Forgotten by Fox: A Lad Insane

"Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp" (1917) is an Arabian Nights fantasy enacted by school kids: a crystal ball view of an alien sensibility.
David Cairns

As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.

The great movie factories were so prolific, none of them have succeeded in making anything like all their major works available on the repertory circuit, home video, television, or streaming, but Fox now seems particularly indifferent to providing any access to their catalog, so focusing on them seems fair. I hope to illuminate the movies Fox ought to be proud of, and a few you couldn't blame them for wanting to hide under a rock.

Oh, and we're doing it chronologically, so first up is a crummy kids' film from 1917.

Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp is directed by workhorses Sidney and Chester M. Franklin, perhaps best remembered for the Dorothy Gish vehicle Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916), and the first all-Technicolor feature, The Toll of the Sea (1922), which is close to saying "not remembered at all." After this hit, the brothers got rather sidelined into the "Fox Kiddies" series of pictures, fairy tale and classic fiction adaptations which also included versions of "Jack and the Beanstalk" and Treasure Island. A few of these have found their way to YouTube in scratchy, low-res prints, and as they're now all in the public domain, their original studio can't wholly be blamed for not taking care of them since there's no profit to be made. Except, I don't really believe that. Parents have a responsibility for their offspring, whether said kids can earn them cash or not.

The conceit of the Fox Kiddies series is that as many of the key roles as possible shall be played by children, but this isn't really carried out consistently, as it is with MGM's Dogville Comedies series of the thirties, in which all the characters really are played by canines.

The result is weird, even for 1917. Aladdin is a young boy, sure. The princess he wants to marry is a little girl... okay, getting strange now. His rival is another little kid, but one with a twirly mustache. But her father is an adult actor. I feel like Anna Massey in Peeping Tom when she's shown her friend's home movie record of child abuse: "Please help me understand this thing!"

For a while, it's innocent enough. The children can't really act, that is, they don't offer a convincing simulation of real behavior, but they play-act amusingly. We note, without being overly disturbed, that the mustache-twirling sorcerer, Al-Talib, is played by a girl, Violet Radcliffe. I knew that wasn't a real 'tache. But then the creepier elements come in, all delivered innocently, I think. As with some early Shirley Temple shorts, someone thought it would be cute to have the Princess, Virginia Lee Corbin, parody some of the more vampish aspects of her grown-up role. So she splashes in a sunken bath, swings her hips in harem pants, and reclines seductively on a tiger skin. All a bit uncomfortable to modern eyes. It was a more innocent age. Also stupider at times, and more insensitive, sometimes all at once.

Only al Tabir/Violet appears to have her skin darkened, because he/she's the villain, but we note that in the Disney cartoon only Jafar and a couple of minor players had pseudo-Arab accents. Anyway, Violet is fun to watch and really seems to enjoy being bad. Aladdin (Francis Carpenter) and the Princess are super-Aryan, with the kind of blue eyes that photographed eerily pale on orthochromatic film stock, making them look albino, or blind. And little Francis keeps waving his little fists about in a way that suggests "dastardly landlord" rather than "noble hero," like he's been issued with the wrong set of melodrama instructions.

The movie does offer one actual movie star, Elmo Lincoln (top), one year before he found fame and fortune as a footnote, playing the first movie Tarzan. Here, he's cast as the mighty genie, where his adult stature and musclebound appearance make a kind of sense. He comes flanked by two juvenile sub-genies, for some reason. Maybe the whole series was just some kind of youth job creation scheme?

Lovers of crap will find much to enjoy, though the sets are fairly impressive (William Fox never stinted) and the pyrotechnics don't actually kill any of the cast before our horrified eyes. I don't know if Yasmini (a character who has no plot function) falls on her ass accidentally at 38m43s or if it was somebody's idea of a gag, but I love how, in the climactic tussle at 34m44s, Aladdin dislodges his opponent's turban, then thoughtfully puts it back on, all while wrestling/strangling him.

Come on, Bob Iger! 4K restoration now!

Forgotten by Fox is a regular fortnightly series by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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