“Happiness must be earned.”
I wish I could write that I couldn’t find the proper words to describe how I felt when I first saw the trailer for the new DCP restoration of the 1924 Raoul Walsh silent classic The Thief of Bagdad at Film Forum last month, but the truth is that I had no trouble finding the right words to describe how I felt. In fact, one word was all I needed: overjoyed. I’ve wanted to see this film for so long that there was no way I was going to miss it at Film Forum. My only worry was trying to fit it into my schedule. Fortunately, I was able to, but I almost didn’t make it on its last day. Was it everything I hoped it would be? Did I over-hype the film for myself?
Thankfully, it was everything I hoped for (and more), and it turns out I didn’t over-hype it. Billed “an Arabian Nights fantasy,” Walsh’s highly imaginative film is such a terrific, engaging experience from start to finish. It was made by United Artists on a budget of $2 million (one of the most expensive films of the 1920s). Douglas Fairbanks, who considered this film as his personal favorite from all the ones he made, not only starred, but developed the film’s story and produced as well. Fairbanks is in excellent form as the titular thief Ahmed, whose expressions here are timeless and full of fun energy (it’s hard to believe that he was 40 years-old at the time of filming!). He brings not only grace and charisma but also a physicality to the role that I haven’t really seen in other film versions of “One Thousand and One Nights,” the story from which The Thief of Bagdad was freely adapted.
The film focuses on a thief who falls in love with the daughter (Julanne Johnston) of the Caliph of Bagdad. Wanting to prove himself worthy of her, he sets out on a quest to find a most unique treasure while a Mongol prince (Sojin Kamiyama) schemes to take control of Bagdad (here’s a bit of trivia for film buffs: Anna May Wong appears in a small role as the princess’ Mongol slave girl who also feeds information to the treacherous Mongol prince). Fairbanks’ incredible performance in this film is just as impressive as the film’s special effects by Hampton Del Ruth. The flying carpet, magical rope, cloak of invisibility, various monsters, hellfire, and even a flying winged horse are among the film’s many great technical achievements (which, along with 1925’s The Gold Rush, The Lost World, and Ben-Hur, helped pave the way for pioneering new special effects in Hollywood).
I think what impressed me the most was the production design by William Cameron Menzies (who also designed the sets for the 1940 remake). So many full-scale sets were built (the Caliph’s palace, the Mongol prince’s palace, the mosque, the streets of Bagdad, and the different environments encountered by Ahmed on his quest to find a unique treasure: 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). I must also mention Carl Davis, who wrote a magnificent new score for this silent classic that is bold, adventurous, comedic, and romantic.
As for the DCP restoration itself, it was culled from two 35mm negatives and incorporated the color tints and tones of the original theatrical release prints. There are a couple of times where it’s noticeable that some frames are missing, but unfortunately (as is the case with a lot of silent films) those frames have been lost to time and thankfully it doesn’t detract from the film. This fantasy film is truly an epic, and you can see every cent that was spent on-screen. Fairbanks ensured that this amazing film was full of drama, romance, comedy, suspense, swashbuckling action, innovative special effects, and (probably my favorite aspect) a strong sense of fun. It is a true spectacle of silent cinema and a wonderful, magical adventure.