The Sunday Intertitle: A Wedding

Our own upcoming royal wedding isn’t going to be this exciting, I can assure you.

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…

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13 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: A Wedding”

  1. Hollywood has always accepted Orientalism, as the late Edward Said called it, uncritically. What makes the Korda film so fascinating in that it’s made by a colonial power still in command of its colonies but it’s totally subversive of all the cliches. The bad guy is played by a white actor(okay he’s German) and the good guy is Sabu who was from Madras. And it’s very blistering towards royalty which is one major problem with all adventure films in general.

    The attitude towards royalty is one are where Walsh is fairly caustic to in this film. The special effects are genuinely beautiful in this film, especially the scene where the Thief returns with a magic device that allows him to generate armies upon armies thereby anticipating(and bettering) the modern use of CGI to create extras.

    Anna May Wong plainly steals the show, she plays a similar role to Joan Collins plays in LAND OF THE PHAROAHS and unlike Collins, her comeuppance is never depicted on-screen(although there is a cut showing the servants are aware of her treachery).

  2. Don’t get me started on the Korda — it’s a key film in my life. Sabu was the first person in the movies who looked like m. AND he had the best part!

    The Walsh-Fairbanks-Menzies-Grot Thief of Bagdad is indeed lovely. But what the Korda has is narratively and psychologically deeper as the hero is split in two. John Justin is the King who becomes a beggar and Sabu is the beggar who becomes a King. Sabu has all the adventure — taming the genie, fighting the giant spider, defying and finally besting Connie Veidt. But he does all this in the name of his friend the King and for the sake of pure adventure. He helps the King win the Princess that he loves but cannot fight for. But in the end he doesn’t stay with him preferring to ride off on his magic carpet for further adventure.

    IOW this Thief of Bagdad is MILITANTLY pre-pubescent. It speaks to us from a world before — and therefore beyond — sex.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    Can any film in which Conrad Veidt eyes the bare-torsoed John Justin so lasciviously up and down be ENTIRELY beyond sex? What about the dancing killer sex-doll with the mutliple arms? Or that giant spider that looks like a massive vagina dentata? Personally, I think the 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD is a very kinky movie indeed.

  4. Well yes there IS sex around the film’s edges, but its center belongs to an innately pre-pubescent (and he likes it that way) Sabu.

    He goes on to achieve sexual bliss with Jean Simmons in Black Narcissus (Hubba-Hubba!)

  5. I’ll be re-watching the Korda thief soon…

    Sabu is not only non-sexual, he’s non-civilized and ant-social, preferring a life of adventure on the fringes to taking any part in the stable society he helps to set up. A choice which, as viewers, we can only celebrate.

  6. Christopher Says:

    Sabu!..one of Maria Montez’s band of misfits.
    Was watching Anna May-okay,I’m game,but y’all look pretty silly-Wong the other night in “Mr. Wu”go up against Renee Adoree’s chinaman.Anna flitted about like a white man while Renee did all the cliche chinese “chopy chopy” moves…What must she think?..Chaney and Renee do look pretty amazing tho,more like the real thing than most.

  7. This was a problem Anna May ran up against a lot, finally rebelling when offered the role of the bad girl in The Good Earth. It was, finally, unacceptable to her that the only ethnically Chinese actor should play the villain of the piece.

    Sabu’s incredible. Nobody acts like him, and certainly nobody has duplicated his remarkable career path from elephant boy to film star.

  8. The Korda “Thief of Baghdad” is one of those films that seemed to have a life-changing effect on film buffs who saw it when they were children. I watched the Criterion DVD of Korda’s “Thief” on Saturday with audio commentary by Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, both of whom testified as to the profound effect the film had on them. I never saw “Thief” as a kid, but a film I did see that had a similar effect on my childhood was “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” which its creator, Ray Harryhausen, acknowledges was kind of an informal remake of “Thief.”

  9. Christopher Says:

    I saw Korda’s “Thief” when it was making theatrical rounds in the mid 1970s and on LP..Miklos Rosza’s scores were churning out on vinyl.

  10. Rosza subsequently scored Harryhausen’s Golden Voyage of Sinbad, but he always preferred the Korda, arguing that music was more important than sound effects in a fantasy, and that he didn’t like monsters roaring all over his music. But sound effects are VERY important when you have to make animated creatures seem as real as live action ones…

    Harryhausen used a Kali statue that comes to life in Golden Voyage, and a pegasus in Clash of the Titans (well, you can’t really do without it in the Perseus myth) so the influence must have been strong.

    Michael Powell was slightly dismayed by Coppola’s singing of Sabu’s song, which Powell claimed had the worst lyrics ever written.

    “I want to be a bandit / Can’t you understand it?”

  11. Coppola sings again in his Criterion commentary. Or “commentary” — Scorsese is much more substantive, but Coppola comes across unself-consciously as a big kid, and is charming.

  12. The special effects for the Korda THIEF are pretty satisfying overall, with perhaps one unsatisfying exception, the shots of the genie flying, a sculpted figure that LOOKS sculpted, shiny and stiff. But that’s small potatoes when compared to what the film has to offer as a whole (the genie’s pointed toenails, who does his pedicure?). And Conrad Veidt has never looked more impressive than he does in this film.

    The frame grabs from the Fairbanks THIEF are very striking. Looking forward to seeing it in its entirety one of these days (soon I hope).

  13. Flying carpets always look a bit stiff too.

    A correspondent just pointed out the lack of reverse angles in the Fairbanks, saying this adds to the effect of always feeling indoors. I think, taken with Fairbanks’ surprisingly pantomimic perf, there’s a deliberate aim to make the film’s technique have a retro quality: retro for 1924 being something like 1918. But I’d need to see more early Walsh. Certainly (1) Sadie Thompson, from 1928, is much more modern and (2) critics picked up on the old-fashioned charm of the trick film.

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