An epic fantasy-spectacle inspired by The Arabian Nights, The Thief of Bagdad is Douglas Fairbanks’s masterpiece. The superb visual design, spectacle, and special effects, along with his magnetic performance, all contribute to making it his greatest work. The film was not only his most ambitious effort but also one of the largest and most expensive made until that time. The Thief of Bagdad required 65 weeks to make, the sets covered six and a half acres at the Pickford-Fairbanks Studios in West Hollywood, and the prodigal production cost the enormous sum of $1,135,654.65.
Fairbanks’s selection of the film’s creative team was inspired, his most important choice being Raoul Walsh as director. He was confident of Walsh’s capabilities in the coordination of the production and enjoyed his sense of humor; Walsh was an inveterate practical joker and Fairbanks loved practical jokes. Walsh’s style and temperament were well suited to bring out the best in Fairbanks’s narcissism and self-parody. The type of fantasy-spectacle Fairbanks envisioned was not Walsh’s element, as the director later conceded. Fairbanks typically pushed his chosen directors far beyond what they thought they could achieve, and the results were often remarkable. However, Fairbanks was the real force both in front of and behind the camera, and he frequently took charge of the difficult scenes. A cinema auteur more than 30 years before the concept was developed, he put his own identifiable stamp on his films. Indeed, Walsh was hardly mentioned in the reviews for The Thief of Bagdad.
For art director, Fairbanks hired William Cameron Menzies but had already chosen the film’s ethereal, spectacular setting in the early planning stages. He wanted the design to suggest the extravagance of imagination manifest in the Arabian Nights tales. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes had a great impact in America, as in Europe, defining modern dance in the early 20th century. Fairbanks also took his inspiration from Scheherazade, Diaghilev’s great success, which was choreographed by Michel Fokine, danced by Nijinsky to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, with costumes and décor by Léon Bakst. His thief is entirely different from the roles his audiences had come to expect from the all-American “Doug” Fairbanks. He dances the part of Ahmed like a ballet dancer in the style of Nijinsky. Building on Bakst’s ideas, Fairbanks, Walsh, Menzies, and the consulting artists developed the integrated curvilinear Art Nouveau design, which lifts the film into a soaring fantasy. Applied to the film’s Art Nouveau décor, Menzies’s pen-and-ink effects, which register like drawings onscreen, were revolutionary in American cinema. Prior to The Thief of Bagdad, set designs and décor in major films like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) were a tasteful mixture at best and in most cases a jumble. Menzies’s sets for The Thief of Bagdad created an ethereal world of its own, with cast and setting melded in rhythm and motion.
Fairbanks also embraced the concepts of stylized performance and sets from contemporary German cinema. The Bagdad set was enormous; the bazaar set alone covered more than two acres, with a concrete floor four inches thick, which had to be re-enameled several times a week. Built upward and outward on the foundations of the Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922) sets, Nottingham Castle was ingeniously transformed into the palace of Bagdad.
Production of The Thief of Bagdad began on July 5, 1923, with non-stop work, excepting Sundays and Christmas Day. Shooting lasted a little more than 28 weeks. The post-production phase, which began February 1, 1924, went swiftly because of the meticulous preparations. William Nolan, the film editor, systematically cut the 480,000 feet of exposed film (shot on multiple cameras) down to about 15,000 feet for the final cut. Fairbanks hired the poet George Sterling to write the intertitles and give them a lyrical quality. Rather than follow the usual practice of compiling one from existing music, Fairbanks hired composer Mortimer Wilson to create an original musical score.
The world premiere of The Thief of Bagdad was held at the Liberty Theater in New York City on March 18, 1924. At great expense, Fairbanks hired Morris Gest, a master showman in the spirit of his father-in-law David Belasco, to oversee all the American road-show presentations of the film, which boasted “full scenic and stage effects, a band of Arabian musicians, with the instruments of their native country, as well as a Mohammedan Prayer Man.” Fairbanks was active in all aspects of the exhibition and exploitation of his films, even down to details such as the number of billboards to reserve.
“It is an entrancing picture, wholesome and beautiful, deliberate but compelling, a feat of motion picture art which has never been equaled and one which itself will enthrall persons time and again,” raved Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times. Hall made mention of Gest’s elaborate presentation, the theater outfitted in “a thoroughly oriental atmosphere, with drums, vocal offerings, odiferous incense, perfume from Bagdad, magic carpets, and ushers in Arabian attire, who during intermission made a brave effort to bear cups of Turkish coffee to the women in the audience.”
The New York Herald Tribune proclaimed The Thief of Bagdad “the greatest thing that ever has been put on the screen!” Photoplay magazine rhapsodized: “Here is magic. Here is beauty. Here is the answer to the cynics who give the motion picture no place in the family arts … It is a work of rare genius ….” Robert E. Sherwood, future playwright and Fairbanks collaborator, wrote in Life magazine, “Fairbanks has gone far beyond the mere bounds of possibility; he has performed the superhuman feat of making his magic seem probable.”
Poet Carl Sandburg wrote in the Chicago Daily News, “Probably no one photoplay since the motion
picture business and art got going has been greeted so enthusiastically in the circles known as highbrow and lowbrow.” Like many others, Sandburg saw the film more than once; the following year he called it “a masterpiece.” In 1926, the poet and film aesthetician Vachel Lindsay recommended seeing The Thief of Bagdad ten times, as he had; he called it “architecture-in-motion” and “sculpture-in-motion,” two of Lindsay’s own film aesthetic values on ample display in the film. “The history of the movies is now David Wark Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and whoever rises hereafter to dispute their title,” Lindsay proclaimed.
Although the reviews were ecstatic, The Thief of Bagdad was not the commercial success that Fairbanks had anticipated. However, it remained Fairbanks’s favorite of all his films. The Museum of Modern Art has kept the film in circulation for more than 70 years and a proliferation of lesser-quality reproductions of the film remain available as its copyright was not renewed. The film has enjoyed various revivals, notably at the Dominion Theatre in London in 1984 and at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in 1987 with a musical score by Carl Davis based on the compositions of Rimsky-Korsakov. This new DCP restoration, completed by the Cohen Film Collection in 2012, ensures that this great and enduring work of world cinema will be seen and enjoyed into the 21st century.
Essay by Jeffrey Vance, adapted from his book Douglas Fairbanks (UC Press, 2008)
Presented at SFSFF 2013 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra