The Brass Bottle
1964/ Color / 1.85:1 / 89 Minutes
Starring Tony Randall, Burl Ives, Barbara Eden
Directed by Harry Keller
Possessed of a commanding baritone and an even more elegant delivery, Tony Randall was a natural for radio, cutting his teeth as program announcer for WTAG in Worcester before landing the role of a two-fisted detective in the early ’40s with I Love a Mystery. It was a voice—silky but full of import—ideal for Shakespeare in the Park yet the actor’s nervous-nelly demeanor would make him a standard bearer for light comedy. After flaunting his versatility in Broadway’s Inherit the Wind and television’s Mr. Peepers, Randall laid down an actor’s gauntlet with his gender-bending, shape-shifting turn as a mysterious carny barker in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Based on Charles G. Finney’s 1935 satire—a cynical diatribe transformed into a cozy fantasy by George Pal—Randall pulled off a minor miracle in the title role, juggling a multitude of masks with the ease of a master thespian, the man of a thousand faces speaking through one, all-encompassing voice.
No matter how profound that performance, Randall remained best known to ’60s audiences as the third wheel in Doris Day sex comedies—it took a three picture deal with Universal and his own production company to help the actor escape his also-ran status. 1964’s The Brass Bottle was part of that contract though it proved even more frivolous than his outings with Day. A lighter-than-air farce as flimsy as the smoke from an enchanted lamp, director Harry Keller’s film is the story of Harold Ventimore—a dithering architect who behaves remarkably like Tony Randall—and his misadventures with Fakrash Al-Amash, a hedonistic genie personified by the bigger-than-life Burl Ives.
The Brass Bottle was based on a book by Thomas Anstey Guthrie, a man who specialized in humorous pieces for Punch and more fanciful tales like Vice Versa, a personality-swapping fable that birthed Freaky Friday and a score of remakes. Oscar Brodney, no stranger to fantastical tales (he co-wrote Harvey and three entries in the Francis, the Talking Mule saga) adapted Guthrie’s book. Keller himself was a protean director-producer, capable of Disney adventures (Texas John Slaughter) and hot-and-bothered soap operas (Ann-Margret’s Kitten with a Whip)—so it’s not surprising that The Brass Bottle straddles a generational divide—the action is decidedly sophomoric but the ingredients are hubba-hubba, embodied by genie-in-waiting Barbara Eden and a ravishing Kamala Devi as the harem girl Tezra, a burgeoning feminist and thorn in Fakrash’s bell-shaped side.
Despite a spacious bachelor pad and an attentive bride-to-be, Ventimore behaves like a born loser—he toils in a tiny office in a modest mid-town firm and spends most of his days apologizing; to his boss, his fiancée (Eden), and his fiancée’s parents, insufferable kill-joys played by Edward Andrews and (a wasted) Ann Doran. When the exotic vase he’s bought for his girlfriend’s homecoming proves a bust, Harold and the lamp retreat to his bachelor pad where the urn spills its contents in an explosion of candy-colored smoke; behold, a centuries-old spirit looking for some fun in the sun.
As a party planner Fakrash is not only an over-achiever, he’s still stuck in 3000 BC—arranging lavish feasts with scrumptious belly dancers and inedible vittles while pulling a herd of camels from his sleeve to fend off nosy policemen. The thin-skinned genie crosses the line when he turns Eden’s dad into a literal jackass—no matter how satisfying that transformation, it’s one too many magic tricks for Harold’s friends, family, and employer. Suddenly out of a job and a bride, Harold makes the world-class mistake of going into business with the unpredictable wizard and presto, an enormous new housing community appears on the outskirts of town—which brings unwanted attention from the city council and their lawyers. Like all otherworldly helpmates, from Topper‘s mischievous ghosts to My Favorite Martian‘s intergalactic chaperone, Fakrash’s magic act is a recipe for disaster—worse, Harold’s insistence on the genie’s very existence lands him first in court and then a padded cell.
The kids in the audience were more than satisfied by all this middle-school horseplay and if any adult males found themselves at the same matinee, there were no complaints as long as Eden or Devi were onscreen—though all was not well at the box office; Randall’s production company took it on the chin. Kino’s new Blu ray will bring back whatever carefree pleasure The Brass Bottle offered and will be just as quickly forgotten.
The disc brings out the best and the worst of Keller’s comedy, a film made when the phrase “When in Southern California, visit Universal Studios” signaled a half-baked production style better suited to TV shows. The Brass Bottle, while lacking that ominous label, is all that and more. Cinematographer Clifford Stine, having worked his own magic in fantasy films like The Thing from Another World and The Incredible Shrinking Man, is defeated both by the budget and Henry Bumstead’s uninspired art direction; it’s telling that the most vibrant moment in the whole film is relegated to the titles, a kaleidoscope of color that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Roger Corman’s visionary title sequences for his Poe series. Kino has graced the disc with worthy extras including a feature-length commentary from film historian Lee Gambin and an interview with Barbara Eden. The original theatrical trailer wraps up the package.
Here’s Larry Karaszewski on The Brass Bottle: