. Cantor stars as Aloysius (call me “Al”) Babson, a happy-go-lucky, star-struck hobo bound for Hollywood in order to add to his autograph collection. After a tumble out of his boxcar, he finds himself in the middle of the desert where a 20th Century Fox film crew is shooting a version of the Ali Baba story. The studio nurse takes care of his wounded head, instructing him to take two pain-killers at twelve o’clock. When a studio official offers him a bit part as one of the 40 thieves, Al is so excited to be in a movie that he accidently takes 12 pain-killers at two o’clock.
Under the effects of the medication, Al dreams that he is actually in old Baghdad where he meets Sultan Abdullah, one of his wives (the Sultana), Princess Miriam, and her suitor, Prince Musah. When he says his name is Al Babson, the Sultan hears “Ali Baba’s son” and welcomes the stranger with open arms. Al finds political intrigue in old Baghdad, which is suffering from many of the social problems of Depression-era America—too many people out of work, a wealthy class oblivious to the struggles of the poor, debate over who should be taxed, and contentious elections. Al is appointed prime minister and begins to implement New Deal-style projects. Prince Musah and his sister the Sultana plot to take over Abdullah’s kingdom, particularly after the Princess falls for a commoner. Because marriage between a princess and a commoner is not allowed, Al suggests that Abdullah resign as sultan and run for president, setting the stage for an American-style election. Remarkably, the people vote for Al instead, making him Baghdad’s first president.
Al eventually awakens from his dream, but he has ruined the scene for the director, who throws him off the set. Weeks later, Al waits outside the premiere of Ali Baba with his autograph book, where he sees many major stars of the era, including Eddie Cantor!
The few descriptions that can be found of this charming musical comedy read like carbon copies of each other, declaring Ali Baba Goes to Town to be a spoof of the New Deal. And, indeed, there are several scenes and jokes that poke fun at Roosevelt’s programs for restoring the economy. When Abdullah wonders what to do about the poor, Al tells him to put them on relief; when Abdullah asks where the money will come from, Al explains that it should come from the rich. In 1935, Roosevelt presented a tax program called the Wealth Tax Act, which was designed to redistribute wealth. He suggested increasing the inheritance tax, proposed a gift tax, suggested a severely graduated income tax, and proposed a corporate income tax scaled according to income. A watered-down version of the Wealth Tax Act was eventually passed by Congress. Al’s ideas to soak the rich included taxing sultans according to the number of wives in their harems and putting a tax on camels. Al also told Abdullah to put the poor to work building dams and bridges around Baghdad, even though the country has no rivers, which was a reference to Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), established in 1933, and his Works Projects Administration (WPA), announced in 1935. At one point, camels are seen filling up on water at the WPA Filling Station.
Ali Baba Goes to Town also features several jokes about labor issues, including a scene in which a sultan’s harem is on strike, carrying placards that read “This harem unfair to organized wives.” In the early 1930s, labor’s efforts to unionize resulted in violence as the heads of industry fought union organization at every turn. In 1935, Roosevelt passed the Wagner Act to limit employers’ abilities to retaliate against workers who participated in strikes, organized labor unions, or supported collective bargaining. Previous administrations stood back when labor problems exploded into violence; the Wagner Act represented a shift in attitude by the White House. When Al notices that there are “sit-down strikes here, too,” it is a nod to the Wagner Act.
Roosevelt’s New Deal was not embraced by everyone, reflected in a scene in which Abdullah asks Al to clarify the role of the presidency in America. “Does the president rule the country?” he asks. “Does he rule the country,” retorts Al. “Ask the Republicans!” Likewise, Abdullah frequently complains about his nine old councilmen who give him trouble, a reference to the Supreme Court, who in 1936—the year before Ali Baba Goes to Town—declared a Roosevelt program unconstitutional. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration sought to raise prices for farm commodities through artificial scarcity, which included paying farmers not to grow crops. The AAA was replaced the next year by a similar program, but Roosevelt’s version was knocked down. Prior to that, the Supreme Court had declared the National Recovery Administration—one of the President’s main economic programs—unconstitutional. Roosevelt made noises about increasing the number of judges on the bench so he could appoint those more open to his policies, but it never happened. When the Sultan’s nine old men of the council are shown in a later scene, they are all ancient, doddering buffoons with long beards, spectacles, and ear horns.
During the election for president, Al wins by an overwhelming landslide, with only two districts of the country failing to vote for him. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact names of the districts, but they sounded like humorous variations of “Vermont” and “Maine,” which were the only two states that did not go for Roosevelt in the 1936 election.
