Thursday, July 24, 2008

THE BELLE OF BAGDAD

Another example of the high school operetta following the cultural trends of the day, THE BELLE OF BAGDAD (1929), by Geoffrey F. Morgan and Frederick G. Johnson, comes hard and fast on the wildly successful DESERT SONG. Like ROSE OF THE DANUBE, BELLE OF BAGDAD is a vaguely appealing mixture of foreign exotica, 20s-era Hollywood filmmaking, and easily-sketched romance. The plot is nothing special: a filmmaker has come to Bagdad to seek a new face for his latest spectacular -- but what *is* surprising about this work... well, you'll find out soon enough.

The operetta begins in a marketplace, where American and British tourists mix with local merchants in a easy way that we probably shall never see again. Among the tourists are the new American consul, Mrs. J Horace McMann (A woman? As a government consul? Okay, already we know we're in a fantasy.), accompanied by her daughter Elsa and Elsa's friend Anne. There's also Lord Archie Fitzgibbons, an old friend of hers, and Henrietta Whipstitch, who's on the prowl for some man who promised her marriage and then, inexplicably, ran for the hills when the sun came up. They're all introduced to the Caliph and his daughter Jewel (note the name) and the over-the-top evilly diligent chief of police, Ali Ben Mustapha. We find out there's an assassin afoot, one who's brought a bomb into the city by disguising it as a camera; as such, anyone caught carrying a camera is to be summarily executed.

Enter Dick Taylor, a Hollywood producer, traveling with airplane mechanics Bob and Bill. They're looking for a girl known only as the Belle of Bagdad, but the only info they have about her are some small, grainy photos, one of which shows an amulet she wears on her arm. As you might expect, they've brought a camera with them.

Oops.

While Dick is making time with Jewel (all the while missing the amulet right there on her arm!), Bob and Bill are arrested by Mustapha (since they, not Dick, got stuck lugging the camera around). They manage to escape by disguising themselves as dirvishes, then as members of the Caliph's personal bodyguard. Naturally, they manage to capture the *real* assassin, which means Dick gets Jewel, the Caliph starts some international relations with Mrs McMann, and Mustapha, as every good villian should, gets the romantically voracious Henrietta. Archie (who turns out to be the cad that dumped Henrietta) gets some little dancer, but I dont give that relationship long. Still, somewhere, there must be a list of rules that say everyone has to find *someone* by curtain's fall.

All in all, it's a facile little piece that's surprisingly low on cultural stereotypes (the British get the worst of it, with lines that would confound Henry Higgins). Even when the comic relief duo of Bill and Bob are dressed as dervishes, they *dont* make fun of what could have been a relatively easy target. But when it comes to roles played for broad laughs, it's the Consul and Henrietta, both of whom are seen as demanding and pushy -- and with the advantage of time, Mrs. McMann has transformed into even more of the Ugly American, insisting, for example, that the Caliph follow the rules of American-style court trials. In many respects, this is cut from the same cloth as ROSE OF THE DANUBE -- strange and somewhat overbearing Americans visit nice foreign lands and proceed to take over -- and actually parallels a good chunk of that other work's storyline construction, all the way down to pacing of the musical numbers and the climax of an offstage explosion of the bomb meant to wipe out the royal family. I dont suppose that should be surprising, since Morgan wrote the librettos for both. I'm just a little surprised at how much he steals from himself, almost as if BELLE was a first draft of the subsequent ROSE. Nevertheless, both works are actually ingratiating pieces that hold up pretty well after eighty years.

Musically, it's an innocuous little mix of pseudo-Middle-Eastern ensemble numbers, typical 20s-style romantic ballads, and, of course, a couple of genuinely funny comedy songs for the mechanics and their girlfriends (the afore-mentioned Elsa and Anne, who, of course, just happen to be in Bagdad after the foursome went their separate ways in Vienna). Even the sad little Henrietta gets her own turn:

I have always been a shy and modest maid
I'm never forward, bold, or even pert
All the rules of etiquette I always have obey'd

For I am not the kind who tries to flirt


Henry seem'd so different that I listened to his plea
Heard him when he promised to be true
When he took a second look he ran away from me

Is it any wonder that I'm blue?


It broke me up when he threw me down

Grief overwhelmed me when he skipped town
He seemed so grand, I was so green

He said a lot of things he didnt mean

Why do I pine when I ought to forget?

Id much rather smile than frown
But my life's filled with woe, for that false Romeo

Broke me up when he threw me down.


It's an andante waltz, and I couldnt help but laugh at the thought of hearing it sung to the accompaniment of a country guitar: 20s Loretta Lynn, as it were. Not to be left behind, the Consul gets an Ethel Merman turn with a happy little patriotic number -- a march, naturally, that veers ever so slightly into self-parody:

Dont forget when you travel in a foreign land
And your home seems far away
If you're lonesome and blue
Or if things go wrong with you
There's a friend close at hand every day
Come what may there is someone who'll stand by you
Anywhere you may chance to roam
Step right up and tell your story
In the shadow of Old Glory
To a pal from away back home

Just remember I'm a consul from the USA
The land of the stripes and stars
In any country far over the sea
You'll get a welcome anytime you come to me
You can count on protection from your Uncle Sam
Whether home or far away
So in any foreign land you will get a helping hand
From a consul from the USA

All in all, it's a disarming little work that could be produced today as a historical curiosity that would offend absolutely no one. The only real "villian" per se is about as menacing as anything from a British panto. With some bigger orchestrations and perhaps a little expansion of some of the ensemble numbers, this could be a fun little show, in the style of ME AND MY GIRL or CRAZY FOR YOU.

But that leaves the mystery: in a field where the median price for an operetta is about $15, copies of BELLE are among the most expensive for collectors. Even as I write this, there's one on eBay going for $85. Why this particular script should be so highly prized, I have no idea. True, it's rare, but no more so than any of the others in my collection. Indeed, my copy is in pretty poor shape (It was originally owned by the actress who played Henrietta and who, if the notes in the margin are to be trusted, performed in a production that boasted a chorus of 126!); yet it still commanded one of the highest acquisition prices.

If you'd like to see more about how this region was seen by the US during the 1930s, check out my friend Randy Riddle's Old Time Radio blog at http://randsesotericotr.podbean.com/. One of his recent finds is a series called "Ports of Call", and on his site is a previously unreleased episode (undated, but probably from 1935) that takes 3,000 years of Persian history and compresses them down to thirty minutes.

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