TB: This weekend Jlewis continues his theme on silent action films starring Douglas Fairbanks. This time he has chosen the 1924 version of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. Like the previous selection, ROBIN HOOD (1922), it’s a title I had not yet seen. So again, thanks to Jlewis for bringing these classic tales back to the forefront of our consciousness for a thoughtful discussion.
JL: We do need to stretch our belief system here by accepting Douglas Fairbanks, a very muscular guy of forty who is built like Vin Diesel, as a sprightly teenage thief Ahmed. The 1940 version was more true to the various stories by casting Sabu and leaving any wooing of princesses to the older John Justin. Likewise, Disney’s ALADDIN, both the animated and cgi-mixed live-action versions, used younger blood. Then again, if Fairbanks could pull it off in both age and hulk’n’bulk, so could Steve Reeves later in the ’61 Italian version; both versions satisfy those who wish to see their muscle power in action shirtless.
Fairbanks is very animated in his performance, so “animated” in fact that animators themselves often studied him methodically. There is a key moment when he rubs his tummy before stealing food and, while I am sure he was not the first actor to do this on screen, it is obvious that he is the one being imitated in quite a few golden era cartoons that I recall. (I think, but may need to be corrected, that the monkey in the Disney cartoon version does this as well.)
As with all Fairbanks, a huge chunk of the stunt work was done by him personally and choreographed with as much precision as a Fred Astaire dance number. The key opening scenes show him stealing a purse from a pedestrian by the drinking fountain, followed by him climbing up the building. It resembles a ballet in the way everything is timed perfectly. The story is quite simple, if dragged out as an epic 140 minutes… and, yes, it is dragged out longer than necessary.
We open and close with a holy man (Charles Belcher) telling a boy that happiness must be earned. In a medieval Baghdad (spelled without the “h”), Ahmed is one very happy thief whose motto is “What I want, I take.” Yet there is something missing that he can’t just steal…and that is romantic luuuuv. When he successfully barges into the great palace in hopes of stealing something mighty grand, he falls smitten teenage-style for the princess (Julanne Johnston) in her slumber.
Later he and his buddy (Snitz Edwards) steal garments from the market to pose as a prince arriving to win her affections on her royal birthday. Yet this deception is soon revealed and he confesses the truth. Then gets thrown out of the palace despite the princess sobbing herself. She is as smitten with him as he is with her since he is the only man to touch (actually fall into, thanks to a bee and a horse getting stung) a sacred rose bush that her assistant foretold her future husband would touch in a sand prophesy.
Also he has competition for her affections. There are two princes from India and Persia (Noble Johnson & Mathilde Comont) who are presented in semi-comic fashion, along with a third: the mighty evil Cham Shang from the Mongol empire, wonderfully played in sinister straight-face by Sojin Kamiyama. My guess is that Sojin was among the hardest working Japanese actors in the business with a rather long filmography that even includes a bit part in Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI. No doubt, he inspired Disney’s own Jafar since there is an eery resemblance.
Cham is the primary villain of our piece but I am rather disappointed that we don’t actually see him battle sword-to-sword or fist-to-fist with Ahmed like we see Prince John and his cahoots battle Robin Hood in Fairbanks’ earlier epic. When it is decided by both the princess and the Caliph (Brandon Hurst) that the suitor who brings the rarest gift from his travels wins her, each of the trio brings, accordingly, a cure-all golden apple, a crystal ball and a flying carpet (later taken over by Ahmed in our finale). Yet that isn’t enough for her, so Cham has another alternative in order to win both her and control of the city: a secret army ready to storm the palace. Like Ahmed in the opening scenes, his motto is “What I want, I take” and he also has the support of a Mongol servant girl working inside the palace. Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong is absolutely brilliant in her Machiavellian expressions.
While the other three genuine princes find their prizes with limited effort, Ahmed has to do it the hard way in order to prove he is not a thief but a genuine prince in heart, if not heredity. (His prize, magic “powder,” allows him to zap up people and things out of nowhere.)
The second half of the film basically resembles JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS with one wild make believe adventure following another in quick succession and this is where we are constantly bombarded with special effects galore, many years ahead of their time in Hollywood sophistication. Personally I find it all an overkill and start to doze in repeated viewings when he awakens a man “tree” and sword fights a slurposaur (trade name for alligators dressed up as dinosaurs/dragons and treated in a way that the SPCA would never approve of).
The Pegasus horse looks hokey with the wings hardly flapping, but you can not help but love the seamless blending of stylized clouds and castle tops that our riding hero leaps through. The climax when Ahmed finally wins the princess gives us a satisfactory finish with the magic carpet flying out of Baghdad with no strings apparent.
Special effects aside, this is one of the most visually appealing fantasies of the roaring twenties and no movie memorabilia book is complete without stills. William Cameron Menzies is as much the “star” as Douglas Fairbanks here, working to a lesser degree earlier in the set designs for ROBIN HOOD and continuing post-Fairbanks with so many classics we have grown to love like THINGS TO COME, GONE WITH THE WIND and, if mostly un-credited, the 1940 version of this tale as well. The Baghdad he creates looks no more like the real locale than Venice looks like Venice in TOP HAT, being that both look mopped so clean that you can eat off of the streets, but… wow!… those geometric patterns are art deco delights that linger on your cranium long after you stop watching.
Equally important is the cinematography, mostly supervised by Arthur Edeson of THE LOST WORLD, Universal’s James Whale horror cycle and CASABLANCA fame. He had worked with Fairbanks on a number of epics, but this one is his masterpiece. The daytime street scenes are shot so bright and from multiple angles that you can hardly see any shadows, while the interior shots and night time scenes are the total opposite with characters literally becoming shadows themselves.
It is fascinating to watch this and the similar Arabian Nights saga, Lotte Reiniger’s DIE ABENTEUER DES PRINZEN ACHMED, an actual animated cartoon done with literal silhouettes back to back: both films emphasize human figures often submerging with the geometric patterns of their Arabian surroundings as if they are designs themselves in some vast wallpaper. No doubt some of the German Expressionism look was also starting to seep into Hollywood by this time, just as it would in a second wave in the 1940s with film noir crime sagas; yet the UFA and Fritz Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN, another I have on DVD that was made roughly around this same time and also features a warrior/dragon battle and castles galore, differs considerably in style.
The running time may be too long for some viewers. Nonetheless this is still a great silent epic worth introducing to a whole family of multiple ages, provided there is enough popcorn on supply to keep everybody alert and not restless during the multiple silent film title card readings.
Besides all of the fantasy elements that fit in well with our favorite fairy tale books, we also have a whole zoo displayed on screen: a chimp who is either unusually big for his species or is strategically shown only with short humans, along with tigers, camels, elephants and the usual horses and donkeys. It is advisable for a parental guardian to remind the little tykes not to repeat all that they observe on screen: thou shalt not use a venomous snake in a jeweled “egg” to test a golden apple’s healing powers like Cham Shang and thou shalt not partake in pick pocketing like our hero even though it looks like so much fun. In addition, there is a shocking scene when Ahmed cuts his wrist so he can write in blood a symbol over the palace door; this may potentially result in an unnecessary trip to the ER and another mess to clean off the hallway wall.
Yet all is fantasy and fun in Fairbanks Land and how can one resist that constantly smiling face of his?
THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924) may currently be viewed on YouTube.