Friday, September 19, 2014

THE BRASS BOTTLE (1964) (shown May, 1994)

     The story of THE BRASS BOTTLE is a long and convoluted one even before we get to discussing the 1964 film adaptation, so bear with me for just a moment. It began as a book by F. Anstey (Thomas Anstey Guthrie) in 1900, one of a series of humorous adventures he wrote wherein a normal man or woman would be plucked out of obscurity and have their lives turned upside down by the introduction of an element of the fantastic. His writings, in fact, are very similar to Thorne Smith's humorous novels, which depend on the exact same conceit. Smith wrote a generation after Anstey and (as my wife speculated) it's very possible he read and was inspired by Anstey's earlier works. Sadly, Anstey is completely forgotten now, with film adaptations of his work living on and no one even knowing who was responsible for the original. Another of Anstey's early books was 1885's THE TINTED VENUS, later a successful Broadway musical and later still (1948) the Ava Gardner/Robert Walker film ONE TOUCH OF VENUS (see my blog entry of March 4th, 2010).

     THE BRASS BOTTLE also ran as a Broadway play in 1910, then was made as a silent short in 1914. It was remade as a silent feature in 1923 by First National Pictures, the same studio that made the famous silent film version of THE LOST WORLD. Sadly, both the 1914 short and the 1923 feature are lost films, although lobby cards from the silent feature remain (see right). Having said that, I have had luck twice in tracking down "lost" films before (THE MAGICIAN from 1926 and NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS from 1935 - both of which will be covered in future articles), so anything is possible. For now, though, we are left only with these tantalizing photos.

     Fast forward to 1964 - Tony Randall had established himself as a comic actor of some note, both as a leading man and a sidekick in romantic comedies to such stars as Rock Hudson, Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day. Immensely personable and a genuinely funny man (his multiple appearances on The Tonight Show and other talk shows cemented his reputation as a raconteur; he was one of Johnny Carson's favorite guests), he was the perfect choice as the hapless Harold Ventimore, who has to deal with the unique problem of a too-helpful genie (Burl Ives) and the ever-snowballing chaos his "help" creates. Co-starring with Randall in the film as his fiancee Sylvia Kenton was Barbara Eden, who had her own successful career (and who had just co-starred with Randall earlier in the year in the George Pal fantasy 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (see my March 23rd, 2010 entry). One year later, she would achieve the biggest success of her career as a genie herself, in the television series I DREAM OF JEANNIE (1965 - '70), which was inspired by this film.

      The story: architect Harold Ventimore (Randall) is a junior partner in a firm that is going nowhere. A talented young man, he is left hoping for his big break, a chance to design some homes and land a contract of his own. His boss, Mr. Beevor (Philip Ober) tells him to take some old designs and spruce up the outside details, but Harold wants to do more than that. A deliveryman arrives with a large brass bottle for Harold, a kumkum (see picture at left) with hieroglyphics around the seal, that he intends to give to his future father-in-law, Prof. Kenton (Edward Arnold), a professor of Egyptology. When he arrives at the Kenton's house that evening, he sees the exact same bottle ... turned into a table lamp! He returns his gift to his car and Prof. Kenton marches Harold into his study, to make him promise to delay his marriage to Sylvia for a few months until he can prove himself able to support her. Harold agrees, wanting to please the professor, which makes Sylvia upset.

     Returning home, he tells his sad tale to his long-time beatnik friends, Seymour and Hazel Jenks (Richard Erdman and Kathie Browne). They commiserate with him and want to go out on a night on the town, but he begs off and goes up to his second floor apartment to try and open the bottle. The seal is on tight, so Harold uses a hammer and chisel to dislodge it, in the process hitting his head on the floor. When he arises, it is to the smell of smoke and the sound of chanting.

     Harold gets his first introduction to Fakrash al-Amash, a member of the Green Djinn, who was imprisoned by King Solomon 3000 years earlier in a 'misunderstanding' over a beautiful woman. Fakrash is delighted to finally be out of the bottle and swears undying allegiance to Harold, promising to repay him many times over. Harold thinks at first this is a gag the Jenks' have sprung on him, then gets worried, thinking Fakrash is an escaped madman and calls the police. As a squad car hurries over and officers Eddie and Joe (Herb Vigran and Alan Dexter) rush into his apartment, Fakrash calmly disappears. When they can find no trace of the 'madman', Eddie (who establishes they have a history with pranks played by Harold and the Jenks' in their youth) says, "Mr. Ventimore, when you left for Paris six years ago, we threw a big wing-ding down at the precinct. We figured au revoir, he's a problem for the gendarmes now. Why did you have to come back?" Harold says, "I swear to you, there was a lunatic in this room!" Eddie's reply, "There still is!"

