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I first viewed this movie in 1924 at age 6 yrs--probably the first movie I ever saw. I thought it was terrific then, and after viewing it again now(2003) I still think it is an exceptionally fine movie. Many special effects without benefit of computers. A very ambitious movie for that time.
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and out of date.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 current DVD, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, which did get some exposure on American Movie Classics (1997) and Turner Classic Movies' "Silent Sunday Nights," hosted by Robert Osborne with Gaylord Carter organ scoring, since September 10, 2013, it's been presented on TCM accompanied by Carl Davis Orchestration from the Thames Video Collection.
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." (****)
...Douglas Fairbanks brought grace and poetry to physical action on the
movie screen. Fairbanks essentially invented the action/adventure movie
genre, known in his day as swashbucklers.
"Thief of Bagdad" was made in 1924 when Fairbanks was half way through the heyday of that part of his career. He already had "Zorro" "The Three Musketeers" and "Robin Hood" behind him. "Thief" was something of a departure, however, for it depended less on Fairbanks ability to dance his way though physical stunts than it did on the Arabian Nights tableau it presented on the screen. And frankly, nothing like it has every been done since. Only Griffth's "Intolerance" created the same kind of feel, and it was gritty and warlike, where as "Thief" was a sort of wondrous dream about what it would be like to live by your wits, go off and slay dragons and eventually, win the hand of a princess by saving her father's kingdom.
Fairbanks was over 40 when he made this film and yet seems so perfectly suited for it that we forget his age. He is the embodiment of the dashing hero.
But what almost overshadows him are the sets themselves. Designed by William Cameron Menzies, they are beyond spectacular. Almost every frame of this film is a work of art and of course, the amazing thing is, this was not done through computer animation. So skillful are the designs and the camerawork, that it is almost impossible to tell where the sets stop and the matt paintings begin.
Credit for all this must also go to Fairbanks,who wrote the script and produced the film. Raoul Walsh's direction is also great, although the film is a little long in some spots and would be aided by some skillful editing.
Fairbanks acting style seems today very much of the silent era, yet at the same time, there is always the feel of joyous celebration to it. He was always something of the happy rogue or perhaps, a guy who realized he was getting to make a living by playing in the world's most wonderful sandbox. He was blessed with good fortune and he knew it.
Of the others, Julanne Johnston, who plays the princess, probably comes off the worst of the main characters. She is beautiful,but comes off as little more than window dressing. But cudos to the incredible Anna May Wong who plays the treacherous Mongol slave girl. Wong's great beauty and strong screen presence allow her to steal almost every scene she is in. That Wong never got the chance to play many lead roles is one of the great tragedies of Hollywood history.
A beautiful princess, courted by royal suitors, is desired by a
powerful Mongol magician. There is none in the kingdom wily & cunning
enough to thwart the evil one's wicked plots - no one, that is, except
THE THIEF OF BAGDAD.
This is another wonderful Douglas Fairbanks silent adventure epic. The world of the Arabian Nights springs alive before our eyes, with Fairbanks as all its fantastic heroes rolled into one. His athleticism is here perfectly at home in a realm of flying carpets, magic armies & undersea battles.
Director Raoul Walsh & Art Director William Cameron Menzies have created a realm of domes & towers, turrets & great halls, bazaars & souks - all the perfect backdrop for Fairbanks & the plot's sinuous action.
In the supporting cast, Sojin makes an excellent villain, the mysterious epitome of evil. Look for Anna May Wong as a palace maid & versatile African American actor Noble Johnson as the Indian Prince.
Both versions of this film now available on video feature scores based on themes from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, which exquisitely conveys all the allurement of the Thousand and One Nights.
This movie is great fun to watch, like you would expect from a genre
movie such as this one. It has all the typical adventurous, action and
comedy elements present to make this a great swashbuckling movie. Add
to that Douglas Fairbanks in good shape and you have a classic
unforgettable genre movie!
Douglas Fairbanks is totally great in this one. He looks, acts, breaths, eats like a real superstar. He handles all of the athletic action in the movie really well. It's not hard to see why this man was THE swashbuckling hero of the '20's.
