The Thief of Bagdad (1924) Directed by Raoul Walsh. Douglas Fairbanks, Julanne Johnston, Anna May Wong (139 min).

An enchanted Arabian Nights fantasy unfolds in a dazzling Art Deco kingdom as a lowly thief quests for the love of a dainty princess. Flying carpets, winged horses, fearsome beasts and an invisibility cloak are a few of the state of the art special effects, the main one being Fairbanks’ boisterous athleticism and joyful smile. Ben Model provided an original score.

Fairbanks is known today primarily by the swashbuckling silent classics in which he impersonated the likes of Zorro, Robin Hood and D’Artagnan. But, his initial movie fame was as a red-blooded all-American hero in modern dress adventure comedies, often penned by Gentlemen Prefer Blondes author Anita Loos. As Jeanine Basinger points out in Silent Stars, “few realize he began as a comedy star, and that it is his comic timing and energy that makes his adventure movies great.” In the twenties, each of his spectacular films had to top the last one, and after the thrilling Mark of Zorro and a magnificent Robin Hood, the bar was set high. But, Fairbanks was always prepared to leap over it. Robin Hood and The Three Musketeers, while delightful, seem a bit overwhelmed by spectacle to modern eyes. The sheer physical beauty of The Thief of Bagdad, coupled with its shimmering magical atmosphere, ranks it among the very best of the Fairbanks classics, and my personal favorite of his twenties films.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were the undisputed King and Queen of Hollywood in the 1920s. This coronation was no fluke. As two of the founding members of United Artists (“the inmates are taking over the asylum” a rival producer grumbled, coining a phrase) they exercised complete control over both the business and creative ends of their careers. They were beholden artistically and financially to no one, had a firm grasp both on their own abilities and the demands of their fans and could afford the best collaborators in Hollywood. During the golden days of the silent era, nobody made better pictures or was more successful than America’s Sweethearts, Doug and Mary.

Douglas Fairbanks grew up in Denver, Colorado, longing for the stage. He became a Broadway star, and starting in 1915, a movie star, too. Many of his early comedies involve transformations, perhaps an effete Easterner becomes a rip-roaring Westerner, or a mollycoddle morphs into a he-man. His swashbucklers echo these plots in the alter-egos and transformations, contrasting brave Zorro and foppish Don Diego, The Prince who was really a Thief, and so on. The only special effect in these early films is peppy Doug and his can-do enthusiasm for whatever dilemma the plot has foisted on him. He’s a complete movie star in the sense that he is the person you want to watch on the screen, and he never takes himself too seriously. “Male stars who have lasted for decades at the box office all had a sense of humor about their image, and have put a touch of irony into their macho heroes.” (Basinger). He wrote all but one of his adventure films himself, under the pseudonym Elton Thomas, his two middle names. His movements here are influenced by the modernist dance techniques of the Ballets Russes, whose Orientalist décor is echoed in the sets and costumes. Fairbanks is 41 in this film, incredibly fit, vibrant and beautiful.

Bungalowing in California, 1917

In costume as the Thief of Bagdad

Raoul Walsh’s directorial career stretched from 1912 to 1964. He’d been working as a Texas cowboy in the waning days of the frontier when he was recruited off the street to ride a horse on a treadmill in a travelling production of The Clansman. Bitten by the stage bug, he went to New York, where he rode horses in a series of Westerns filmed on location in New Jersey. Spotted by pioneering director DW Griffith, he followed him to California, working both behind and in front of the camera. He observed Griffith carefully, and began directing his own films with a distinctive rough and tumble flair gleaned from his own experience. The Thief of Bagdad was his first major film as a director, a job he got because he ran and boxed with the athletic Fairbanks. Walsh’s glory days were at Warner Brothers in the 1940s, where he directed James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Erroll Flynn in some of their signature films. Perhaps his masterpiece is the brutal and subversive gangster drama starring Cagney, White Heat.

Julanne Johnston, the decorative heroine of The Thief of Bagdad, was a member of Ruth St. Denis’ modern dance troupe. Her entrée into films was as a dancer, and after making a handful of films she was chosen a WAMPAS (Western Associated Motion Picture Advertisers) Baby Star of 1924. The 13 starlets so chosen each year between 1922-1934 considered it a great honor, and indeed many of them went on to considerable fame. Not so Miss Johnston. This film was her only leading role in an important film. She married in the early 1930s and retired from the screen.

