by Allan Fish
(USA 1924 155m) DVD1/2
Happiness must be earned
p Douglas Fairbanks d Raoul Walsh (and Douglas Fairbanks) w Douglas Fairbanks, Lotta Woods book “The 1001 Nights” ph Arthur Edeson ed William Nolan md Carl Davis m Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov art William Cameron Menzies, Anton Grot cos Mitchell Leisen spc Ned Mann restoration tinting Ron Sayer
Douglas Fairbanks (Ahmed the thief), Julianne Johnston (Princess of Bagdad), Snitz Edwards (thief friend), Anna May Wong (Monol slave), Brandon Hurst (Caliph of Bagdad), So-Jin (Prince of the Mongols), Noble Johnson (Indian Prince), Mathilde Comont (Persian Prince), Charles Belcher, Etta Lee,
Right, here’s the scenario. You are in a cell on Death Row with a DVD player or a VCR and you are being allowed one film to watch the night before you die, but only have a library of silent films to choose from. Well forgive me Messieurs Chaplin, Keaton, Gance, Eisenstein, Murnau, et al when I say that there is only one choice; Doug Fairbanks’ fantasy The Thief of Bagdad. Not only is it my favourite silent of them all, it’s one of the best. Without it (and Lang’s Die Nibelungen) fantasy in the cinema may not have come as far as it has today as this one set the rules. It also stands as a testament to that most joyous of silent stars, Douglas Fairbanks, who David Thomson perfectly described as a “transforming movie actor whose presence so embodied the spirit of naïve adventure.”
It differs quite a bit from the later Korda version of the tale; for starters, it basically combines the role of the thief with the heroic prince. The eponymous Ahmed is a thief who obtains a magic rope to help him into the palace for acts of larceny, only to fall in love with the princess. When the princess later challenges her several suitors (including a megalomaniacal Mongol) to bring back the rarest treasure to win her hand, Fairbanks enters into the fray, going through adventures in such wonderfully corny places as the Valley of Fire, the Valley of the Monsters, the Cavern of Enchanted Trees and the Abode of the Winged Horse on his way to the Old Man of the Midnight Sea.
This adaptation of the immortal anonymous tales has it all; flying carpets and horses, magic baskets, apples and ropes, cloaks of invisibility (more than seventy years before J.K.Rowling made them cool) and huge Oriental sets from master designer William Cameron Menzies. Public floggings are heralded by a gong to put Rank to shame, the gates of Bagdad open like huge sets of teeth and princesses swoon on cue. Influenced by both German expressionism and the Diaghilev ballet, Fairbanks’ film seems to float on air, the effects though dated somehow date better than those on the Korda version, with its invisibility cloak like a mini cyclone and an effective flying carpet (which Fairbanks’ brother, Robert, designed and suspended from a ninety foot platform). Made at the cost of two million dollars, it wasn’t quite the success Fairbanks hoped for. Audiences wanted him as swashbuckling heroes and he returned to that vein for the rest of his career. But it’s a great shame as this is certainly his masterpiece.
It’s a huge credit to director Walsh and Fairbanks that it hangs together so beautifully, and his performance, balletic and dressed only in gossamer pants, a moustache and earrings, is a pleasure to behold. “What I want I take. My reward is here. Paradise is a fool’s dream and Allah is a myth” Ahmed exclaims, and when the villainous So-Jin says virtually the same thing later on, we see their similarities. The difference is love and what that can do to the human soul. One has earned happiness written in the stars, the other hasn’t. As Ahmed relieves the city with troops summoned up from the earth in a way to influence Jackson’s The Return of the King at Minas Tirith, it’s the relief from slavery of not just Bagdad, but fantasy cinema. For once, the DVD version isn’t up to the video version released by Thames Silents in the eighties, with Carl Davis’ lovely reworking of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherezade’ suite setting the tone for the entire film. As Doug Fairbanks Jr says on its intro – “though it really should be seen on a big screen with a live orchestra, this version comes pretty close to conveying the magic of this lovely film.” Magic indeed.