Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Wizard of Baghdad (1960) - Before Bill Murray, there was Dick Shawn

The Wizard of Baghdad 1960 poster
"The Wizard of Baghdad" (1960).

"The Wizard of Baghdad" (1960), directed by George Sherman, is a, well, disappointing film, perhaps because it is transitional. While fun, "Wizard of Baghdad" doesn't quite let loose and become a complete satire (à la "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" of half a dozen years later). The funny bits seem grafted onto a fairly dull Arabian tale, with half the actors playing it (mostly) straight and the rest (usually) hamming it up. If you are willing to sit through the tedious 1930s-style sword fights, 1940s romance and 1950s-style wrestling matches, you may uncover a wildly anachronistic comedy from the '80s like "Caddyshack" banging on the door asking to be let out and play. Unfortunately, it winds up stranded in the foyer, never quite making it out into the yard for a good romp.

The Wizard of Baghdad 1960 lobby card
"The Wizard of Baghdad" lobby card.

I don't know if Bill Murray is a fan of Dick Shawn, but you can see the sort of hangdog goofiness and wiseguy attitude that Murray epitomized twenty years later. The two comic geniuses even physically resemble each other (Shawn has better hair). Unfortunately, the script reins Shawn in at every turn, cramping his style while he squeezes in odd comic bits. His New York accent alone, juxtaposed against all the flowing robes, colorful turbans and wooden posturing, is good for a chuckle. Unfortunately, that's all that you will get from "The Wizard of Baghdad," a chuckle, because it pulls its punches at every turn.

The Wizard of Baghdad 1960

There are loads of double entendres, anachronisms and sexual innuendo that will make the adults chuckle, while sailing straight over the kids' heads. Some fabulous characters like Diane Baker, and child actors, such as Stanley Adams and Billy Mumy (incredibly self-possessed in his first role), help carry the load. If that weren't enough, there also is a talking horse cracking wise (leading the way for the "Incredible Mr. Ed" of a few years later). Dick Shawn's best bit is right at the beginning, when he does a "rap" about how he's genie, an eenie-meenie genie who will never die. If you watch that first 02:27 of the film, then shut it off, you will probably think that you stumbled on an undiscovered classic.

The Wizard of Baghdad 1960 Dick Shawn
Dick Shawn displays an irreverent, witty style in this film that was years ahead of its time. His style here is somewhat reminiscent of the Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello.

Unfortunately, though, the remainder of the film can't quite live up to that spectacular beginning. I would have liked the film more if the writers had found the courage to discard the straight stuff, add more special effects, and spice up the plot. They could have created a "The Producers"-style romp that went totally off the rails (in which Shawn as L.S.D. - Lorenzo St. DuBois, in fact, later showed the comic heights he could reach, given the chance). Unfortunately, the time wasn't ripe in "The Wizard of Baghdad," and, but for the snappy "Batman"-style cutaways and a bit of an insouciant attitude, you are left with a film that can't quite break out of its standard mold.

My estimation of "The Wizard of Baghdad" has risen in recent years for a fundamental reason: when I first saw the film, it was on a small black-and-white television (yes, they once had those). However, in color "The Wizard of Baghdad" is a vastly better film, because the colors are glorious. Little things like that can make a big difference. Overall, an enjoyable romp that, while dated, can entertain the whole family.


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