The movie is really great looking, with many grand looking sets. Really great looking stuff! (though obviously all fake.) Something you would normally expect to see in a D.W. Griffith movie. The movie also has some silly looking but yet great early special effects, toward the ending of the movie.
The story has all the ingredients needed for such a genre movie as this one; an heroic main character, a love interest, stereotypical villains and lots of fun and action. Especially toward the ending the movie starts to become greatly adventurous after a sort of slower middle and good first part. It's of course all rather simple and formulaic but this is also what makes the genre so great. You just always know what to expect. It's good simple fun that's professionally and well made, that's also beautiful to look at.
Also definitely fun to see how much of this movie was later used again in Disney's "Aladdin". Some, mostly action sequences, are obviously almost directly copied.
A great fun movie, from swashbuckling-specialist director Raoul Walsh.
With Douglas Fairbanks, an entertaining story, and all sorts of interesting
sights, this classic is lots of fun to watch. The settings, costumes, and
story put you convincingly into a fantasy world, and Fairbanks gets plenty
of help both from these and from Anna May Wong and the rest of the
supporting cast in making the characters come to life.
The first half is pleasant, although sometimes rather slow, as it sets up the rest of the story. Fairbanks has a perfect role for him as the good-natured thief who falls in love with a princess and then gets involved in a lot more adventure than he had planned on. His energy and believability, along with the interesting sets, carry the first part of the movie. The second half, when Fairbanks and his rivals are sent off on their quests, is full of adventure and fascinating detail. It's done with plenty of creativity and also many lavish special effects, most of which still work well. The excitement level is built up nicely in leading up to the action-packed finale.
It's a movie that is both enjoyable and skillfully made. It would have to rank among the best adventure/fantasy stories made in the silent film era, and it's still as entertaining as just about anything of the kind being made today.
I fully agree with the rapturous review by Mordaunt Hall in The New
York Times. Hall went on to name the movie as his number two choice for
the Ten Best Films of 1924. In this choice, however, he was out of step
with the majority of his comrades. 450 American motion picture critics
selected The Thief of Bagdad as the year's Best Film!
I have little to add. The only person who has any valid reason to complain is Snitz Edwards. Incorrectly billed in the credits as an "evil associate" (he's nothing of the sort!), Snitz figures mightily in the introductory sequences and the modus operandi of the plot, but then abruptly disappears. The lovely Anna May Wong would also get my vote for more footage, but at least she runs true to form right through the movie.
Some people have complained about "primitive" special effects. Whilst it's true the effects range from the brilliant to the amateurish and even quaint, this is a movie that has an abundance of "heart", a quality that most computer-generated 21st century films signally lack.
As for the stupendous sets by William Cameron Menzies, the superb cinematography by Arthur Edeson (why hasn't someone written a book about Edeson's mind-boggling career? After all, he photographed at least twenty of the current top cult favorites) and the magical acting by the athletic Fairbanks, the scheming Sojin and the entrancing Miss Wong, all not only contribute richly to the film's success, but each actually presents a compelling reason for making this Thief of Bagdad an absolute must-see!
"The Thief of Bagdad" was my first introduction to Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
and, as first impressions go, I've not been this impressed with an old-time
film star since I watched Fairbanks' cinematic successor, Errol Flynn,
creating his own legend in "Captain Blood".
The imagination and power of the visual design of the sets by Raoul Walsh make a nice complement for Fairbanks' script. Having read some of the original material from Sir Richard Burton's unexpurgiated translation of the Arabian Nights (that is, the uncensored, unwatered-down version that most of the general public is familiar with), I can honestly say that, while this story is in none of the tales I read, it would have been a perfect fit within Scherazade's many fantastic tales of moral instruction. The language, the situations, the magical artifacts, the transformation of a callow youth into a great (if still wily and underhanded) hero...they all so accurately reflect the atmosphere of those wondrous tales that I have read and enjoyed.
As for Fairbanks himself, well...is there any red-blooded American boy who HASN'T wanted to be like him? Maybe the boys of today wouldn't recognize the name, but five bucks says that they would definitely recognize the attitude and the style. Charming, smart, irresistable to women, tough enough to take on the bad guys, gifted with a physique that borders on the unbelievable...he's every boy's greatest heroic fantasy come true.
