February 6, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Finally we've reached the first film on this list that I've seen before, although it's been a long time.  And unfortunately it wasn't quite as good as I remember.  There were few things objectively wrong with it, but it just seemed... a little full of itself.  I thought I remembered a spirited adventure flick, but actually most of The Thief of Bagdad is quite sober and grandiose.  It's an Epic, and a Timeless Classic, with a clearly stated Moral Lesson.  A little too clearly stated, in fact.  Often these things are couched in flowery, period language.  "Happiness Must Be Earned" is so naked and straight-forward it pounds you in the gut like the butt-end of a pike.

Working up from the smallest problems, one of the first things I noticed was the very broad melodramatic acting.  See, this is why I'm doing this project.  Seen on its own, I might have assumed such performances were just the way it was done at the time, before they invented "real" cinema acting - but actually this is the first we've seen of this kind of broad, gestural acting.  It was startling how naturalistic the performances were in the Teens, and equally startling now that we're finally seeing some real melodrama.  Which I guess can't really be called a complaint - what this means is that the acting was a deliberate artistic choice - but it did catch my eye, and occasionally came across a bit goofy.  However, while leading man Douglas Fairbanks was probably the worst offender, he also made it work better than anyone else.  He has such commitment, such panache, it became easy to see why basically the entire gestural language of swashbucklers was stolen from him (the hands-on-hips Robin Hood laugh even appeared a few times, though he hadn't even played the role yet).

I think what I object to about melodramatic acting is the way it can take a big black marker to the story and underline things, as if I'm too stupid to get it by myself.  "You see!??? You see the Drama?? The HORROR???"  And this "Get it? Get it??" mentality seems to have infected the rest of the movie, especially the editing.  Almost every shot goes on a second too long, which adds up to a lot of wasted seconds in the end.  A lot of frustrated seconds where the shot continues to hammer a piece of info we've already gotten.  Even the title cards sit for too long.  And there often seems to be a strange obsession with what I call "moving pieces around the board."  A guy leaves on a boat.  So we see the boat pull up.  And he get gets in.  And sits down.  And the boat pulls away.  And sails further away.  And he's still in it.  You don't need to show every maneuver for the audience to understand an action has happened.  You can shorthand it - something that, again, other films of the time seem to understand better than I might have thought.  But Thief has to have everything laid out nice and neat and clearly delineated and very patiently, presumably to make sure everyone is following along.  Except it's harder to follow along because it gets boring.

But all this is the sort of thing you forgive or don't even notice in a film that has your attention.  The real problem, I think, is the same problem most modern blockbusters have: too much plot; not enough character.  The early passages of Thief of Bagdad were actually quite engaging.  The thief messes with people, gets in trouble, gets out of trouble.  He mouths off about his religious/political views, and winds up in a very creative and spirited chase through a yard of giant ceramics.  He's cheeky, as a good swashbuckler ought to be, and his personality defines the film.  But soon after the princess enters the story, things Get Down to Business, and nobody - not even the thief - is allowed a moment to expose personality.  Instead it's all plot machinations.  Soandso has this and is going there to get that to do the thing for the person in the place and blah, blah, blah, so on and so forth.  By the halfway point the movie hardly has any wind left in its sails.  After that it has to be carried by special effects.  ...Not such an old-fashioned movie after all I guess.

However, also like a modern blockbuster, the special effects are pretty great.  The climactic magic carpet ride is the standout, getting an impressive amount of convincing, complex motion in the shots (i.e. not just a static shot of the carpet from the side while background scrolls past, which is done earlier in the film).  But even more impressive than the effects are the incredibly lush and massive sets.  I have to believe they were extended here and there with matte paintings, but I couldn't see the seams.  This was a very complete and convincing world, and very, very elegant.  I hope a future high-def restoration can find some more detail in these old prints, because this was clearly a film that was meant to be seen BIG.  Actually, in a way, it occurs to me that almost everything about it - both weaknesses and strengths - comes down to that ideal: to be BIG.

By the way, this movie, along with its loose 1940 remake, provide most of the outline for Disney's Aladdin.  I suppose Aladdin could even be considered a second remake.  This one contains the poor thief who poses as a royal suitor to win the princess, while the 1940 film by Alexander Korda provides the supporting characters (including a genie), and a sizable amount of the art design.  The remake(s) reinforce the positive qualities of the original.  While I didn't enjoy it as much as I hoped, it's clear to me the presentation failed the material, like a jewel in a dull setting.  New settings (even not necessarily better ones) reveal how it shines.

NEXT WEEK: The Big Parade... if I can get hold of a copy.  It's a funny thing: this was a huge success - the highest grossing movie of its time - yet it doesn't seem to have ever been released on home video post-VHS.  Strange how legacies rise and fall.  Everybody knows about Chaplin, but how many laymen have heard of King Vidor?  If I can't find it... well, then I'd go for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - the other contender for biggest box office of the '20s - but it's just as hard to find.  So.... I'll figure something out.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Robin, for explaining to me that my failure to actually see this movie is not a moral failing on my part. As you know, I sometimes fall asleep during movies. There are certain movies that I have never seen, despite repeated attempts, because I ALWAYS fall asleep. For example, I have never actually seen Plan 9 From Outer Space, although I have sat down to watch it on several occasions. Being a fan of swashbucklers, I have always assumed I would enjoy Thief of Bagdad (sic), but I keep falling asleep. Now I know why.