Cast & Crew
Anna May Wong
Until he encounters the Princess, the Thief of Bagdad flouts religious teachings. Pretending to be a prince, he wins her love. After suffering humility and confessing the truth to the Holy Man, he is sent on a quest for a magic chest to earn his happiness. Overcoming tremendous obstacles, he wins the reward and rescues Bagdad and the Princess from the Mongols.
Anna May Wong
Tote Du Crow
Hampton Del Ruth
H. R. Hopps
Edward M. Langley
Irvin J. Martin
William Cameron Menzies
James T. O'donohoe
J. C. Watson
J. C. Watson
P. H. Whitman
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
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
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
The Thief of Bagdad on Blu-ray
Cohen's parent company, the Cohen Media Group, now owns the Rohauer Library, a collection of over 700 films amassed by the late film archivist Raymond Rohauer, which is heavy in silent and studio-era titles like The General (1926), The Strong Man (1926), Jamaica Inn (1939), Hangmen Also Die! (1943) and Sudden Fear (1953), to name but a few. There are also scores of classic British films and musical shorts. The company has promised that these films will be meticulously restored, often from original nitrate elements, and given deluxe presentations on Blu-ray. If The Thief of Bagdad is any indication, these presentations will be rich with commentaries, extra audio-visual features, and scholarly liner notes, all in attractive packaging.
The Thief of Bagdad is a good place for the Cohen Film Collection to start, as it's just a splendidly extravagant and appealing silent adventure film, full of wonder and enchantment, and as alluring for kids as for adults. As a common thief who falls for the caliph's daughter and then sets out to turn himself into a prince, Douglas Fairbanks practically leaps off the screen as he bounds about with energy, playfulness and laughter. His overall physicality is remarkable (especially since he was 41 at the time), and his movements through the frame are fluid, rhythmic and dance-like. (It's no wonder Gene Kelly later cited Fairbanks as a profound influence.) Fairbanks' flair for comedy also shines through and is a big part of his appeal here. While the actor is best-remembered today for his eight swashbucklers, before making those films he starred in dozens of modern-day comedies, developing and honing his comic timing.
The Thief of Bagdad was directed by Raoul Walsh, who already had dozens of credits and would later come to be regarded as one of Hollywood's greatest action directors, but this film really bears less his stamp and much more of Fairbanks', who took a hand in writing, producing and even approving the costumes designed by Mitchell Leisen (later a top director himself). And as fine as Fairbanks and his acrobatic stuntwork are, they are aided tremendously by truly extravagant sets designed by William Cameron Menzies -- sets which Fairbanks climbs over, leaps off of, and makes himself at home in. The sets don't function as mere backdrops; they become a vital, unforgettable part of the action, including in a spectacular underwater sequence.
In fact, the mysterious and otherworldly quality of all the sets go a long way toward making us accept the astounding visual effects and creatures that soon arise in the movie: the magic carpet, the winged horse, the magic rope, the giant spider, sea monster and more. They are all of the same imaginative piece. The Thief of Bagdad was so innovative, some of the effects still cause modern audiences to scratch their heads and wonder, "How'd they do that?"
Cohen has restored the film from two negatives and incorporated the proper color tinting of the original release prints. The result is a superb, glistening image with excellent contrast. Carl Davis' evocative score, composed in 1984, blends in portions of Rimsky-Korsakov's Orientalia and is a perfect complement.
In addition to a fine transfer, Cohen has included an engaging commentary track from Fairbanks biographer and historian Jeffrey Vance. Vance knows his stuff and relates it in a highly listenable, conversational style, explaining in detail how Fairbanks was so much more than just a matinee idol, co-founding the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, helping to form the earliest university film curriculum (at USC), co-founding United Artists in 1919, and working as an early proponent of film preservation. Fairbanks is surprisingly under-remembered as a film industry pioneer. Vance also delves into how many of the visual tricks in The Thief of Bagdad were achieved, and is insightful in analyzing specific scenes.
Vance further has created a 17-minute guided video tour through the film's production stills, with brief and informative written introductions to each group of stills that follows. (If anyone missed Anna May Wong's mesmerizing beauty in the film itself, her production stills will do the trick.) Especially interesting are shots of how the magic carpet effect was achieved, with the carpet hung from a huge crane by steel wires.
Well-written liner notes by North Carolina Museum of Art film curator Laura Boyes round out this classy package, which is a must-have, or at least a must-see. The Thief of Bagdad was designed to be seen in a large movie theater with an orchestra and big audience. Its design and shooting style are clearly geared for a big screen. (For instance, there are few close-ups -- the better to show off the enormous sets.) Consequently, the film will lose some power regardless of how big a television screen it's shown on, but this Blu-ray provides the next-best thing. It's hard to believe the film will ever look better on home media.
For more information about The Thief of Bagdad, visit Cohen Film Collection. To order The Thief of Bagdad, go to TCM Shopping.
By Jeremy Arnold
The Thief of Bagdad on Blu-ray
The Persian Prince is played by Mathilde Comont, a female.
In some prints, Mathilde Comont is credited as M. Comont to keep her sex a secret. However, in several scenes in the film it is very obvious that the Persian Prince is being played by a woman.
This film was selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1996.
Douglas Fairbanks was inspired to make this film by an episode in Paul Leni's German film _Waxworks (1924)_ .
The pre-release length was 14 reels, 12,933 ft. Another film based on the tale was the 1940 United Artists release of the same title, produced by Alexander Korda, directed by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan and starring Conrad Veidt and Sabu (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40).