THE DVD SHELF: Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux," Olivier's "Richard III" and Douglas Fairbanks as "The Thief of Bagdad"

By Steven Suskin
19 May 2013

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Most striking of this month's movies, and an unexpectedly exhilarating one, is Douglas Fairbanks' 1924 The Thief of Bagdad [Cohen]. This swashbuckling silent followed the star's "Mark of Zorro" and "Robin Hood," all of which showcased the actor's comedic flare and strong athleticism. A chase scene early in "Thief of Bagdad," in which Fairbanks runs and bounces through the marketplace, over drums and barrels, ably demonstrates this. Think "Indiana Jones" with earring, bare chest and bandana.

Fairbanks at the time was one of Hollywood's three top actors. The trio—Fairbanks, his wife Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin—capitalized on this by uniting to form their own studio, United Artists. Fairbanks was the lesser of the three, and he was unable to make the transition from silents to talkies; hence, he is relatively unknown today. "The Thief of Bagdad"—restored in such perfect shape, enhanced by color tints—shows us just how entertaining and likable Fairbanks must have been for his audiences.

As star, author, producer and studio head, Fairbanks had thorough control over all elements. (It is said that he more or less directed the film as well, although then-young Raoul Walsh received credit.) The standout contribution, which makes "Thief of Bagdad" especially thrilling, is the art direction by William Cameron Menzies. Menzies was to become a major name in Hollywood—think "Gone with the Wind"—but this, his first major film, instantly established him and remains astonishing: an art deco, Arabian Nights dream. Ancient Bagdad is filled with what appear to be 50-foot walls, sweeping (and architecturally impossible) stairways, and a panoply of delights —including that castle gate, which opens in four directions with diagonal teeth.

Fairbanks being Fairbanks, he insisted on special effects back in the days when you couldn't just order them up. Most remarkable is the flying carpet, which was accomplished by using a construction crane and plenty of piano wire. (One of the bonus features is a collection of production photos which shows how this was filmed.) There is also a magic rope, a flying horse (which looks laughably simplistic by today's standards), a cloak of invisibility, and all sorts of trick work. It is not all convincing, necessarily, but it offers high entertainment value.