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|Achmed Abdullah (1881-1945) - pseudonym of Alexander Nicholayevitch Romanoff|
Russian-born British novelist and short story writer, a world traveler and adventurer, who gained fame after World War I with his mysteries set in exotic locales from New York's Chinatown to India and Tibet. Achmed Abdullah's best-known work is the novelization of the famous silent film, The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Its screenplay was written by Elton Thomas (Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.) and Lotta Woods.
"London is the capital of a motley and picturesque empire, and pink turbans soften the foggy, sulfurous drab of Fleet Street; lavender turbans bob up and down the human eddy of the Burlington Arcade; green and red and white turbans blotch the sober, workday atmosphere of East Croydon and Pimlico." (from 'Wings,' in Wings or Tales of the Psychic, 1920)
Achmed Abdullah was born in Yalta, in the Crimea, of mixed Russian-Afghan ancestry. Abdullah was vague about his parentage, and he never revealed the name to which he was born but apparently he was christened Alexander Nicholayevitch Romanoff. However, he was also know as Achmed Abdullah Nadir Khan el-Durani el Iddrissyeh, whose father, Grand Duke Nicholas Romanoff, was a Russian-Orthodox, cousin to the last Tsar of Russia. Abdullah's mother, Princess Nourmahal Durani, was a Moslem, the daughter of the Emir of Kabul. Accoding to Abdullah, she tried to poison her husband in revenge for his serial infidelities.
After the divorce of his parents, Abdullah returned to Kabul with his mother, where he was brought up by his grandparents of his uncle. He was educated in Indian School, Darjeling, and College Louis le Grant, France, from where he moved to England. At Eton School he astonished his schoolmates with his turban and earring. After an education at Oxford and the University of Paris, he became a soldier and a spy. While still at college, Abdullah made his debut as a poet with Chansons Couleur Puce (1900), which was privately published. His study on Bantu dialects (1902) was also privately published.
In 1900 Abdullah entered the British army, where he spent many years as a gentleman officer. He served over the world – in India, China, Tibet, France, the Near East, and Africa. Some of Abdullah's stories drew on experiences from this period of his life. In the 1920s Abdullah settled in the United States, where was employed by Hollywood studios on occasion. Most his tales were first published in pulp magazines under the name "Achmed Abdullah" which he preferred more than "Alexander Romanoff." His other pseudonyms were A.A. Nadir and John Hamilton.
Abdullah soon gained fame with colorful, enjoyable adventure stories, which fit perfectly in the era of Rudolp Valentino and Lawrence of Arabia. Among his mystery books are The Honourable Gentleman and Others (1919), tales set among the Chinese community in lower Manhattan, The Swinging Caravan (1925), Steel and Jade (1927), and The Bungalow on the Roof (1931), in which an secret African cult camps on the rooftop of a New York apartment building. The Man on Horseback (1919) is based on Abdullah's experiences in the American West. Especially after 1920s women readers devoured his romantic adventures. Sometimes they had supernatural elements, as in the collections Wings: Tales of the Psychic (1920) and Mysteries of Asia (1935).
Abdullah's autobiography, The Cat Had Nine Lives (1933), is not far from fiction with its vivid tales of his travels and exploits. It is possible that some of the stories were not based on actual events. "Magazine readers want to be entertained – that's what they plunk down their little dimes for – and take them all around, they prefer a story which is full of action, of things daring, with some love and a fair dose of adventure thrown in, and yet, as you put it, they do not want their credulity strained to the breaking point." (from Abdullah's letter in 1917 to the editor of the All-Story Weekly) With Lute and Scimitar (1928), a collection of poems and ballads of Central Asia, Abdullah returned to his philological and folklore interests. His last years Abdullah lived in New York. Abdullah died on May 12, 1945. He was married three times, first to Irene Augusta Bainbridge, then to Jean Wick, who died in 1939, and then in 1940 to Rosemary Dolan.
The Thief of Bagdad, directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939), was an expensive film in its time – it cost nearly $2,000,000 to make. William Cameron Menzies designed the impressive sets, including towering minarets and Moorish buildings. The special effects were not so advanced as in the Expressionist German movies – the Magic Carpet was an ordinary carpet, hung on piano wires from a crane. However, in the United States the film was praised for its artistic values: "Here is magic. Here is beauty. Here is the answer to cynics who give the motion picture no place in the family of the arts... (James Quirk in Photoplay) Fairbanks bought rights of some of the camera tricks from Fritz Lang's Der Müde Tod (1921).
The Thief of Bagdad was based on Arabian Nights – the original story was possibly written by Abdullah. It tells of the quest of Ahmed, a thief, who has fallen in love with the daughter of the Caliph (Julanne Johnston). A test is devised to to select the proper husband for her. "Who brings the rarest treasure I will wed," she promises. Ahmed races against the time and other suitors. "Allah hath made thy soul to yearn for happiness, but thou must earn it," says a holy man to him. The final sequence shows Fairbanks and Johnston sailing on a carpet over the rooftops of Bagdad, its shadow flowing over the towers, while the stars in the sky spell out "Happiness Must Be Earned."
A publicity story claimed that the giant spider, which attacked Fairbanks in one sequence, went wrong one day and walked off the set – a small miracle in itself because the spider was not even mechanical but supported by wires. The underwater scenes did not involve any water, they were filmed in a tank filled with kelp. The sea-effect was created by billowing sheets of silk. William Cameron Menzies was also the production designer on Sir Alexander Korda's remake of the movie in 1940. This time the script was written by Lajor Biro and Miles Malleson.
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) was nominated for six Oscars, for Best picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and for recording and second-unit direction. Abdullah, along with some others, wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Major Francis Yeats-Brown. Gary Cooper played Lt. McGregor, who tries to mediate between a father and son, both officers at the same remote British outpost on the Indian frontier. Cooper dies heroically at the end, and his Victorian cross is pinned on the saddle of his horse.
Several of Abdullah's short stories were set in Chinatown, where his characters smoke opium, "in an atmosphere which is very sweet, very gentle – and very unhuman." (from 'A Simple Act of Piety,' 1918) So-called yellow peril tales, in which Asian supervillains commit evil deeds around the world, had been popular since the turn of the 20th century. The most famous master criminal was Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu, who crystallized all xenophobic fears. Abdullah's 'The Hatchetman' that tells about Chinatown tongs was adapted into a Broadway play as The Honourable Mr. Wong by Abdullah and David Belasco. The screenplay of the motion picture version from 1932, directed by William A. Wellman, was written by J. Grubb Alexander. Edward G. Robinson played the role of Mr. Wong Low Get, a hitman, who works for a San Francisco tong with his hatchet. "The God of the Invincibly Strong Arms," a sequence of stories, ran between 1915 and 1916 in All Story-Weekly. Two parts of the series appeared in book form, The Red Stain (1915) and The Blue-Eyed Manchu (1917), telling of a fanatical cult of Kali worshipers.
For further reading: 'The Cat Had Nine Lives,' Wilson Library Bulletin, October (1929); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 1, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); 'Achmed, Abdullah' by Mike Ashley, in St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, ed. by David Pringle (1996); Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers by Lee Server (2002)