     The next day, Sylvia is at Harold's office, waiting to go to lunch, when Samuel Wackerbath, famous real estate developer, walks in and rather dazedly tells Harold he wants him to be the architect to develop his latest complex, Wackerbath City, for him. Sylvia excuses herself so they can talk business and Wackerbath leaves a deposit, telling Harold he will set up a meeting with his Board of Directors for the following day to approve his decision. Harold promises to be there and sees him out of the office. He returns to find Fakrash, who after more magic finally convinces Harold he is what he says he is. More problematic is the genie's determination to find some way to repay him for his freedom. Fakrash mentions it was he who sent Wackerbath to him and avers even more benefits to come. Harold excuses himself and heads off to lunch.

      On the way downtown, Fakrash floats down out of the sky and into Harold's convertible, causing him to swerve on the road and attract the attention of two motorcycle cops. When Harold asks the genie to help him get away from them, Fakrash conjures up a herd of elephants crossing the street. When he is cut off from a parking spot, he again asks for assistance and Fakrash moves a fire hydrant in front of the offender. Unfortunately Fakrash still knows little of the modern world, so even though he moved the hydrant, the water gushes out from the original location, drenching Harold and his car. He abandons it and finds Sylvia to tell her the good news and search for an office of his own.

     That night, Harold has arranged to have the Kentons come to his place for dinner, in order to show Professor Kenton what a frugal and practical man he is, and what a prospective good match he will be for his daughter. He has asked his housekeeper and cook, Mrs. McGruder (Nora Marlowe) to cook a simple meal (of cream of tomato soup and fried chicken). The Jenks' wanted to make the meal all avant-garde, but are shot down by Harold. Sadly, even when discussing a menu, things go awry:

Mrs. McGruder: "You didn't say what vegetables you want with the chicken?"
Harold (while looking out the window): "Oh, peas, carrots ... CAMELS!"

     Fakrash has struck again - knowing of the upcoming dinner, he has taken it upon himself to impress the Kentons of Harold's worth as a suitor ... by sending a caravan of camels and servants to the house, laden with treasures of every description. The Jenks' are delighted, the neighbors are astonished ... and the police would like to have another word with Harold. Eddie and Joe return, with this exchange taking place:

Eddie: "Well, well, Laughing Boy strikes again! And what bit of deviltry has the Pasadena Pixie planned this time? A carnival on Acacia Street ... or camel races in the Rose Bowl?"

Harold: "I swear to you, officer, I have never seen these camels before in my life!"

    The police order the caravan off the street, so Harold has them all stored in his garage. He goes back to his apartment to find Fakrash waiting. Harold asks him to get rid of the camels and gifts, as the police are writing up tickets in regards to them. Fakrash makes them all vanish and instead turns Harold's attention to some chests on his table. Opening the first one, Harold sees it full of gold bullion. He says:

"Holy Toledo! You robbed Fort Knox!
Fakrash: "I robbed nobody ... I make my own gold."
Harold: "What a handy hobby!"

     When he explains that a private citizen can't have gold bullion, Fakrash opens the second chest to reveal jewels beyond compare. When Harold tells him he can't use these either, the genie asks what kind of currency they do use in these times, Harold shows him a ten dollar bill. Fakrash closes the chest, passes his hand over it and re-opens it to reveal it full of cash!

Fakrash: "How do you like it?"
Harold: "It's perfect! Wait a minute, what am I thinking? This is worse than making gold - this is counterfeiting!"
Fakrash: "Counterfeiting?"
Harold: "Only the Federal Government has the right to make money."
Fakrash: "Why?"
Harold: "Because that's the way it's done, that's all! And they frown on do-it-yourself kits!"

     Fakrash gets more and more annoyed with this - the more he tries to reward Harold and help him out, the worse he seems to make things. But he is not to be thwarted and tells Harold he will keep trying. He leaves and Harold goes on to work. He returns home to get ready for dinner, only to find Mrs. McGruder heading out the door and demanding her money before she storms off. When he asks where she's going and what about the dinner arrangements, she replies, "You can let your heathen caterers worry about that!" Harold groans and rushes upstairs to find his worst fears exceeded: the genie has turned his apartment into a sultan's palace, complete with a seneschal, bowing slaves, musicians, elaborate furnishings, curtains, carpets ... and a reflecting pool. Fakrash wisely decides to stay away this time and refuses to appear ... but the Kentons do.

     The seneschal ushers them upstairs and they are amazed at what they find. Harold tries to pass it all off as a new caterer, but his story is getting worse and worse. While Sylvia is amused by it all, her father is not and is getting more irritated by the minute. The musicians start to play and serving girls slowly process, sprinkling the guests with myrrh and frankincense. Then the dinner is presented.

