Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Thief of Bagdad

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Thief of Bagdad

(Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see some great clips from this visually stunning film.)

I am so irritated with Netflix right now. Due to a multipart mix-up (OK, it was partly my fault) I received and watched Orphans of the Storm for my D.W. Griffith series. But the queue skipped over the earlier Way Down East, and, this being a chronological series and all, I can't tackle Orphans of the Storm before Way Down East. So I'll have to hold off on both for a couple days. Meanwhile my self-imposed deadline for beginning the political series is fast approaching, and I will be scrambling to get about three reviews in under the gun (by Tuesday evening). And there's a Patriots game on at 8:15, so I've got to fix that into the schedule. Add in work, various tasks I'm late in achieving, and general upkeep, and dammit, I will be scrambling to keep up with the work I've created for myself. Masochism aside, I come here not to gripe but to review good old Doug Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad. After the football game, that is. Proceed past the jump to travel forward in time several hours (ah, the wonders of the Internet...)


OK, anything to take my mind of that game. Ugh... The Thief of Bagdad, 1924 version, was a revelation from a design perspective. The sets in this film are absolutely gorgeous and extremely inventive. No, they are not "realistic." Thank God for that. They are, rather, stylized in the extreme and projections of a kind of fantastic version of a city we've come to know rather too well in recent years. But this is the Bagdad of magic carpets and illustrious caliphs rather than the Baghdad of suicide bombers and corrupt tribesmen (well, the corrupt tribesmen are there, but they live much more opulently).

Fairbanks is at his acrobatic best in the early scenes, which are among the best in the movie. Really, the first 20 minutes or so represents one long opportunity for Fairbanks, over 40 but fit as a fiddle (as Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor would say), to strut his stuff. It's a long chase sequence as he robs, is hounded for doing so and finds convoluted but ingenious ways to escape his predicament. It's a joy to behold, all the more so since the acrobatics make way for a rather wan love story over the next hour. Indeed, it's hard to see why the thief prefers the lily-white Arab princess over her stunningly beautiful handmaidens (played by Anna May Wong and Winter Blossom, among others).

But things get back on track in the last hour, as Fairbanks and the princess' other suitors are sent on an odyssey to track down the rarest treasure in the world and bring it to her feet. This gives Raoul Walsh - the great director who helmed this film - opportunity to stage some lavish and unforgettable sequences. We still don't get to see quite enough of Fairbanks the acrobat but we do get marvellous creatures, dreamlike environs, and scenes that linger in the mind like cotton-candy dreams. Like the sets, the monsters aren't "realistic"...far from it, their fakeness is never quite overcome. All the better! They are like childhood toys come to life, these huge spiders and killer dragons, and as such, have a creepier edge to them.

One sequence, in which Fairbanks duels a spider on the ocean floor, moving in slow motion to represent the underwater effect, reaches a level of uncanny delight. So does the moment he mounts a winged horse and goes flapping through the clouds. The latter image was obviously evoked in Gondry's Science of Sleep, which rather more self-consciously tries to evoke the sense of childhood toys come to life, of a fanciful universe in which you can see the seams but are even more enchanted because of that. And the universe Thief of Bagdad spins is so visually rich that it often stages its sequences in extreme wide shot, the characters almost mere dots in frames bursting with sleek, clean, vertical lines. It's Medieval Mesopotamian by way of Art Deco.

Into this setting storm the Mongol hordes, the villains from whom the thief must ultimately rescue his princess. Their swift takeover of the city is accomplished with geometrical elan and an eye for sweeping crowds that would have done Fritz Lang proud (and much of the film reminded me of Lang's Desire). In addition to Walsh, praise should go to two great craftsmen of the era: Arthur Edeson, the cameraman, and William Cameron Menzies, the art director. Also those who toiled on the movie's special effects; though I acclaimed the film's delightful fakeness, in truth many of the effects (like the invisibility cloak and the magic carpet) hold up impressively 84 years later. The movie is a joy to behold, and at its center sits the robust and cheerful figure of Douglas Fairbanks. Extremely athletic, he knows a way out of every situation. I guess we could have used him in San Diego tonight...

To see Fairbanks at the bottom of the sea, bring the clip below to 8:33 (hey, that rhymes). The user who posted this, aevitas, appears to have posted a slew of silent classics; most are available on Netflix, but nonetheless, hats off, and you should check them out.


And here are the Mongols taking over the city, beginning at 2:26.


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