After recognizing some of the references while watching the film and digging around a couple of history books for others, I don’t think the film was specifically spoofing Roosevelt and the New Deal. Cantor was a Roosevelt supporter and an active member of performers’ unions such as the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Radio Artists, so I doubt if the film was aimed directly at FDR. If anything, Ali Baba Goes to Town seems more hostile toward non-New Dealers. Al Babson actually introduces a Roosevelt-style administration to a country controlled by a wealthy, out-of-touch Old Guard who are indifferent to the breadlines and the suffering of the people. For example, when Al first wakes up in the palace of Sultan Abdullah, the starving people are at the gates shouting for food. When the Princess brings this to the Sultan’s attention, he notes, “Hey, that reminds me of lunch.” Perhaps rather than a spoof aimed at a specific figure or set of policies, Ali Baba Goes to Town reflects a nation’s overall weariness of a long Depression that had resulted in new policies that were endlessly debated, retracted, and reconfigured by politicians on both sides of the fence. Considering the current battered economy and endless political feuding at the expense of the people, I recognized a bit of frustration, disillusionment, and cynicism behind some of the humor.
In addition to the topical political references, Ali Baba Goes to Town was fun to watch because of the musical numbers featuring long forgotten entertainers. As might be expected, Cantor performs a musical number in blackface, addressing the audience as “Baghdaddies and Baghmammies.” Blackface is always uncomfortable for modern-day audiences to watch, but at least this extended production sequence was more like a snippet from a Cotton Club revue than a minstrel show. The sequence begins with Al asking the Sultan about a group of black characters hanging around the palace. The Sultan explains that they are his new musicians from Africa but no one can speak their language. Al tries to communicate to them by speaking in French, Italian, and Yiddish but to no avail. Finally, he shouts, “Hi de hi de ho?,” to which the Africans respond, “Hee de hee de hee!” This is the call and response to “Minnie the Moocher,” revealing that Al and the African musicians can speak Cab Calloway, which is Al’s invitation to cork up and join the band for “Swing Is Here to Stay.” The musicians play exaggerated versions of jazz instruments and take turns jiving in the spotlight before tap dancer Jeni LeGon does a spirited number in a feathered costume. (LeGon had gotten her start at age 13 when she was hired as a featured dancer in Count Basie’s road show. Within a few years, she landed a contract with MGM, though it did not last long. She appeared in a couple dozen musicals before she settled into teaching dance. In an odd twist to her long career, she showed up in the horror film Bones starring Snoop Dog in 2001!) After LeGon, the Peters Sisters, a trio of swing singers, step in front of the camera to contribute a couple of verses. Hefty but spry, the Peters Sisters sang and danced in the swing style that became the rage in the mid-1930s.
The extended sequence is staged like a musical revue, with Eddie Cantor as the emcee who keeps the show moving. Known as Banjo Eyes, Cantor gained his fame in musical revues—including the legendary Ziegfeld Follies—as an energetic comic performer with an infectious optimism, and this sequence reminds audiences of his star image. Musical revues, which specialized in topical humor and included everything from minstrel numbers to parades of scantily clad girls in elaborate costumes, have faded from the public consciousness. But, they were a show business staple between the world wars and, like vaudeville, launched the careers of many major movie stars. In addition to the political humor, Ali Baba Goes to Town offers a look back at popular music, circa 1937, pinpointing the era when jazz had evolved into swing. The fact that established song-and-dance entertainer Eddie Cantor is presenting the swing music—even participating in it—sanctions this jazz subgenre for the mainstream. Dance master Sammy Lee was nominated for an Oscar in dance direction for this intricate production number with its diverse entertainers showcasing their unique talents within the confines of one song, “Swing Is Here to Stay.”
Ali Baba Goes to Town features a supporting cast of performers who were big names in the 1930s, including Roland Young as the Sultan who made a great straight man for Cantor. Singer Tony Martin appeared in a secondary role as the commoner who falls in the love with the Princess, and he crooned a few love songs in the style of the day. Burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee made her big-screen debut as the Sultana, though she was billed under her real name Louise Hovick. I remember Gypsy Rose Lee from her appearances on talk shows back in the day, and she was always funny, charming, and natural. I was disappointed to find that she exhibited none of these traits in this film, but it was Cantor’s vehicle, and he had enough energy and good cheer to compensate. At the end, when Al Babson stands outside the Carthay Circle Theater at the premiere of Ali Baba, newsreel footage of 20th Century Fox’s major stars is intercut with shots of Al watching the festivities. The footage had been recycled from the premiere of Wee Willie Winkie, the Shirley Temple film directed by John Ford. Shots of several major stars exiting chauffeur-driven automobiles were cut in, including Temple, Victor McLaglen, Dolores Del Rio, Tyrone Power, Ann Sothern, and Sonja Henie as well as stars who mean little to today’s audiences, such as Phyllis Brooks, Michael Whalen, Jack Haley, and the Ritz Brothers. Saddest to see was Douglas Fairbanks, looking old and bloated. Two years later, he would be dead at age 56.
Ali Baba Goes to Town concludes with a clever self-reflexive gag in which Eddie Cantor as Al Babson watches Eddie Cantor as himself emerge from a car as one of Fox’s big stars. Cantor as Cantor thrills the crowd with one of his trademark upbeat numbers, “Laugh Your Way Through Life,” to which Cantor as Al remarks, “What does he got that I haven’t got.”
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