     A quick aside: I went to a military school for most of my secondary school education and in my elementary and junior high school we always had a movie night every Sunday evening. As soon as I was old enough, I learned how to operate the 16mm projector and ran the films every week. This was one of my favorite childhood films and always came to our school annually. I always waited with glee when projecting this for the new kids who had not seen the film before, just for the dinner scene. It's the one scene everybody remembers from the film! Why? Because of the main course ... when asked what's on the menu, the seneschal uncovers it with a flourish and proudly announces, "A rare Phoenician delicacy ... the eyes of mountain lamb, cooked in honey!" The camera does this GREAT zoom-in and freezes on it - it never failed - every year we showed this, some kid would scream and get sick! :) And he wasn't alone: Mrs. Kenton (Ann Doran)  looks aghast at the dish and says in a small voice, "Anthony, they're staring at me!"

     She is saved from the horror of trying this ocular repast by the crashing a a huge gong to announce the entertainment portion of the evening ... as a stunning belly dancer (Lulu Porter) arrives, castanets clicking and hips shaking, all to the time of the music. "Also from the caterers?", a sarcastic Professor Kenton asks. Harold feebly answers, "Yes, actually ... she does this to support an invalid aunt." That's the line that finally sinks him, as all the Kenton's have had enough and storm off. Harold tries to explain, but realizes no one will believe him and is left miserable and alone.

     With that, Fakrash finally reappears. When Harold complains that, thanks to him,, his engagement to Sylvia is now most likely permanently ruined, the genie replies, "I'll admit Miss Kenton is not without charm, but she is no comparison to the beauties who adorn the court of King Solomon - say the word and I'll bring you a hundred wives to replace her."
Harold: "Don't be ridiculous."
Fakrash: "Fifty?"
Harold: Not even two ... it's against the law for a person to have more than one wife."
Fakrash: "A revolting waste of manpower."

     Fakrash then decides Harold will wed his cousin, Tezra el-Jamal (Kamala Devi) , an afreet of the Green Jinn (and also the woman with whom he got in trouble with King Solomon). He summons Tezra to appear and presents her to Harold, who still says he only wants to marry Sylvia. Hurt by this, Tezra asks if he would consent to have her as one of his lesser wives. When Fakrash tells her of the 'one husband-one wife' policy of modern times, she is delighted ... and refuses to leave! Fakrash can do nothing with her, so leaves himself. Harold is panic stricken ... now he's got Tezra on his hands, as well as his other headaches. Seeing as she can't go around Pasadena in her harem outfit, he goes out to buy her modern clothes.

     Harold returns with the clothes and has to explain (and show) Tezra how to put them on, including a girdle, much to her amusement. Not nearly as amused is Sylvia, who returns at this time with a psychiatrist. When she sees Harold with Tezra, she storms off. He tries to follow, dragging Tezra along with him outside to explain, but she is gone. Instead, a car pulls up with Harold's secretary - and Samuel Wackerbath, who demands his money back, as Harold forgot to attend the meeting with his board of directors.

     Now at his lowest ebb, Harold goes back inside and demands Fakrash appear - the genie arrives and is told of the situation. Harold asks him to go to the Kenton's  home and convince them of his true identity, to try and straighten the mess out. Always eager to please, Fakrash departs and talks to Professor Kenton in his study. Rather than believing him, Kenton accuses Fakrash of being a fraud and worse, putting his hands on the genie and forcing him out of his house. Fakrash has had enough, and curses the professor, saying, "Contemptible one, thou hast sealed thy fate! Since thou are stubborn as a mule, then thou shall become one!"

    Mrs. Kenton and Sylvia arrive home to find the study locked, sounds of destruction and a braying animal. Just then Harold arrives, mistakenly thinking everything has been cleared up. When he hears what they've found, he goes in through the window to see what's going on. Hearing Harold inside, Mrs. Kenton calls to him:

Mrs. Kenton: "Harold, are you in there?"
Harold: "I am, but Professor Kenton isn't, just a dirty old mule!"
Sylvia: "Did he say mule?"
Mrs. Kenton: "On our wedding night, he brought home a goat!"

