Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Thief of Bagdad (Alexander Korda/United Artists, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I got home at 7 and caught my friend Peter Ray watching the 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad, and it was interesting to note all the mistakes in the set designs, decorations and locations — I wouldn’t have noticed the difference, but Peter spotted that the idol that was supposed to represent the Hindu god Vishnu was actually designed like a Chinese Buddha — even the multiple arms (the only part of the figure that gave it away as Hindu rather than Buddhist) were in the classic hand gestures of the Chinese representations of Buddha. Peter was also amused that, when the scene shifted from India back to Iraq, the courtiers were costumed like Buddhist monks in the Indian Buddhist tradition (the sole concession to Iraq’s real-life religion, Islam, was the use of the name “Allah” in the dialogue) — so we had a lot of fun joking about an India that looked like China (when it didn’t look like the Grand Canyon, where the “desert” exteriors were filmed) and an Iraq that looked like India. — 9/19/93


Last night I watched a couple of programs on TCM paying tribute to fantasy in films. One was a show that doesn’t really require extensive comment — a supposed documentary on fantasy films hosted by George Lucas that was really yet another ego-suck for the Star Wars creator (most of the clips were from films either Lucas or his friends Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis were involved in) — and the other was the 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad (that’s the official spelling on the credit — like the 1923 silent with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., this one omits the “h” from the usual transliteration of the Arabic name for Baghdad), starring Conrad Veidt as Jaffar, the evil grand vizier of … well, whatever it was called in the legendary (and entirely fictional) period in which this is set, it’s now Iraq. The country is ruled by a benevolent but thoroughly jaded king, Ahmad (John Justin in his film debut), who as the movie opens reveals that he’s been blinded by one of Jaffar’s evil spells, while his faithful friend Abu the Thief (“son of Abu the Thief, grandson of Abu the Thief”), played by Sabu — who wears nothing but a loincloth throughout and was just hitting puberty when he made this (and he’s quite a bit hotter than Justin, the nominal romantic lead!) has been turned into a dog. He’s telling all this in a flashback that narrates how he got that way; while he wanted to be a benevolent king, Jaffar — unbeknownst to him — was mounting a reign of terror. Jaffar tricks Ahmad into leaving the palace and going about among the common people — it’s a trap so Ahmad will be arrested and executed as a madman for claiming to be the king. Only while in custody Ahmad meets Abu and the two of them escape; all Abu wants is to go to sea (he even sings a song about it, in a voice that pretty clearly is not Sabu’s[1]) but Ahmad insists on returning to Baghdad and getting his throne back.

That’s pretty much the setup for a lot of relatively un-linked action scenes, in which Ahmad catches a glimpse of the princess (June Duprez) and falls in love immediately (even though it’s already been established that he has 365 other wives, one for each day of the year!) despite Jaffar’s determination not to allow any other person to lay eyes on her until he can trick her into marrying him. The movie perks up about half an hour before the end when a genie (played by African-American actor Rex Ingram, who was the first performer to play both God and the Devil on screen — God in The Green Pastures and the Devil in Cabin in the Sky — others who’ve done it since include Max von Sydow and George Burns, and Burns topped the other two by playing God and the Devil in the same movie) finally gets liberated from the lamp in which he was trapped by none other than King Solomon 2,000 years previously, and he grants Sabu three wishes, including a ride to an even wilder fantasy kingdom in which Sabu has to vanquish a bloodthirsty giant spider in order to steal the All-Seeing Eye, which gives the good guys the power — finally — to vanquish Jaffar, who tries to escape on a mechanical flying horse that’s shot down thanks to a well-aimed arrow fired from a crossbow given to Sabu by an old man who wants him to take over as king of his Realm of Legend — only Sabu couldn’t be less interested and ends up going off on his own adventures at the end. The Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad from 1923 I haven’t seen in years but I remember it as a pretty boring movie redeemed only by the spectacular settings by William Cameron Menzies — who’s the only person from that film involved in this one as well — and I found the 1940 Thief of Bagdad less fun this time around despite the spectacular color (this is three-strip Technicolor at its ripest and most neon-bright — and a welcome flashback to the days in which color films were actually expected to be colorful!) and the marvelously energetic performance of Sabu in the action-hero lead. The other actors are less interesting; Conrad Veidt was usually an old hand at this sort of villainy but on this occasion he just seemed bored, like he’d played this sort of part more than once too often before. At times he looks like his Casablanca character, Major Strasser of the Third Reich, dressed up for a costume party. And the romantic leads, John Justin and June Duprez, are even more boring than usual in this sort of film; let’s face it, the core audience for a movie like this, then or now, is boys just heading towards puberty and still going through the “Girls — Yuck!” phase.

The Thief of Bagdad went through a succession of real-life troubles almost equaling the perils its characters went through; it began with Viennese expat Ludwig Berger as director (and he wanted to score the film with operetta tunes by Oscar Straus, who wrote pretty much in the style of his near-namesakes, those Strausses, but producer Alexander Korda vetoed that and hired Miklós Rósza to write a score, which is musically quite impressive but used with way too Mickey-Mousing[2] in the final print). Korda eventually replaced Berger with Michael Powell (and the film does feature a lot of the decorative use of color that made Powell’s later films so interesting), only to replace him with Tim Whelan, a British-born director who mostly worked in the U.S. Then World War II intervened, and with the German air raids making film work almost impossible and Winston Churchill becoming convinced that movie production was eating up both people and materiel that could be used for the war effort, the entire British film industry was shut down for two years and Alexander Korda took the half-finished negative and all his principal cast members to Hollywood to finish the film in the relative safety of the pre-war U.S. The U.S. scenes (which are easy to tell from the British ones both because the Production Code Administration made Korda have his women button their dresses higher up their necks and the exteriors include such famous U.S. vistas as the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley) were directed by Korda’s brother Zoltan, by William Cameron Menzies and in a few cases by Alexander Korda himself — so this is a film that had twice as many directors as it did writers (Lajos Biró — yet another beneficiary of what seemed to be a full-employment program Korda was running for his fellow Hungarian émigrés in England — and Miklós Rósza are credited with the story and Miles Malleson with the script). It’s a messy movie but fun in a Boys’ Own Story way, and despite the troubles of its making it was enough of a hit that Universal signed Sabu to a contract and just two years later essentially remade the film as Arabian Nights (their first production shot entirely in three-strip Technicolor), with Sabu repeating his role and Jon Hall and Maria Montez (hardly deathless screen legends, but considerably more charismatic than John Justin and Jean Duprez!) in the romantic leads. — 11/26/14

[1] — There are three songs in the movie, all heard early on, which for a while makes one think that The Thief of Bagdad is going to qualify as a musical. One is a song sung in the streets of Bagdad by a singer played by American expat Adelaide Hall — whose presence here puts Sabu one degree of separation from Duke Ellington.

[2] — “Mickey-Mousing” became a slang term in the film business for an especially tight synchronization between music and on-screen action, thanks to Walt Disney’s insistence that to make his animated sound shorts seem more realistic, a very exact and precise use of music to mimic the on-screen action was needed.