#206) The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

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#206) The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

OR “Arabian Splendor”

Directed by Raoul Walsh

Written by Lotta Woods and Elton Thomas (aka Douglas Fairbanks). Based on stories from “One Thousand and One Nights”.

Class of 1996

The Plot: Douglas Fairbanks is the Thief of Bagdad, a man who takes what he wants with no regard to Bagdad or its citizens. His plans to rob the palace change when he glimpses the princess (Julanne Johnston) asleep in her room and falls in love. She is expected to choose her future husband the next day, but the Thief’s attempt to pose as a prince is thwarted by fellow suitor the evil Prince of the Mongols (Sojin Kamiyama). While the princess stalls the other suitors with a quest to find rare treasures, the Thief goes on a quest to become a prince. There are monsters, magic carpets, and so much cultural appropriation in this classic silent fantasy.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “imaginatively awe-inspiring” and praises Fairbanks and the sets. There’s also a loving essay by Joe Morgenstern, film critic and former Mr. Piper Laurie.

But Does It Really?: It’s longer than it needs to be, but ultimately I had a lot of fun watching “The Thief of Bagdad”. This film really takes its time getting started, but Faribanks’ natural charm and impressive stunt work keep the first half interesting while the fantasy elements help carry you through the second half. “Thief” is the quintessential Douglas Fairbanks epic, and one of the few silent films that still works today. No argument here for its NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: Practically everyone that isn’t Douglas Fairbanks. The transition from silent to sound was a real slaughterhouse.

Wow, That’s Dated: No one in this movie is anywhere near Arabic. Hell, even the “Aladdin” remake can’t get it 100% right.

Other notes

  • This film doesn’t seem to be based on any particular Arabian Nights tale. There are elements of “Aladdin”, but if you had to come up with 1001 stories you’d have some overlap too.
  • Star, co-writer, AND copyright holder? Now that’s a Muscle.
  • The film’s overall moral is “Happiness must be earned”. Tell that to millennials.
  • Fairbanks is playing to the back of the house, but it works for a fantasy. He also has a very fluid physicality that lends itself well to the action.
  • I love me some practical silent film effects. The magic rope in particular is some great “how did they do that” trickery.
  • I’m pretty sure Rhoda Morgenstern had the exact same pair of pantaloons the Thief has.
  • Speaking of, I now know what religion Douglas Fairbanks was.
  • It’s whitewashed as hell, but that’s still more American screentime devoted to Muslims than we’ll see for a while.
  • Douglas, stop making that grabbing gesture. We know he’s a thief. It’s in the title!
  • I know there’s some matte paintings involved, but Jesus those sets are amazing.
  • That’s Anna May Wong as the princess’ Mongol slave girl who is in cahoots with Cham Shang. As a Chinese-American, she comes the closest to playing the correct nationality.
  • “Nizzy noodle. He’s turned love-bird!” Is that a direct translation from the original Arabic?
  • Actor Mathilde Comont plays the Prince of Persia in drag. Still not quite sure what that’s about. Could be worse, could be Jake Gyllenhaal.
  • For an ancient patriarchy, it’s nice that they let the princess choose her own suitor. And the rose gives the whole thing a “Bachelorette” quality.
  • That is one giant fucking ape.
  • Fairbanks is looking for a magic chest? If you ask me he’s already got one…
  • What poor animal was forced to play the monster?
  • I thought Ernest Hemingway was “The Old Man of the Midnight Sea”.
  • Surprise cameo by the Tristar logo!
  • I don’t care that you can see the strings, that magic carpet effect still looks cool. I also enjoy the proto-“E.T.” shot of them flying across the moon.
  • My main question about Douglas Fairbanks: How did he do such fantastic stunts…with such little feet?

Legacy

  • Douglas Fairbanks solidified his place as a swashbuckling movie star with “Thief of Bagdad”. He followed up by co-founding United Artists (alongside his wife Mary Pickford), co-founding the Motion Picture Academy, and hosting the first Academy Awards ceremony. And then…sound happened.
  • This film also boosted the career of Anna May Wong, although due to the lack of other Asian-American actors (and good roles for any of them), she spent most of the ‘20s playing variations on the “dragon lady” character she portrays here.
  • “The Thief of Bagdad” was remade in sound and color in 1940. It’s very different, but also fun.

3 thoughts on “#206) The Thief of Bagdad (1924)”

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