Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

A publicity image which, like the film itself, combines realism with expressive
artifice to create a vibrant fantasy world.
The Thief of Bagdad is, by far and away, the most visually impressive of Fairbanks' films. Massive sets, elaborate costumes, state of the art special effects, and a cast of thousands make for one of the biggest and most spectacular films of its day. Visually, it is a veritable feast of loveliness, although its creative effects never for an instant look real. When Fairbanks slays a dragon, flies through the air on a winged horse, or visits mermaids at the ocean floor, it is evident that these feats are achieved through a composite of models and camera tricks. But then, this is fantasy. The point is to look beautiful, not real.

Fairbanks conceived the idea for the film himself, after watching Paul Leni's Waxworks, which also featured an Arabian Nights theme, but to make his vision a reality he assembled a crack team of creative artists well suited to bring this world to life. The screenwriter was Achmed Abdullah, a man who was (wait for it) equal parts British spy, Afghani prince, and Romanov nobleman. He had a cosmopolitan cultural background and a wealth of personal experience that make his works fresh and inventive. While it would be stretching the point to say that any author could give authenticity to an Arabian Nights fantasy (that would defeat the purpose, wouldn't it?), Abdullah has a far more interesting set of skills and experiences to bring to the project than your average Hollywood screenwriter.

Tableaus like this combine film with elements of interpretive dance.
Director Raoul Walsh gives a fluency and depth of vision to the film not usually found in Fairbanks' adventures. Although several of Fairbanks' films were made by very high caliber directors, few had anything like the sort of auteurial presence needed to stand next to Fairbanks' own rather overwhelming personality and personal vision for his films. Although Walsh made films in a staggering array of styles and genres, he would later become known primarily for his crime dramas and westerns, combining gritty realism with a wide-eyed sense of adventure. It's hard to tell if the former plays any part in Thief, which is about as unabashedly unreal as they come, although the latter is there in spades. Unlike many directors whose films all seem to be multiple iterations of a single idea, Walsh's breadth of style and theme mark him as a multi-faceted artist of a wide range of skills and abilities.
If he ducks into one of these pots, he can find some coins, and maybe a one-up mushroom.
Thief is entirely unique among the Fairbanks adventure films of the 1920's in that Fairbanks himself was not the biggest attraction. Oh, he is there all right, and in fine form. He leaps and climbs and dances his way across every frame with enough pizazz to thoroughly justify his superstar status. He also spends most of the film with his shirt off, which for a man who is not particularly handsome but is in outstanding physical shape definitely works to his advantage. No, the real star of Thief is not Fairbanks, but the sets, costumes, and effects which combine to create a dream-like fantasy world like nothing seen before.

As he had done in Robin Hood the year before, Fairbanks used the financial freedom of running his own production company to create some of the largest movie sets used since Griffith's Intolerance, a film notorious for such excesses that when box office returns failed to materialize its creator (and financier) was left virtually destitute. Production designer William Cameron Menzies, who worked on other Fairbanks films after Thief as well as better known works like Gone with the Wind and For Whom the Bell Tolls, along with Robin Hood costume designer Mitchel Leisen lavished the film with all the imaginative attention to detail Fairbanks could desire, and the end result is extraordinary. Every scene is beautiful, with overall visual effect prioritized far above such piddling details as plot and character development.

Color tinting in extreme shades helps to create the magical world the story inhabits.
Extensive use of models, matte paintings, color tinting, and double exposure effects helps to create in Thief a world which is wholly removed from our own. The color in the film is quite extraordinary in its own right. I think it likely that one of the reasons that early color process film did not take off is because the existing practice of hand tinting black and white stock yielded dramatically better results. Certainly the colors seen in Thief are far richer and more visually appealing than the 2-strip Technicolor in The Black Pirate, although the latter does at least provide a better approximation of realism. Most of the film shifts between a few related shades of blue-violet and pink, depending on the lighting effect desired, but other sequences use color to create unique surreal spaces of wonder and mystery.

The film's costumes, especially those of the Thief and Princess, positively drip with layers of silk and beads, creating a rich texture that helps to make the performers look less like actors and more like characters in a fairy tale. The Princess's costume in particular completely overwhelms Julanne Johnston, a woman whose beauty and screen presence is so utterly unremarkable that she seems hardly to exist on screen at all, save for her layers of silks and veils. In contrast, Veisen certainly knew how to dress Chinese actress Anna May Wong, who plays the princess's treacherous Mongol slave: as little as possible. Wong darts around corners and hides in shadows wearing an outfit that looks to be made of a bits of saran wrap and a bathroom throw rug, and she dominates the film in every shot she's in so utterly I am astounded the Thief even knew there was a princess.

The Princess's beauty is most often seen through the graceful sweep of her garments.
All Anna May Wong's costumes need to do is stay out of the way.
Considering the low levels of technology available at the time, the fantasy creatures in Thief are remarkably well-developed. Talking trees, a dragon, mermaids, a flying horse, and a giant crab all make an appearance, usually created through models and double exposure. Like everything in Thief, the end result is anything but realistic, but the film's color tinting helps to disguise the usual hard lines in early process shots, and blur the line between fake and magical.

This double exposure dragon fight may not look real, but it does
make for powerful and expressive storytelling
In many ways Thief is an anomaly . Although Fairbanks frequently worked with stories of fantasy and adventure, his films usually remained firmly tied to reality nonetheless. Oh, there's plenty of escapism, to be sure, but as an athletic, stunt-based performer, he usually kept clear of all but the most basic special effect devices. Excluding Thief, you'll see more special effects in Harold Lloyd's films than Fairbanks'. Much like Gene Kelly's Arabian Nights vision in Invitation to the Dance, however, which used footage of Kelly dancing in a cartoon setting, Thief uses its fantastic effects to supplement the physical performance at its center, not to subvert it. But unlike Kelly's live action/animation escapades, Thief's fantasy setting utterly overshadows its kernel of reality. This is not a criticism. If you want a swashbuckling adventure film, the Zorro movies are still there. In Thief you'll find something much more special, if only for its rarity: a world of magic and make believe of astonishing beauty, a true Arabian Nights Fantasy.

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