Assigned to protect the city of Baghdad, wayward genie Ali Mahmoud (Dick Shawn) wastes so much time drinking and romancing ladies at a local bar the evil Jullnar (John Van Dreelen) is able to seize the throne. As punishment Ali Mahmoud’s superior Asmodeus (William Edmonson) turns him into a mere mortal, bereft of his magic powers. Years later rightful heir to the throne Prince Husan (Barry Coe) roams the desert as a righteous brigand while his betrothed, Princess Yasmin (Diane Baker) lies captive at Jullnar’s palace. It falls to Ali Mahmoud to get his act together, reunite the estranged lovers and ensure good triumphs over evil.
For some reason genies were all the rage throughout the Sixties. You had amiable Burl Ives in The Brass Bottle (1964). Plus genies of a sexier variety (no shade on Burl) with Luciana Paluzzi in the Spanish-Italian-American co-production 1001 Nights (1968) and of course Barbara Eden in TV’s I Dream of Jeannie - which somehow missed out on the Nineties-to-early-00s craze to remake old TV shows as movies. Predating them all was The Wizard of Baghdad, a cheap and cheerful Sam Katzman production distinguished, if that is the right word, by its chintzy sets, kitschy costumes and corny dialogue. Much of which aims for a cod-Omar Khayyam level of poetic profundity and even shoehorns a gag cameo from the fable poet.
Just as the Walt Disney studio would later tailor Aladdin (1992) around the comic talents of Robin Williams here Katzman’s cut-price Arabian Nights romp does much the same with comedian Dick Shawn. Shawn, a talented and versatile performer, was a hard actor to pigeonhole. Only rarely did he land roles worthy of his quirky skill-set, as was the case with Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1968) or earlier with Stanley Kramer’s scattershot all-star satire It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He later drew some acclaim as a wisecracking transvestite in infamous exploitation thriller Angel (1984), but for most of his career remained a notable presence in ensemble comedies. Here Shawn gives it his all, belting out frankly forgettable songs and investing a silly slapstick character with a certain sincerity that is rather endearing.
Unfortunately the film makes the curious decision to confine Shawn’s genie to a subplot separate from the charmless antics of its romantic leads. It is essentially a film of two halves that dawdle interminably before they belatedly coalesce. Diane Baker, a very capable actress who years later shared a memorable confrontation with Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), is established initially as a pleasingly gutsy, outspoken and moral heroine. Yet once brought into contact with Barry Coe (destined to endure one of the more ludicrous demises in Jaws 2) as the stiff, charmless Prince Husan, she inexplicably regresses into a petulant brat. Far too much screen-time is spent on Yasmin going out of her way to tease and annoy Husan until they eventually, somehow, fall in love.
While the romantic side of the plot is a non-starter, comic half does not fair much better. Director George Sherman, far more comfortable with westerns (e.g. Comanche Territory (1950), Tomahawk (1951), Hell Bent for Leather (1960), Big Jake (1971)), barely manages to stitch together a slew of near-disconnected scenes with TV-style whip-pan transitions straight out of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. It ambles along good-naturedly but aimlessly, a little too enamoured of its own sub-vaudevillian hijinks.
Apparently to appreciate Dick Shawn you really had to see his stage act live, he was one of those "the screen can't contain him" performers. When he died performing, the audience thought it was one of his wacky jokes (!).