     Establishing the mule is really Professor Kenton, Harold tries to reason with him, explaining he's the only one who can get him out of this predicament. He leads the animal out of the house and into his car,
driving off to find the genie and demand he return the professor to his natural form. Suddenly, the car goes out of Harold's control and heads into oncoming traffic, which magically reverses itself - Fakrash is once again having his fun! Harold resignedly gives up and lets the genie do the driving ... as a man and a mule in a convertible go on a joyride through the city and out into the countryside. They finally arrive at their location, where Fakrash has set up a sign exclaiming the area to be the new location of Ventimore City. The genie will only release the Professor from his present form if Harold goes into the real estate business with him as his partner (having taken the time to study the modern world - more or less - and figures this is how to make money), essentially blackmailing him. At first, Harold refuses, but with a crying mule on one side and a stubborn jinn on the other, he at last has to relent. As Fakrash puts it, "Aren't you ashamed of the things you make me do to assist you?" He then transports the professor back home, in human form, but drunk to explain his disappearance.

     Fast forward to a short time later at the partner's office, where everything is going wrong. Fakrash has put a full page ad in the paper selling their brand new homes in Ventimore City for $4000, instead of $14,000, causing mass riots, traffic jams and Federal, County and State officials demanding a court hearing to find out how the homes can be sold so low. Once again Fakrash leaves Harold holding the proverbial bag and when he tries to tell them the truth, he is slapped into an asylum, complete with straightjacket.

     The genie returns (from a quick tropical vacation) and agrees to be with Harold at his sanity hearing. Arriving in full regalia, he tells his story to the court. When they refuse to believe him, he levitates and flies out of the room, returning in a flash with the presiding senator's gavel from his office in Washington, D.C. The psychiatrist and other panel members pass it off as mass hypnosis or other trickery, angering Fakrash, who says, "My patience is exhausted! Trickery, thou sayest? Small minds deserve small bodies to match!" He shrinks the panel and tosses them into the water pitcher on the table, while Harold quickly throws in a pencil as a life preserver.

     Returned to their (now sodden) form, they all ask for a brief recess to discuss the situation. Harold points out that no one will believe the senator or the panel, either. They've tried it both Harold and Fakrash's way, but neither one works. Fakrash offers Harold one final solution: he can change everything back so it never happened, erasing everybody's mind, except Harold. He can give him everything he wishes, even Sylvia. Harold replies, "Mr. Fakrash, we have a few 'wisely was it writtens', too. I learned one at school: "What we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly and it has little value."  He requests that his memory be erased, as well. Fakrash agrees and bids him a fond farewell.

     The scene shifts back to the beginning of the film, with Harold and Sylvia waiting to go to lunch. Samuel Wackerbath arrives and requests Harold's help in designing Wackerbath City. He asks the young couple to join him and his new partner and his wife for lunch to discuss it ... and in walks Fakrash and Tezra! As they all head out, Fakrash gives one long, scathing glance at the office lamp, which looks suspiciously like the kumkum he came (came) out of!

     The film is every bit as delightful today as when it first appeared in 1964 and is a great one to show to young audiences. It also has a radically different ending than the book. In the book, Fakrash gets so fed up with not being able to please Harold (Horace in the original story) that he finally whisks him away to the top of St. Paul's cathedral and prepares to fling him to his death, before being persuaded to get back in the bottle and escape this age and all the attendant changes of the modern world.

     While researching the background and promotional materials for the film, I came across a couple of interesting items: first is this picture of some conceptual artwork for a BRASS BOTTLE float that I'm assuming was being considered for the annual Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade. I've found nothing to show that this float was actually made, but I like the design, especially with the 'magic carpet' motif. Had it gone into production, it would have had a star of the film on the float to wave to the crowd, and given the costume here, I would guess it would have been either Kamala Devi or Lulu Porter.

     Which brings us to our second surprising find regarding this film. Lulu Porter was more known as a singer than an actress (she played the belly dancer in the film) - turns out she recorded a tie-in song to the movie (!) called (what else?) "Brass Bottle". It actually had a release as a single - I had never known about it before today! You can hear it hear at this YouTube link: .

     Last but not least, the film was quite popular on its release, not only in America, but around the world, as well, particularly in India (!), where it was remade as PATTANATHIL BHOOTHAM. It follows the same basic plot, but throws in a secondary plot about smugglers who want the genie and bottle for themselves and, common for most Hindi films, musical numbers! For more on this version, follow this link:

     Oddly enough, the one tie-in that I would have expected for this film (and which would have been an absolute perfect match) that never happened was the tie-in movie comic, which films such as THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON, THE MAGIC SWORD, THIEF OF BAGHDAD and others had. It's a shame that never came to pass.

     The film is available on DVD through Amazon and other online retailers (as part of the Universal Vault Series) and is recommended for all Conjure Cinema enthusiasts. And with that, it's time for this genie to head back in his bottle until we meet again!

     NEXT TIME: We make a MONUMENTAL shift of gears with one of the strangest films in our history ... we STILL don't know if we love it or hate it! Join us as we take a head-scratching gander at the 1968 occult opus THE MAGUS!