The Thief Of Bagdad

1924, Movie, NR, 148 mins

Review

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In 1924, at the height of his popularity, Douglas Fairbanks released THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, "an Arabian Nights Fantasy" (with a Christian slant) that was and still is one of the most lavishly beautiful films ever made.

In the streets of "Bagdad" roams a high-spirited thief (Douglas Fairbanks) who believes in neither work nor Allah. One night, while burglarizing the royal palace, he sees a sleeping princess (Julanne Johnston) and is smitten with her. The next day, the princess entertains four suitors from the far east, one of whom is the thief in disguise. When she chooses him for her husband, he is humbled by her love and confesses his imposture. After he is flogged by order of the caliph (Brandon Hurst), the princess arranges for the thief's escape.

To forestall her betrothal to one of the three remaining wooers, the princess suggests a test: he who brings her the rarest treasure will become her husband. The repentant thief learns of her challenge and embarks on a journey to the far corners of the earth in search of a fabulous gift. After surviving a harrowing series of ordeals, he acquires a magic box. Meanwhile, his rivals procure a crystal, a carpet, and an apple, all with magical powers.

One of the suitors, a Mongol prince (Sojin), orders the princess's Mongol slave (Anna May Wong) to poison her mistress so that he may resurrect her through the healing power of his magic apple. After accomplishing this, he demands her hand in marriage, but the caliph, unconvinced that the Mongol's gift is the rarest, declares a stalemate, and the Mongol prince seizes Bagdad with an army of 20,000 men he has secreted within the city's walls.

As the Mongol is about to claim the princess, the thief appears leading an army of 100,000 men which he has conjured with seeds from his magic box. The Mongol hordes are routed, and the thief and the princess fly off together on the magic carpet. As the story ends, a soothsayer (Tote Du Crow) advises a boy that "happiness must be earned."

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD separates rather neatly into two sections. The first, a Scheherazadian romance, will appeal to adult viewers. The second--a classic storybook odyssey which takes the thief through the Valley of Fire, the Valley of the Monsters, the Cavern of the Enchanted Trees, the Abode of the Winged Horse, and the Citadel of the Moon--will mesmerize youngsters.

Forty-year-old Douglas Fairbanks was at his peak when he released the film in 1924. Stripped to the waist virtually throughout, Fairbanks displays the physique of a 20-year-old gymnast and the exuberance of a person even younger. His daringly, beautifully florid performance is grounded less in dramatics than in dance (surely Gene Kelly had this movie in mind when he conceived the "Sinbad the Sailor" segment of INVITATION TO THE DANCE) and acrobatics (Fairbanks's thief empties his pockets at night by standing on his hands).

Fairbanks's kinetic performance is saved from pretentious posturing by his enormous likability, effervescence, and predisposition to self-mockery, a virtue illustrated in the following sequence: the princess is told by a prophetess (Etta Lee) that her future husband will be the first suitor to touch the rose tree outside. The audience, recalling childhood fairy tales, correctly anticipates that the thief will touch the tree first. What it doesn't anticipate is that he will do so as a result of being pitched by his horse headlong into the tree's branches.

Fairbanks's splendid flourishes infect the whole cast. Particularly broad and eloquent are the lovely performances of the graceful Julanne Johnston as the princess, and the slyly sinuous Japanese actor Sojin as the cruel and cunning Mongol prince.

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD was Hollywood's most expensive film to date. William Cameron Menzies' legendary Art Nouveau sets--at once (and for once) monumentally large and delicately poetic--stagger the imagination. Hampton Del Ruth's special effects are not only effective, they are truly special--with the exception of one rather reluctant cheapjack dragon (stop-motion animation would not reach the screen until THE LOST WORLD was released in 1925).

Although the picture made money, Fairbanks was disappointed in the grosses. Why wasn't THE THIEF OF BAGDAD more popular? Perhaps because American audiences, drunk with their 1924 dreams of stock market bonanzas and gushing oil wells, felt a bit deflated by the streak of Protestant piety in the movie's text and moral, "happiness must be earned."

A sound and color version of the property appeared in 1940. The romance quotient of the remake, a classic film in its own right, suffered somewhat from its transformation of the title character into an adolescent more interested in pranks than princesses. Menzies designed the sets again, but not as memorably. (Violence.) leave a comment

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