Monday, September 8, 2008

The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924)

Back when Bagdad was a locus of wonder to the casually dreamy western imagination... Douglas Fairbanks is Ahmet, the swashbuckling Thief, who falls in love with the beautiful Princess (Julanne Johnston) and wins her hand through a set of great adventures. The story is a silly orientalist fairy tale filled with stereotyped villains, especially the scheming Mongol Prince (Sojin), aided by the furtively lovely Mongol slave in the Princess’s bedchamber (Anna May Wong), and fat beturbaned guards, and giant black gong-strikers, and easily befuddled soldiers. Fairbanks plays most of the movie with a bare torso, satin headband, luminous grin, and vaudeville-balletic arm gestures, and if he were not so absolutely convinced by—and convincing in—his own high-powered charm, he would be ridiculous, and indeed he almost is, but mostly it works. There are some nice special effects, including a magic rope he climbs up, a flying horse, and a magical army, but the real tour-de-force of the movie is the set design that offers an exceedingly tall city full of walls and towers and high windows and rounded corners and planes and twisty little stairs. Some of the shots are wonderful visualizations of Arabian tales, with tall-hatted men in robes moving about in halls over a hundred feet high. The movie is long—two hours—but delightful.

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