The Raoul Walsh-directed Douglas Fairbanks yarn THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is quite a thing — it’s an early example of the principle of excess in Hollywood movie-making, a step beyond the gigantism of the earlier Fairbanks ROBIN HOOD. That movie proved that colossal sets could give Doug a stylish environment for his athleticism without upstaging him. In this one, the central idea is to surround him with massive and opulent settings at all times, a pageant of insane splendour that continually unfolds, not so much driven by plot requirements as pushing the plot along.
And so we get adventures in caverns, on the moon, under the sea, most of ‘em pretty quick. Like ROBIN HOOD, it’s a slightly odd-shaped film, with the first half confined to Bagdad, a towering series of sets by William Cameron Menzies and Anton Grot, and the second roving all over as Doug embarks on a quest for the ultimate treasure. One strange feature is the interiority of it — the sets are humongous, but all feel indoors, even the back-lot Bagdad, whose walls are so high they blot out everything else, so it always feels like we’re inside ‘em.
The first leg of Doug’s odyssey is a mountain defile, which allows Menzies & Grot to simply fill the screen with a sheer rock face, a lone stone egg at its centre.
The undersea grotto meshes art deco and art nouveau as if they were the same thing, which to a fish they probably are.
Then there’s the Cavern of the Enchanted Trees, which takes the idea of exteriors inside to a ridiculous extreme — the name alone cracked me up — but proves to be one of the snazziest settings.
Somewhat reminiscent of Walsh’s dubious ethnic humour in THE BOWERY, this movie in which all the characters are non-caucasian, casts real non-caucasians only as slaves and villains. We should be grateful to it for giving teenage Anna May Wong her shot at stardom (as a slave AND a villain), and Sojin (full name: Sojin Kamiyama) is very effective as the Mongol emperor baddie. He and his adjutant wind up dangling by their pony-tails, which seemed rather unpleasant (although most Hollywood epics KILL their bad guys, so I suppose that’s something. Anna escapes unpunished, as far as I could see).
Doug is particularly flamboyant in this one, pantomimic in a way he isn’t usually. I guess it’s a stylised approach designed to blend with the mind-boggling sets and effects and Mitchell Leisen’s ostentatious, campy costumes. It’s initially quite odd, and then I just stopped noticing it. Doug always waves his arms and strikes poses, it’s his thing, it just seemed ramped up to some odd new height here.
I’m making a study of William Cameron Menzies’ work at the moment, so this was an important point — his first really huge job. His style blends with Grot’s perfectly. Both are extremists, as you can see in Grot’s later work at Warners, from LITTLE CAESAR with its slashing zig-zags, to the glossy stonework of Elizabethan England in THE SEA HAWK, and both favour a kind of design that takes the camera position into consideration, arranging everything to make a striking composition…