“Once more her cool white fingers fell athwart his arm”

Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong, Cantonese for “Frosted Yellow Willow,” in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1907. Movie-struck by the Perils of Pauline serial, she broke into pictures by way of an agent who specialized in hiring Asian extras for crowd scenes. She starred in the Madam Butterfly-ish The Toll of the Sea, the first 2-color Technicolor feature, when she was only 16 years old. Shortly afterwards, Fairbanks chose her to play the Princess’ treacherous lady-in-waiting in The Thief of Bagdad. She made close to 50 films in her career, but was frustrated by Hollywood’s penchant for casting heavily made up Caucasians in Asian roles. Her other major part was in Shanghai Express where she held her own admirably opposite Marlene Dietrich.

Fairbanks wanted a new face to play the Mongol Prince, and according to publicity, he is “Nippon’s greatest Shakespearean actor, whose full name is So-Jin-Hayakama.” Noble Johnson made his film debut in 1909, and was among the earliest African American actors to play bit parts in silent films, replacing the whites in blackface who had previously been cast. In 1916 he and his brother formed an all-black production company, among the first to promote race achievement. He made many films during his 40 years on the screen, appearing in Mexican, Indian and other ethnic roles as well as an African American. Comic Snitz Edwards was a jockey until a fall ended his racing career. Around 60 when this film was made, he’s remembered primarily as Fairbanks’ “Bird of Evil” here and supporting Buster Keaton in several of his classic comedies.

Art Director William Cameron Menzies began his career in advertising, designing layouts for Hardware Age magazine. He worked as a design assistant at the Fort Lee NJ film studios with Raoul Walsh, who invited him to Hollywood. Menzies first major assignment was designing Seville, Spain, on the back lot for Mary Pickford’s Rosita. Douglas Fairbanks thought Menzies too inexperienced to do The Thief of Bagdad, but Menzies made a collection of extraordinary detailed set drawings. “Menzies created one of the most superb fairytale worlds ever seen on the screen. The minarets reflected in the shining streets of Bagdad, the princess’s bedroom with its staircase sweeping round the domed and canopied bed, the giant’s cavern, the dragon’s lair and the superbly excecuted glass shots of the under sea scenes are brilliantly concieved. Menzies’ personal vision of this world can be traced from the first rough sketches, through his beautiful paintings and drawings, right onto the screen.”

One of Menzies’ sketches

Bagdad under construction

Menzies’ career stretched across 40 years, during which he won the first Oscar for Art Direction in 1928, designed silents for Rudolph Valentino and John Barrymore, and directed the visionary science fiction film Things to Come in 1936. He created the 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad as well using a quite different imaginative palette. He also designed Gone With the Wind, and John Hambley states, “It is no exaggeration to say that Menzies was more responsible for the finished film than anyone else…He worked directly from the book, since no final script existed, and his storyboards and colour sketches were followed slavishly by the three directors who worked on the film, George Cukor, Victor Fleming and Sam Wood. His final film was the lavish Around the World in 80 Days.

Fairbanks mastery of his surroundings had to do with his understanding of scale. Props were designed to make whatever feat he was attempting look easy, a wall was the right height to leap, a table proportioned to make a dive over it appear effortless. “By building huge sets, he made all his feats looks bigger and grander than they were…although they were in fact pretty big and grand.” (Basinger).

“I am not a prince.”

Mitchell Leisen started designing in the extravagant silent Cecil B. DeMille era, admonished by his boss never to design anything an audience member could buy in a store. Leisen told David Chierichetti, “We had 3,000 extras a day for The Thief, and I had to design different costumes for all of them. Western Costume made them, and they charged us the full cost of making the costume as a rental and they got them all back when it was over. The costumes were much more complicated than Robin Hood (his previous Fairbanks film) had been. We had a hundred Chinese soldiers’ uniforms, all identical and very intricate. There were a hundred copies of something else. The principal problem with the extras on this was to keep the men from wearing long trousers rolled up under their costumes, which would suddenly unroll in the middle of a take and spoil everything.” Raoul Walsh’s recollection of his costume designer was succinct: “Yes, an arty fellow, very arty–had to have beautiful drapes all around, plush carpets and real silver.” (Bogdanovich.)

