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By Phil Hall | May 2, 2006

Unavailable for many years, the 1934 British musical “Chu Chin Chow” returns in what is billed as a digitally remastered edition. It is hard to say what was remastered – the film looks like it came from a well-worn 16mm print and does not appear to be pristine in either its visual or audio qualities. But even if it was thoroughly remastered, it would not have been worth the bother.

Funnyman George Robey plays Ali Baba, who gets himself into all sorts of mundane trouble with the 40 thieves (who pretend to be a band of traveling Chinese merchants). Scantily-clad harem girls do their bump and grind act whenever the action starts to lag. Chinese-American icon Anna May Wong gets second billing for what is basically a small role as a slave girl – she has relatively little to do and appears bored by the proceedings (even in her dance sequences).

Classic British musicals are few and far between, and “Chu Chin Chow” barely qualifies for consideration thanks to numbers like “Here Be Oysters” and “Anytime’s Kissing Time.” The theatrical version of “Chu Chin Chow,” conceived by Oscar Asche, ran for over 2,200 performances on the London stage, though clearly its kitschy view of exotic Orientalism belongs to a bygone era. Whatever fun may have been present on stage is absent on the screen – this production is dull, stodgy and charmless. It is also curiously violent at times, with an attack on a caravan where people are killed with arrows and one man is buried alive in a sand pit. (That’s entertainment?)

Students of British cinema may find some curio value in this rare film (which was wildly popular in its day). But any present-day Ali Baba would look at this old stinker with enough contempt to toss it in a cave and yell “Close sesame!”

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