Douglas Fairbanks was not a good actor. Let’s just get that out of the way. In many ways, he is the epitome of silent over-acting. When Fairbanks is hungry, he uses his hands to make huge circles in front of his belly. When he is tired, he yawns like a lion on the prairie and stretches his arms above his head as far as they will go. And I cannot keep my eyes off him when he is on screen.
I once saw home video of Fairbanks and Chaplin (they were very close friends) and I always think the same thing when I see them. They seem so alive that I find it hard to believe they are actually dead (and Fairbanks has been gone since 1939, Chaplin since 1977). This is what Fairbanks brings to the screen, an ebullience that is infectious. This is a zest for life that cannot be faked.
The first action movie star, his athleticism is amazing. He seems like a gymnast and a dancer when he is onscreen. He was also the prototype for the onscreen swashbuckler. When he filmed this movie Fairbanks was in his early forties but was a tremendous athlete. He spends most of the movie climbing, stealing, and sneaking around shirtless. It’s amazing to me that he died just fifteen years later of a heart attack. Famously, his last words were “I’ve never felt better.”
Fairbanks wrote and produced his most successful movies, but often based them on existing stories. He starred in Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, The Black Pirate, Zorro (and the sequel, Don Q: Son of Zorro) and this week’s entry to the blog, The Thief of Bagdad (I know that is a misspelling, but that is the way they spelled the city in the movie). It is the story of a thief who falls in love with a princess and fools her into believing that he is a prince. When he is discovered he is ashamed, but has also won her affection and finds that he could possibly win her hand if he faces and conquers a series of challenges. The movie would have made a great 8-bit scroller on the original Nintendo. He goes through fire stages and water stages and at one point even (I’m not kidding here) must uncover the star shaped key in order to enter the abode of the flying horse. It’s a video game that was just never made.
Although the special effects may seem amateurish to modern eyes, it is important to remember that they would have been absolutely cutting edge at the time. Fairbanks spared no expense and this film clearly cost a lost of money to make. The sets, in particular, are still impressive today, especially when one considers that many of them were built and not miniatures with computer generated extras. (Although I don’t have a strong background in Middle Eastern history, I am going to go out on a limb and assume that they are not historically accurate).
The film, like many silent films, does suffer from stereotypes that can seem jarring to modern viewers. Fairbanks’s nemesis is the epitome of the “devious Oriental” stereotype, who uses subterfuge to try and take over the city of Bagdad. He is (SPOILER ALERT!) defeated by our hero in the end. It also features one of the first film appearances by Anna May Wong (the first Asian-American star), and is the role that brought her international attention.
Despite these limitations, I strongly recommend seeing Thief, or any of Fairbanks’s movies. He is an important character in the history of Hollywood and had a star power that cannot be denied. He had been referred to, with justification, as the King of Hollywood and is largely forgotten today. I recommend seeing any of his movies. (The Black Pirate is another favorite, which was filmed in color, something very rare in the ‘20s).
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1924 that are worth seeing):
Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen is an epic retelling of a German myth “Nibelungenlied.” It’s enthralling and such a huge tale. I mentioned Von Stroheim’s Greed in my last post, the 9-hour film has been lost, but parts of it survive and I wish we could see the whole thing. Sherlock, Jr. is one of Buster Keaton’s most inventive movies. It was VERY difficult to not choose The Last Laugh, a human drama about a man who loses everything that makes him feel worthwhile. It is a beautifully acted film, featuring an impressive performance by Emil Jannings.
Did you know? (1924 Trivial Knowledge):
“I can bear a thousand tortures, endure a thousand deaths – but not thy tears.” The thief to the princess (yes, they do speak as if they are in ye olde Englande).
Which DVD version did I watch?
I watched the Kino On Video edition from the Douglas Fairbanks box-set