One of Leisen’s costume sketches

The special effects and stunts for The Thief of Bagdad were so groundbreaking that they were detailed in scientific magazines of the period. But, many of the effects relied on that staple of the Keystone comedy lot, piano wire, and the Keystone stunt genius, Coy Watson. Watson rigged everything personally, and without him there would be no giant spider, no invisibility cloak and no Fairbanks being bucked off a horse into a rose bush. Watson’s son, Coy, Jr., wrote, “Dad always appreciated the confidence that Doug and he had for each other. A mishap during the taking of such a scene could have meant serious injuries to Doug, a man Dad had come to know and to regard as a dear friend. The athlete and gymnast in Doug often came out between scenes when he was hung up on wires. He liked to clown, pretending to fly and do impossible gymnastic tricks as he swung himself through the air. This caused Dad concern and he often had to remind Doug that he was not rigged to do circus stunts and he was playing without a net below. Dad said, “Doug’s trust in my work sometimes worried me. I never knew what he’d do next.”

A diagram from Science and Invention, May 1924 in The Fairbanks Album edited by Doug, Jr. He says of this film, “A movie that always seems to be delighted with itself, as the star seems to be with himself.”

The final flying carpet shot was not a camera trick and there were no doubles. The carpet was a 3/4 inch piece of steel, and flying it was Watson’s greatest stunt challenge. “It was the last scene in the picture, the toughest to set up and the most dangerous to perform.” Sixteen piano wires, the width of pencil lead were fastened to the four corners of the carpet and anchored to the top of a 100 foot construction crane. Fairbanks and Johnstone were raised 35 feet, suspended over 3000 waving extras. Eighteen cameras were ready to shoot the magic carpet’s single pass over the city of Bagdad.

In an afterward to the Photoplay edition of The Thief of Bagdad Arthur J. Zellner wrote, “When (Fairbanks) first decided to make this picture, he realized that fantasy, being imaginary and elusive, is the most difficult thing in the world to picture, for as soon as you build and photograph a thing you give it substance and reality. This, by the way, was the fundamental problem of The Thief of Bagdad….how could a thing be fantastic and still be of super-substantial size and character? Think of the paradoxical instruction to the technicians–‘Make these sets magnificently impressive in size and character, but preserve the idea of unreality..'” He goes on to speak of how the 6 acre city of Bagdad was constructed with a highly polished enameled floor, and lighted at the base of the buildings, to give the appearance the city floated. Over 20,000 feet of film was shot testing the lighting and painting of the sets. The undersea Realm of Glass was hand-blown by a family of artisans who worked on this one set for three months.

Vachel Lindsay extolled this enchanted childhood dream as “The greatest movie so far in movie history.” Jeanine Basinger in a more recent appreciation writes, “On the one hand, The Thief of Bagdad is a movie you want to have seen as a kid, when its wonderful special effects can work their best magic. On the other hand, its magnificent design, its sophisticated sense of Arabian Nights fantasies, and its tongue-in-cheek star may be best appreciated by adults. It’s a film for all ages and for all decades. It’s a feast for the eyes, a humor-filled adventure story and a great star vehicle.”

The score for the screening at the NC Museum of Art was improvised at the keyboard by Ben Model, who has been the Museum of Modern Art silent film accompanist since 1984. He played for silent film historian William K. Everson’s legendary film classes at NYU and was mentored by Lee Erwin who played in the silent era and continued to perform at 90. Model is making his living playing for silents, “For a field that’s been dead for 70 years, I’m doing pretty good.”

(Photos: Bungalowing from Laugh and Live, sitting portrait and magic carpet from Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Material, 2 photos with Princess and last portrait from the Photoplay Edition, Wong from March, 1987 Films in Review, Menzies set sketch from Hollywood: Legend and Reality, Set under construction from Herndon, Leisen Costume sketch from Hollywood Costume. Sources include: The Thief of Bagdad by “Achmed Abdullah” Photoplay edition, Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks by Booton Herndon, Classics of the Silent Screen by Joe Franklin, but ghost-written by William K. Everson, Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich, Film Crazy by Patrick McGilligan, The Art of Hollywood: Fifty Years of Art Direction (1980 exhibition at the V&A Museum) by John Hambley and Patrick Downing, Hollywood, Legend and Reality (1986 exhibition at the Smithsonian) edited by Michael Webb, The Keystone Kid: Tales of Early Hollywood by Coy Watson, Jr., Mitchell Leisen, Hollywood Director and Hollywood Costume by David Chierichetti, The WAMPAS Baby Stars: A Biographical Dictionary by Roy Liebman, “Anna May Wong” by Philip Leibfred in the March, 1987 Films in Review, Toms Coons Mullatoes, Mammies and Bucks by Donal Bogle, This Mad Masquerade by Gaylyn Studlar, Laugh and Live by Douglas Fairbanks.