The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) movie poster

director Raoul Walsh
viewed: 02/16/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The opportunity to see a newly restored print of Douglas Fairbanks/Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad was an opportunity not to be missed at this year’s Silent Film Festival Winter Event.  Frankly, I’d gladly sit through it all, but I dragged the kids through Snow White (1916), a collection of Buster Keaton shorts, and this epic epic of nearly 3 hours in itself, I felt we’d done pretty darn well.

We had watched The Thief of Bagdad (1924) once before on DVD when the kids were much younger and I was just exposing them to silent film.  Felix and another girl his age loved it and remembered it as awesome for years afterward.  Much later and not terribly long ago, we watched the British Technicolor remake The Thief of Bagdad (1940), which was brilliant as well in its own way.  But now, the kids are older, much more experienced in watching silent films (no longer necessarily needing me to read the inter-titles anymore.)

Frankly, I enjoyed it more than they did this time around.  My own memory of the film proved pretty concrete.  The first half of the film is a joyous, lush, fantastic and comical tale of the titular hero, a happy-go-lucky thief (the marvelous Fairbanks) who “takes what he wants” and lives as he pleases.  Only when he goes to steal from the Caliph’s palace, he falls in love with the princess, and realizes his bon-vivant life needs redemption, which he can achieve under the guidance of religion and the successful accomplishment of a great quest.

The quest is the second part of the film.  The princess’s suitors are sent to the ends of the earth to find the rarest of treasures, with each one trying to outdo the other.  Fairbanks goes the farthest, battles a number of creatures, achieves the ultimate goals, of course, and then has to come back to Bagdad to save the princess and the who city from the conniving Asian villain.

The sets are big and lush, the action is big and wonderful.  In a lot of ways, it’s not at all unlike the kind of popcorn movies that Hollywood has been churning out most summers ever since.  Action and adventure and what would have been some top special effects of the day.  Certainly a few of the creatures bear the silly weakness of their technical limitations, but the flying carpet is done in a marvelous stunt and has all the magic that cinema can offer.

In the introduction to the film, it was suggested that Fairbanks “danced” his role, perhaps with a nod to Vaslav Nijinsky, and it was interesting taking that notion in through the film because Fairbanks’ performance is very physical.  Even with the full-body emotive acting style of the silents, his movements are outsized and broad.  But considering the intention, the fluidity and musicality of his movements, the performance is much easier to fully appreciate.  He has an action that he does with his hands to indicate that he’s “wanting” something and while its all far from subtle, it certainly has a vivid energy and sense of “lust for life” that truly embody the character.

Certainly, you can see this film on DVD and hopefully then on a screen of good size, but it cannot be beat to see it on the big screen with live orchestration.  Top notch film-going experience.

They Drive by Night

They Drive by Night (1940) movie poster

(1940) dir. Raoul Walsh
viewed: 01/26/09

I’ve been on a tear of old Warner Brothers features from the 1930’s and 1940’s, a fair amount of Humphrey Bogart and a solid amount of Raoul Walsh films.  This is the fourth Walsh film I’ve seen in the last 6 months.  How many more people do you know that can say that?  I watched High Sierra (1941), White Heat (1949), and The Thief of Bagdad (1924).  Of course, this film has most in common with High Sierra, coming a year before it and featuring Bogart just before he broke big.

In fact, this film is far more a George Raft and Ida Lupino flick.  And Lupino pretty much steals the show.  She has a noted hystrionic coo-coo crack-up toward the end of the film, but actually, the scene in which she decides to kill her husband is the film’s best.  The camera is on her face as she looks down at her drunken husband and the off-switch on the automobile.  In the long take, we see her look outwardly, getting the idea to murder him, then deciding to follow through.  It’s as good as noir, that sequence, big time.

The film is a little weird, starting out as more of a social realism film about two brothers who are truck drivers, having a hard time making the American dream come to them.  But about half-way through it becomes more of a crime film, quite a bit noirish, and contains probably the better parts of the film.  It’s an odd mixture, which is attributed to the way that the film was adapted and how it borrowed from another film its latter plot points.  It doesn’t matter a whole lot,…it’s pretty solid stuff.

Bogart is the smaller part, fourth-billed, just before he became a star in Walsh’s High Sierra.  Actually, those two flicks would be a good double-feature if you’re looking for one.  And George Raft actually sounds a lot as if he could have been Bogart’s brother.  Good Hollywood fare.

The Thief of Bagdad

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) movie poster

(1924) dir. Raoul Walsh
viewed: 12/26/08

My latest effort in my exposing my kids to silent films was the epic fantasy The Thief of Bagdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks.  I hadn’t seen it myself, so the level of risking their interest was higher perhaps than with one of the comedies of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, which has been their primary exposure to the period.

