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This picture was inspired by a tale from A Thousand and One Nights, author unknown (circa 1450). According to pre-production news items in Hollywood Reporter, Vivien Leigh was scheduled to appear in the film and David O. Selznick loaned production designer William Cameron Menzies to Alexander Korda for this picture. Modern sources add that all of the large sets and most of the dramatic actions were shot in England from early spring-late summer 1939. According to another news item that appeared in Hollywood Reporter shortly after the war began in Europe, while filming in London, the cast and crew came to work in gas masks which they removed for shooting. Later in September 1939, Korda closed down production on this film to begin shooting the propaganda film Lion Has Wings. In 1940, Korda moved to Hollywood to complete the picture, and according to a news item in Hollywood Reporter, the Grand Canyon stood-in for the Arabian desert. Other news items in Hollywood Reporter note that Michael Powell directed the spectacle scenes and Tim Whelan took over the direction from Ludwig Berger. Modern sources add that Korda disliked Berger's close, intimate style of filming and wanted a more lavish look to the film. Therefore, Korda hired Whelan to direct the action scenes.
The film won Academy Awards for Best Special Effects and Best Technicolor Photography. Modern sources credit Zoltan Korda, William Cameron Menzies and Alexander Korda as directors; Tom Howard and Johnny Mills with special effects; William Cameron Menzies, Frederick Pusey and Ferdinand Bellan as associate designers; Robert Krasker as camera operator; David Cunynghame as production manager and Andre de Toth as production assistant. Actor Rex Ingram also appeared in the 1924 version of the story for United Artists, also entitled the Thief of Bagdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks and Julanne Johnston, and directed by Raoul Walsh (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30). Other versions of the story with the same title include the 1961 Italian film directed by Arthur Lubin, starring Steve Reeves and Giorgia Moll, and the 1978 British-French television movie, directed by Clive Donner, starring Roddy McDowall and Peter Ustinov.