THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924)

TWINKLE DANCER

This film was released 80 years ago. Hollywood and the entire film industry were not even teenagers yet. It is reputed that the film cost two million dollars, which was a fortune in the 1920’s. I have heard about this film since I was a child, and I was glad to have a chance to view it. It has been touted as,” the most lavish fantasy movie ever made.” The flying carpet sequences were supposed to be inspired by the Arabian Nights section in Fritz Lang’s 1921 film, DER MUDE TOD. ”THIEF”, according to Douglas Fairbanks, was an adaptation of 1000 AND ONE NIGHTS. Later, it spawned the lavish 1940 color version directed by Alexander and Zoltan Korda, along with three other directors, and eight other versions. The does not count the dozen versions of ALADDIN, that was capped by the superb Disney interpretation in 1992. Some have gone so far as to suggest that this 1924 silent epic was the legitimate forerunner for the recent gargantuan LOTR trilogy. In the silent era, it was only rivaled by D.W.Griffith’s INTOLERANCE (1916). One critic ranked it,” as the very pinnacle of silent-era spectacle.” Many felt that the “THIEF”s magical scenes were better than Griffith’s muddled melodrama, or Lang’s turgid dark visions.

Raoul Walsh was the director of this 1924 “THIEF OF BAGDAD”. This gentleman was a great “studio director”, and he worked in Hollywood for over 60 years. He began directing in 1912. The “THIEF” was his 45th film. They worked fast in those bygone days within their cavernous studios. Walsh went on to direct HIGH SIERRA (1941), GENTLEMAN JIM (1942), WHITE HEAT (1949), CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER (1951), and even BATTLE CRY in 1955.

The film’s star and producer, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., shared the writing with Ms. Lotte Woods. She had written scripts on ten silent films. When sound arrived with the “talkie” films, and dialogue had to replace placards, she became silent. The cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, who was a pioneer among cameramen. He started off with hand-cranking cameras for the one-reelers. He lensed 139 films in his career, including Fairbanks in THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1921), and ROBIN HOOD in 1922. In addition, he gave us ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT in 1930, FRANKENSTEIN in 1931, and THE MALTESE FALCON in 1941.

William Cameron Menzies designed the huge “magnificent” sets. Much has been written about these sets. One critic of the day wrote,” they seemed to leap from the pages of a storybook.” They were very big and quite tall; some of the flats being over fifty feet in height. In addition there were huge lavishly painted backdrops. All this did create pages from a child’s book, a kind of fantasy version of what Bagdad might have looked like. Now, without being disrespectful, I found the sets to be less than spectacular. They were not even up to the standards of theatrical sets of that era. I know it is difficult to look back over eight decades and not have a jaded eye. Art design today, thanks to CGI, is truly magnificent, original, and detailed beyond comprehension.

The DVD version I viewed was in black-and-white. There is supposed to be a DVD version that is tinted in subtle pastel colors. The organ accompaniment was by Gaylord Carter. There exists a laser disc version with a full symphonic score, and it had a forward done by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

The storyline presented in THE THIEF OF BAGDAD was all about the madcap adventures of Ahmed, a smiling thief wore rarely wore a shirt, and he stole from everyone. Fairbanks had a tremendous physique, and he spent much of the film flexing and posing, and turning slowly with his muscles rippling. This was the first peek of a future plethora of muscleman movies from Johnny Weismuller, to Steve Reeves, up through Arnold Schwartzenegger. But Fairbanks was a lot more limber and lithe than the muscle boys that followed him. TV Guide’s review of this film included the statement,” His daringly beautiful florid performance is grounded less in dramatics than in dance.” As in many of his costume epics, he ran, leaped, and soared through the air effortlessly; almost seeming to defy gravity without being hooked up to a wire. A young Jackie Chan is one of the few performers that could match his strength and grace. But for me, Fairbanks’ movements were so very stylized, melodramatic, and grandiose, it really became a dance performance. It was, at times, almost too precious, as effeminate as a ballet dancer bouncing about the stage. He would make sudden stops while in a crouch, and the tableau would be strong and balanced. It was not hard to see what influenced a young Gene Kelly to dance so athletically. Fairbanks often would swing one muscled arm up, or both arms, and freeze the pose. It sometimes lapsed into Kabuki, or Chinese Opera.

There were several minor thefts in the first part of the picture, with dazzling escapes by Fairbanks. At one point with the crowd in pursuit, Ahmed stumbled into a holy temple and met Charles Belcher as the Holy Man. He preached to his flock like a prophet. Ahmed, and his evil associate, played by Snitz Edwards, was in possession of a magic rope. This enabled Ahmed to break into the Caliph’s great walled palace. While sneaking about, casing the palace, avoiding eunuchs and large black guards, Ahmed first set eyes on the Caliph’s beautiful daughter. Julianne Johnson played the Princess. She started working in silent films in 1919. THIEF was her seventh film, and it was the apex of her short career. By 1928, she had the lead in THE WHIP WOMAN. At that point, after movies began to “talk”, she began to be delegated to playing small character roles. She completed her last film in 1934.

Ahmed overheard that several princes were going to court the princess. There were three of them; A Mongol Prince, the Prince of India, and the Prince of Persia. The thief disguised himself as “Prince Ahmed” and joined the line of suitors. She chose him, and his deception was discovered. He was whipped out of the palace. The Princess then decided that all of her princely suitors had to go on a quest, and they had to bring back for her all the “greatest treasures of the earth.”