But this film held up quite well for them, too.  The special effects that come into play in earnest in the latter part of the film are really quite striking in many ways, even now.  One can only imagine how fantastic they must have seemed in their day.  The flying horse, the flying carpet scenes, and the stunts were quite good, too.

The thief (Fairbanks) is a wild, carefree pickpocket, living the high lowlife in Bagdad.  When he fancies the princess, he decides to kidnap her, pretending to be a prince vying for her hand in marriage in competition with three others.  But when he meets her, they fall in love and he admits his scheme.

The princess does not want to wed any of the other three, though her father commands it.  She sends them out to find the greatest treasures of the world, saying that the one who brings the rarest of treasures will have her hand in marriage.

The prince of the Mongols is the sinister one, who slyly places members of his army within the walls of Bagdad, while he sneaks off to find the treasure of treasures.

Ahmed, the thief, is redeemed by religion (Islam is good!) and sets off on the most arduous of journeys for a treasure greater than others, forcing him through many harrowing places.

It’s excellent through and through.  The largely bare-chested Fairbanks is an energetic and physical hero, doing some stunts that would give Keaton a run for his money.  The sets are hard to fathom, they are so massive and ornate.  True fantasy filmmaking, the type that no doubt influenced generations of filmmakers like Spielberg and Lucas and who knows what else.

And the kids did enjoy it.  Samantha turned to me during one part and said, “This is awesome.”  And while I know that they prefer comedies for the most part, this film was well-liked.  And even though Clara got a little bored (the movie is more than 2 hours long), she said she liked it well, too.

I love the experience of watching the films with them, reading the intertitles, explaining some of the narrative points, anachronisms, and just cuddling on the couch.  That is my favorite thing.


White Heat

White Heat (1949) movie poster

(1949) dir. Raoul Walsh
viewed: 11/23/08

My third gangster/noir installment for the day was White Heat with the brilliant James Cagney in one of his most notable roles, featuring another of the great lines and finales, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” as Cagney’s character Cody Jarrett stands atop a huge oil tank just before it explodes.  Hot stuff, indeed.

It’s a funny thing about finally coming around to seeing these classic films that are so filled with lines and scenes and performances that are widely recognizable from American culture all over the place.  How many people who haven’t ever seen a James Cagney movie who would at least be familiar with the aforementioned clip?  It’s strange, a familiarity mixed within the new.  Because I had never seen this film.  Much of it was brand new to me.

It’s more of an action film in some ways, more modern, in a sense, in its pacing and narrative, especially with the final caper, the police chase, and the shootout.  The complex portrayal of Cody and his mother is again so iconic, yet totally great.  There’s a lot of good stuff throughout but this takes the cake.

Again, I don’t think I’m as familiar with Cagney’s work as most people my age and older would be.  I don’t know that I’ve seen any of his major films.  Well, that will change.  I’ve got to see The Public Enemy (1931) now.  And there are quite a few others out there…I’ll have to see them too.

High Sierra

High Sierra (1941) movie poster

(1941) dir. Raoul Walsh
viewed: 08/26/08

My Humphrey Bogart/John Huston fest was a little accidental, but most of these films, including High Sierra (1941), Key Largo (1948), and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) had been in my Netflix queue for some time.  High Sierra, unlike the others, I actually had seen before when I was living in England on the BBC or BBC2.  My interest in the crime novel hadn’t fully formulated at that time, nor perhaps has it even now…though I am willing to argue a bit more perspective.

High Sierra, in comparison with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Key Largo (1948), is  much more a potboiler, much more a templated thriller with more of the cliche elements, characters, and whatnot.  If that matters to you.  The fact is, High Sierra, from a W. R. Burnett book, re-worked by Burnett and John Huston, is still much more the classic pulp story, one in which the anti-hero is a noirish ex-con who seeks to find the American dream by means of the anti-American dream, the bank robbery.

It’s top-notch stuff.  Ida Lupino, an eventual director and producer, a proto-feminist working in a genre that is not too feminist-friendly, is the poor moll, who contrasts to the sexy, sweet-thing club foot chick who turns out to be more of a grassback than Lupino.  High Sierra is rich mining material for the Freudian theorist who wants to deconstruct classic Hollywood.  It’s also a far cry, a futuristic far cry,  from the noir that would follow it.  Nonetheless, it speaks of Huston’s humanism that would show up in his work, an affection and appreciation for the working man, of whatever color that workingman’s skin might be.

This all might seem slightly passe by contemporary terms, but it’s all good stuff by the terms and realities of the film’s production.  It’s a tragic poem whose criticism leans towards the “straight” world.  It’s part of the ideology that leans into the idealism of the non-straight world, in which idealism, meaning, and importance is based on an ideology embedded in the world of known realities.

Yeah, it rocks.