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A thief falls in love with the Caliph of Bagdad's daughter. The Caliph will give her hand to the suitor that brings back the rarest treasure after seven moons. The thief sets off on a magical journey while, unbeknownst to him, another suitor, the Prince of the Mongols, is not playing by the rules... Written by
Erik Gregersen <email@example.com>
THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (United Artists, 1924), directed by Raoul Walsh, is an original Arabian Nights fantasy that remains one of the most visually stunning of all silent films with trick photography and lavish sets (compliments of William Cameron Menzies) taking top form over anything else. Considering the time this was made, with musical score and title cards taking place over spoken dialog, this gives the impression of being made decades into the future in the days of advanced film technology. Then again, this is 1924, running 150 minutes (depending on the projection speed), and a small wonder how audiences felt watching this lavish tale during its initial premiere, focusing on mythical events set in "The Dream City of the East." It was quite obvious then this was something never before presented on screen, making the current products of director DW Griffith seem old-fashioned and out of date. Fortunately, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD doesn't fall into that category, and hopefully never will.
It's star attraction, Douglas Fairbanks, having made a reputation for himself in costume swashbucklers, previously appearing as Zorro, Robin Hood and the leader of The Three Musketeers, assumes another challenge, an Arabian Nights Fantasy. Fairbanks is cast as The Thief (no actual name given), in the crowded city of Bagdad. Almost immediately, the Thief, bare-chested and sporting baggy pants resembling the bottom half of a pajama, lives up to his title picking pockets, stealing food from the ledge of a balcony, and living by his philosophy, "What I want, I take." The movie opens and closes with a Holy Man (Charles Belcher) raising his arm towards the glittering stars in the heavens spelling out "Happiness Must Be Earned." In between those words, the moral of the story is told to a young lad how this thief earned his happiness.
Lengthly with some lulls, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD never ceases to amaze. Compared to the 1940 Technicolor sound adaptation starring Sabu, where both versions differ, the sole focus being on fantasy, with highlights being the flying carpet and a nasty villain. The Fairbanks version doesn't include what many would expect to see, a genie from the magic lamp granting three wishes. It doesn't really matter because the 1924 production has enough magic and visual fantasies to go around. Fairbanks excels in his role by climbing a magic rope, riding a winged horse across the clouds, fighting underwater sea monsters, and his battle with the valley of fore. The special effects reaches its climax where the thief materializes his army of thousands, possibly millions, from puffs of smoke, entering the castle by wrapping himself with an invisible cloak, whisking by his enemies. A magical tale, brilliantly told, full of surprises too plentiful to mention here.
THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is Douglas Fairbanks' finest hours on screen. Aside from being in a far away land, Doug resumes his athletic skills as in previous films, ranging from visual stunts to his trademark smile. It's unlike anything he has ever done before and something that could only be accomplished on screen once. Reportedly the first million dollar production, every penny of it shows on screen. How fortunate for THE THIEF OF BAGDAD not to have ever been the victim of neglect and put on the list among many titles as a "lost" film? How many lavish film productions such as this will never see the light again? The Douglas Fairbanks legend lives on with films such as this.
A supporting cast of not so famous performers, only Anna May Wong as the Mongol Slave, did make a name for herself in future films up to the sound era. Julanne Johnston, possibly a screen beauty that will never be known considering she spends the entire time with her face covered by a veil. Aside from Brandon Hurst (Caliph), and Noble Johnson (the Indian Prince), Sojin stands out in his spine chilling performance as the evil Mongol Prince.
THE THIEF OF BADGAD was one of 13 feature films broadcast on the PBS 13-week series, "The Silent Years" (1971), hosted by Orson Welles. Before the start of the movie, Welles talks about how the movie influenced him as a boy, having seen it multiple times in the theater. Though its TV presentation runs 132 minutes, missing footage would be restored in later years, including the underwater sequence as the Thief encounters a harem of beautiful maidens; the thief's battle with a prehistoric bird; as well as his encounter with a living statue with foot long fingernails. Video copies since the 1980s were distributed in various ways. Companies carrying public domain titles at bargain prices would distribute this very long movie minus any type of music soundtrack. Other distributors, namely Blackhawk, contained organ scoring by Gaylord Carter, while others had Thames Orchestration. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD has been available at different time lengths as well, with the standard being 150 minutes. There have been others as Video Yesteryear to have distributed a print as long as three hours at correct silent speed. The KINO company includes what's been missing from numerous prints over the years, that being the cast listing of actors in its conclusion. Aside from the wonders of video and later DVD, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, which has repeat broadcasts on American Movie Classics in the late 1990s, occasionally airs on Turner Classic Movies' "Silent Sunday Nights," hosted by Robert Osborne, complete with organ scoring.
In closing, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is worthy screen entertainment for all ages and future generations to come. The thought of this to still be available and appreciated today would have made Fairbanks proud, thus, the moral of the story, "Happiness Must Be Earned." (****)
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