Thief of Bagdad
Blu-ray, $24.98; DVD, $19.98; Cohen Media Group, not rated
One of the most popular films of the silent era, Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 “Thief of Bagdad” is a work that begs to be seen on the giant screen of one of the magnificent movie palaces constructed in the 1920s.
Just as the palaces, built to accommodate nightly audiences of 2,000 people, were designed to plunge the spectator into an exotic opulence far removed from the modern urban experience – their interiors variously invoked Moorish courtyards, Scottish castles, Egyptian temples, Gothic cathedrals and other grand, ceremonial spaces – so does the Fairbanks film mean to transport the viewer through the sheer force of architectural atmospherics.
Only a few steps seem to separate the Arabian Nights palace of “The Thief of Bagdad” from the lobby of Loew’s Paradise.
Even the most imposing flat-screen television is no substitute for that experience, but the new Blu-ray edition of “The Thief of Bagdad” from Cohen Media Group brings us a bit closer to it. Digitally restored from two original negatives and color tinted in accordance with the practice of the time, the new edition brings out textures and enhances depth effects to a degree that makes previous video versions obsolete.
It was Fairbanks who, in a flurry of 30 feature-length films made from 1915 to 1920, invented the American action star, with his combination of easy athleticism, can-do optimism and self-deprecating humor. By the time of “The Thief of Bagdad” he had moved from modern dress to costume roles (“The Mark of Zorro,” “Robin Hood”) and into the particular timelessness of the superstar, standing at the center of his own universe.
As the producer of his films and the author (under the pseudonym Elton Thomas) of many of his screenplays Fairbanks was the dominant creative force behind his vehicles, although he had two collaborators of distinction on “Thief.”
The film’s extraordinary production design – located somewhere between the swoony Art Nouveau curves of Aubrey Beardsley and the robust literary illustrations of N.C. Wyeth – is the first major work of William Cameron Menzies, a brilliant jack-of-all-trades who would leave his mark on movies from “Gone With the Wind” (which he designed) to the low-budget nightmare “Invaders from Mars” (which he also directed).
The director of record is Raoul Walsh, one of the leading figures of the era, but here, as Walsh admitted in his autobiography, he was happy to function as a facilitator for Fairbanks and Menzies. The movie features little of Walsh’s characteristic bustle and receding, multilayered space, the better to preserve the strong vertical lines and flattened perspectives of the Menzies designs.
Perhaps betraying its drafting-board origins, it’s a movie that resolves itself into a succession of self-contained tableaus, as Fairbanks, as the humble thief who must prove himself a prince at heart to win the calilph’s daughter (Julanne Johnston), sets out on a series of adventures, each time with the aim of bringing back one of the world’s great treasures. Fairbanks leads the viewer through a range of magical worlds.
Most memorably, there is an undersea kingdom, where the chandeliers (not unlike those the 1920s spectator would have seen in the lobby) are giant jellyfish composed of Venetian glass.
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