Scourged and desolate, Ahmed found himself back at the Temple, and the kindly Holy Man set him upon his quest, giving him very specific instructions to insure his success. In this way, it was hoped that Ahmed would win the hand of the fair princess. He was given a “magic sword” that looked like a limp wooden prop; not terribly lethal, and only a quarter the size of the great scimitars that the palace guards carried around on their shoulders.

While Ahmed fought monsters and solved great mysteries, the Prince of Persia found a “magic carpet”, the Prince of India found a “magic crystal”, and the Mongol Prince found a “magic apple”. There was a muddled sub-plot involving a Mongol slave girl in the princess’ employ, and the smuggling of a Mongol Army into the city. It was take over the city when the time was right. However, the Arabian tale ended happily as Ahmed arrived on his great white winged horse, and he whisked the Princess away on the magic carpet.

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD was, of course, a one-man show. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was the idol of millions of young boys, and the heartthrob of millions of young women. It was rumored that he was the inspiration for the “look” of the 1930’s SUPERMAN character, created by Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel. At 5’10” tall and a trim 178 pounds of rippled muscle, he was quite a physical specimen.

He made his Broadway debut in 1902 in the play, LORD AND MASTER. He married his first wife, Anne Sully, in 1907. They had a son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who grew up to have his own distinguished film career. [For a short time, Junior was married to Joan Crawford.] For about twelve years, Fairbanks Sr. did a lot of theatre, and a few New York based films. He was lured to Hollywood in 1915, where he did several pictures with D.W. Griffith. Fairbanks appeared as “The Man on the White Horse” in the medieval section of INTOLERANCE in 1916.

In 1916 he went out on a Liberty Bond Tour with Charlie Chaplin. It was there that he met Mary Pickford. He was enchanted with her, and even though they were both married at the time, they became a “hot item”; reminiscent of Hepburn & Tracy a few years later. In late 1916, Fairbanks, Chaplin, Pickford, and D.W.Griffith formed their own production company; United Artists. He romanced Mary Pickford for several years, and they moved in together. Finally, they both obtained their respective divorces, and they married in 1920. They named their love nest, “Pickfair”. It very soon became the unofficial capital of Movieland. It was even more popular than Heart’s summer “ranch”, his castle north of Moro Bay at San Simeon.

Fairbanks energy seemed inexhaustible, and he did a lot of his own stunts. From 1915-1920 he excelled in comedies of manner, and several westerns. But in 1920, his popularity began to wane, so he turned his career in a new direction, toward the lavish costume epic. He completed THE MASK OF ZORRO in 1920 when he was already forty years old. He stuck with “swashbucklers”, for the most part, until he retired. He made THE THREE MUSKETEERS in 1921, ROBIN HOOD in 1922, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD in 1924, DON Q: SON OF ZORRO in 1925, THE BLACK PIRATE in 1926, and THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK in 1929. In BLACK PIRATE the studio used the pastel color hues of two-strip Technicolor, and IRON MASK had two brief “talkie” scenes. Even though Al Jolson spoke and sang some in THE JAZZ SINGER in 1927, Hollywood did not switch to talking pictures immediately. Initially the Vitaphone sound process would double a film’s budget. Fairbanks had the honor of being one of the 36 founders of AMPAS, American Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

He released a “talkie” version of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW in 1929-1930. It featured Mary Pickford as Kate. Sam Taylor, who was Harold Lloyd’s favorite director, directed it, but it was not very well received. The public was more receptive to Shakespeare being filmed in 1936, when MGM released ROMEO AND JULIET, directed by George Cukor, with Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer, and Lionel Barrymore. In 1934, Fairbanks released his final film, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN. It did little to distinguish his career. Later, in 1948, Errol Flynn appeared in THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. It was not a huge film either. While Fairbank’s career was in decline, he and Mary Pickford separated in 1933. They divorced in 1936. He remarried quickly to an ex-chorus girl. By 1938 he was officially retired. He and Junior discussed a joint venture in a film, but it never got off the ground. He died in early December 1939. He died in his sleep of a heart attack. It was reported that his last words were,” I never felt better in my life.”

Perhaps because it was the movie I watched as a kid, but I much preferred the 1940 Korda color version of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. It featured John Justin as Ahmed the beggar, who was really a king. The thief was the clever Sabu as Abu. The treacherous Grand Visor was Conrad Veidt, and black actor Rex Ingram played the giant genie. Disney, in 1992, borrowed heavily from this movie. Aladdin was a beggar, who becomes a prince and marries a princess. Abu was a companion monkey, and Jafar was the Grand Visor. Of course the incomparable Robin Williams was the extraordinary Genie.

Sadly, most of us are too young to remember, or have not even seen many of the great silent epics. Films like BEN HUR (1907), THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1914), Theda Bara as CLEOPATRA in 1917, and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in 1923. In 1924, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD was lauded as great spectacle and incredible adventure. Eighty years ago, I might have agreed. But viewing it today, for the first time, we are sharing the first faltering steps of Cinema; and for me it is difficult to fully appreciate its fledging art design, its corny costumes and sets, and its silly special effects. It was real fun to watch it, but it never achieved my sense of awe. Rather it was more like watching a quickie “B” programmer film from Universal or Monogram, or twelve reels of a serial looped together.

Glenn Buttkus (2005)

Befitting its classic status, I would rate it at 3 stars.
Glenn A. Buttkus (2005)