All that said, another reason "The Thief of Bagdad" is important AND fun is because it really marks the starting point for the modern genre of action-adventure films. The use of humor is extensive (my favorite bit being Fairbank's method of "touching" a particular bush), helping keep things from becoming TOO serious for it's own good. Then there's the use of special effects, some very hokey by today's standards, but probably state-of-the-art for it's time and still very impressive, considering the time period this film was made. There's also the touch of romance that helps sweeten the tone. Though subsequent offerings have not had as deft a touch as this film does, this would be a logical beginning to that tradition. Finally, there's the final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, but I truly doubt that anyone has ever come up with a showdown that relied more on brains than brawn as this one.
Don't let the age of this film offput you. Like it's inspiration, it weaves Scherazade's song with a melody that has yet to be outdone (though it has been matched during subsequent decades).
There are very few silent films that I enjoy as much as a modern film. In fact, the only silent film that I would rate as a 10 is Buster Keaton's The General. But Douglas Fairbanks is certainly worth watching, if you have any real interest in film. He has so much charm, and moves so fluidly, that he captivates even when the special effects are, well, very 1920s. Fairbanks does not so much act as he dances the role. The costumes and sets, by William Cameron Menzies, are also spectacular. I have watched this movie in the earlier DVD version, and frankly it put me to sleep. First, a great deal of it was missing, and so the story was choppy and hard to follow. Second, the print quality was poor. But the new Kino Fairbanks collection is a miracle of film restoration. There is one section on this DVD that is poor quality, compared to the others. But since this is a section that I have never seen before, to see it at all is wonderful.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Really a $2 million dollar extravaganza, the film has amazing art
direction and production design by William Cameron Menzies that keeps
this film visually interesting, and the viewer spellbound, for well
over its two hour length! But it's not just the fantastic and virtually
non stop special effects that elevate this film. The verve, energy and
smile of Douglas Fairbanks anchor the well told fantasy and its action.
This was the 20s version of a 'blockbuster' with its editing, scope and
scale, continuous action, special effects, and a fine fantasy
story--something not seen comparably again until the unleashing of
'Star Wars' (1977).
There are a couple of slow spots, the Thief's repentance scene and his first time alone with the Princess go on a little too long, but so much else happens in the film that these momentary slowdowns are easily overlooked. The Princess herself (Julanne Johnston), far from being the entrancing mystical vision who captivates and transforms the Thief is, unfortunately, almost a cypher, since her face is hidden behind a veil for much of the movie, and she's not staggeringly beautiful. And why does it take so long for the Thief to ride to the rescue when the Evil Mongol Prince has taken over Bagdad when he could have flown there on Pegasus, the Winged Horse? To heighten the dramatic tension of course!
We also get the bonus of seeing Anna May Wong, in her first 'big' role, so beautifully slinky as the evil Mongol slave / spy. Her major silent film was the British 'Piccadilly,' (1929). Sojin Kamiyama played the Evil Mongol Prince with great menace and evil eyes. You can see him in 'Seven Samurai' (1954) and the first 'Musashi' movie, 'Mushasi Miyamoto' (1954) with Toshiro Mifune.
What really impresses is the ending in which the Thief uses his magic dust to create tens of thousands of soldiers out of the earth to defeat the Mongols' take over of Bagdad, as he then sweeps up the Princess in his invisible cloak, and flies off on the magic carpet with her to live happily ever after. This is the kind of Saturday afternoon at the movies ending that would get audiences cheering even today. Film histories note that after the end of the premiere showing of the film in New York, Fairbanks, as the producer, writer and star, leaped up on the stage to thunderous applause. Well deserved!
This film passed my test of time test as my 8 and 10 year old grandchildren thoroughly enjoyed watching it. They clearly recognized its similarity to their Disney version of 'Aladdin' (1992). The great DVD KINO version has a new soundtrack (with hints of 'Scheherazade') that adds to the thrills of this wonderful movie. Old silent movies are boring? Not this one! I give it an 8.
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