The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
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Douglas Fairbanks has been called the first celebrity, which is probably correct, and his 1924 epic The Thief of Bagdad: An Arabian Nights Fantasy holds a special place in his sizable body of work - not because it was his best picture, but because it capped a phase in his career so grandly and excessively that afterward he looked for less humongous productions that better suited both his talent and his audience. This said, the freewheeling Arabian Nights adaptation has lots of atmospheric charm and silent-movie spectacle, and looking for hidden wires in rope-trick, flying-horse, and magic-carpet scenes is a good part of the fun.
The plot is episodic, geared more to flamboyant escapades than to narrative logic. The eponymous hero is the kind of devil-may-care rascal who watches a fellow thief get flogged for stealing a jewel, and then immediately steals a jewel to show how unflappable he is. The story's main gimmick is a standard fairy-tale situation: the beautiful princess will marry the man who proves himself the bravest and cleverest, but a tubby little prince has somehow gotten into the running, and an even darker threat comes from a sinister Mongol who will stop at nothing to win. It's a good thing someone played by Fairbanks is around to save the day, dodging all sorts of dangers like a human-hating monkey, a giant underwater spider and more along the way.
Fairbanks was more than a handsome star with a knack for choosing sleek, effective vehicles. He was a top-flight gymnast who virtually never used a stunt double. He was also a gifted comedian, and as critics have noted, his knockabout adventure pictures were often parodies of knockabout adventure pictures, made all the more enjoyable by Fairbanks's willingness to poke irreverent fun at his own screen image. Equally important, he was a sophisticated Hollywood player, fully involved in his projects from the planning stages through the world premieres. His marriage to Mary Pickford, known worldwide as America's Sweetheart, and their partnership in the United Artists studio, which they founded in 1919 along with D.W. Griffith and Charles Chaplin, added even more to his status as a foremost figure not only in the motion-picture industry but in American culture at large.
The Thief of Bagdad was directed by Raoul Walsh, still fairly young but already a seasoned Hollywood hand. He was surprised when Fairbanks asked him to supervise such an exotic entertainment, since most of the pictures he had directed at that point in his career "dealt with cowboys and gangsters and pimps and prostitutes and the dregs of the American West," as he later wrote in his autobiography. He quickly accepted the job, though, happy to work with Fairbanks, whom he considered "the perfect hero." He also appreciated the lavish production values of the project, with sets created by the great William Cameron Menzies and costumes by Mitchell Leisen, later to become a prolific director himself. The Thief of Bagdad was the first Hollywood picture to cost more than a million dollars, according to Walsh, who filmed it in an efficient thirty-five days. True to its gigantic scale, the movie doesn't boast many close-ups, preferring wide shots that show off the walls, towers, stairways, minarets, and other vertical things that Fairbanks scales, climbs, clambers up, and scampers over in scene after high-spirited scene.
The special effects were especially challenging for a director whose pictures had usually dealt with the more or less real world. In his memoir, Walsh claimed to have dreamed up the magic-carpet illusion while watching a Los Angeles construction job, where he saw a steelworker riding a load of girders being hoisted up by a crane. Walsh set up a similar crane on a soundstage and it did the trick, supplemented by an overhead pulley, a carpet with steel straps woven through it, and plenty of the thin wires on which old-style Hollywood fantasies regularly relied. Suitable camera angles and editing maneuvers provided finishing touches.
According to a book about Fairbanks by Alistair Cooke, the respected journalist and TV impresario, Fairbanks poured large amounts of money and energy into The Thief of Bagdad because he wanted to one-up historical costume pictures like Gypsy Blood (1920) and All for a Woman (1921) that Germany had been putting on the market. Cooke felt this was an idea gone wrong, since not even Fairbank's exuberance could breathe in such a physically overwhelming environment. Fairbanks films like A Modern Musketeer (1917) and The Mark of Zorro (1920) display "the breathless quixotic line of a gymnast who was also an evangelist," Cooke wrote, but The Thief of Bagdad exhibits "a boy grotesquely buried in a library of costume" and "suffocated...in a mess of décor." Film critic Paul Rotha had a similar opinion, writing that "curiously enough it is in this wish to encourage the 'art' of the cinema that Fairbanks strikes the wrong note," resulting in films that lack "the rough power, the intensity [and] the vigor" of his earlier pictures. Fairbanks learned from his mistake, according to Cooke, and never again let his "showman-producer" side make things too complicated for "the Fairbanks screen character," which audiences loved for its directness and simplicity. He may also have been influenced by the film's performance at the box office, where it earned less than some Fairbanks films that were half as expensive to make.
Film historian Richard Schickel presents a different view in his book Douglas Fairbanks: The First Celebrity, pointing out that while Fairbanks respected the German costume epics, he found them commercially dubious and rarely thought United Artists should distribute them. Fairbanks wanted his pictures to contain "the basic values of the American film - action and humor and a certain light, self-mocking irony," according to Schickel, who finds all these qualities in The Thief of Bagdad, which brought into play Fairbanks's most imaginative, inventive, and serious efforts as a producer. Schickel isn't alone in his opinion. Leading critics positively raved about The Thief of Bagdad, almost always giving Fairbanks the credit and rarely mentioning Walsh's name. In an article called "The Great Douglas Fairbanks," Vachel Lindsay said he had seen it ten times, and Robert E. Sherwood deemed it "the farthest and most sudden advance that the movie has ever made." The unsigned New York Times review found it "an entrancing picture, wholesome and beautiful, deliberate but compelling, a feat of motion picture art which has never been equaled and one which itself will enthrall persons time and again." That goes way too far, but it illustrates how completely the film captured some people's hearts.
Today's viewers may best appreciate The Thief of Bagdad if they think of Schickel's accurate observation that the arrival of sound cinema slanted film's emphasis strongly toward storytelling, making us forget that plastic values - the kind of thing Lindsay called the "architecture in motion" and "sculpture-in-motion" of a movie - were a main concern of many silent films, whether to hold the audience's attention or "merely to dazzle it just for the fun, the showmanship, of it." That holds true for watching silent epics in general, and for The Thief of Bagdad it's completely on target. Director: Raoul Walsh
Producer: Douglas Fairbanks
Story: Elton Thomas
Cinematographer: Arthur Edeson
Film Editing: William Nolan
Art Director: William Cameron Menzies
With: Douglas Fairbanks (The Thief of Bagdad), Snitz Edwards (His Evil Associate), Charles Belcher (The Holy Man), Julanne Johnston (The Princess), Sojin (The Mongol Prince), Anna May Wong (The Mongol Slave), Brandon Hurst (The Caliph), Tote Du Crow (The Soothsayer), Noble Johnson (The Indian Prince)
by David Sterritt