Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

“The Thief of Bagdad” (1924) is one of the most lavish silent movies ever made, thanks to the wondrous production design of William Cameron Menzies (“Gone with the Wind”, “King’s Row”). The oversize sets are a wonder to behold and the special effects are quite charming. In fact the flying carpet sequences are still quite effective.

The main flaw in the film is it takes forever to get going. It runs two and a half hours and the first hour appears to me devoid of much drama. Like Faribanks’ earlier “Robin Hood” (1922) it takes a while to get going, but once it does the entertainment level kicks in big time.

Douglas Fairbanks plays the title character who falls in love with a princess (Julanne Johnston). She falls in love with him too, but he is a mere commoner, and a thief to boot. To win her love, he must embark on a series of challenges to win her hand. These adventures include fighting a dragon, battling a large bat-like creature, tangling with a large underwater creature while being tempted by sirens, stealing a gem from the eyes of a giant statue, etc.

While Doug is away, a Mongol suitor (the Japanese actor Sojin) attempts to take over Bagdad with the aide of the Princess’ hand maiden, played by a young and stunningly beautiful Anna May Wong.

The second half of the movie flies by and offers a never-ending parade of wondrous sights. I can imagine 1924 audiences must have been bowled over by the sheer spectacle on display, and I can see why it was such a huge hit.

Fairbanks is as dynamic as ever, and his enthusiasm shines through 80 years later. Johnston is adequate in her role but rather colorless. It’s too bad Wong couldn’t have essayed the role. She would have brought much more fire to it.

Sojin makes a good villain and I was interested to see him, as he played Charlie Chan in the silent “The Chinese Parrott.” (1927). This film is unfortunately lost, and it’s a shame as I would think it would be a real treat to see. It was directed by Paul Leni, a master stylist who directed “The Cat and the Canary” (1927) and “The Man Who Laughs” (1928), two films that rank among the most stylish silent films I’ve ever seen. I would love to see what he did with “The Chinese Parrott.”

The score on the Kino DVD is based on the original 1924 cue sheets and contains original themes as well as familiar themes based on Rimsky-Korsakov and Ippolitov-Ivanov compositions..

The “Thief of Bagdad” has been remade several times most notably in 1940 with Sabu, a version which remains one of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous color films ever made. The Miklos Rozsa score for the 1940 version is one of the greatest pieces of symphonic music written in the 20th century. And no, I’m not exaggerating.

Rating for the 1924 “The Thief of Bagdad”: Three stars.

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