Monday, January 13, 2014

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

You know, all it takes is a little time-travel to show you what really matters...

When I was a freshman in college, I began developing an interest in silent film. That pioneering time in film-making always intrigued me, but back then I had only seen a few movies from the era and never on the big screen. At the time, I was watching a wonderful documentary series called Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film. This show went into great detail about not only the movies themselves and their productions, but also the experience of seeing a silent film in the theater. I thrilled to tales about picture palaces, militarily-efficient ushers, and the transporting power of the silent motion picture.

Around the same time, I coincidentally heard of a silent film screening put on by The Secret Cinema (a repertory film organization in the Philadelphia area) and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of all things. The film they were showing was The Thief of Bagdad. I hadn't heard too much about it, save that it was from 1924 and starred Douglas Fairbanks Sr., but the opportunity to see such a film on the big screen was too exciting to pass up. And that's not to mention the promise of a live organist!

When we got there, my friend Y2K and I  found our seats in the luxurious theater-room. The lights dimmed, and the magnificent sound of a film projector kicking into gear greeted our excited ears. The organist may have disappeared into the darkness, but his music remained, fused to the images projected on the screen. The film began, and we were introduced to Douglas Fairbanks's thief character.

Let me tell you: the effortless way Fairbanks moved across the screen astounded me. He never walked,  ran or jumped. He flew. Flew with a grace like you wouldn't believe. Bounding from the bottoms of water-wells to the tops of roofs, he made every gorgeous set in the film his playground. His incredible stunts caused me and my fellow viewers to gasp in amazement, and he made it all seem so easy. I began to root for him straight away.

Here's the plot...

The Princess of Bagdad is to be married, and suitors from every far-off land have come to win her heart. According to his kleptomaniacal nature, Fairbanks manages to break into the royal palace under cover of nightfall, planning to make off with as much treasure as he can carry. Busting into the Princess's bedroom, he scours for loot. But he never counted on seeing her. One look at the sleeping Princess, and Fairbanks is smitten. He's so distracted that he almost gets caught by the palace guards. I could feel the tension. The people sitting directly in front of me leaned forward, waiting to see what would happen. Y2K glanced sideways at me, unsure of how the scene would turn out.

“Get out of there, Doug... Get out of there!” I was saying to myself in complete sincerity as the remaining traces of cynical film student departed from my mind.

It was a close one, but he did manage to escape the palace in glorious Fairbanksian style.

The effect is somewhat difficult to describe, but the lack of audible sound really involved us as an audience in the story. Without the dialogue to lull me into the false thinking that I could still "watch" the film without looking at it, I had to keep my eyes fixed on the screen. Being in the darkened theater room with an excellent motion picture and the music driving things ever onward, this couldn't have been easier to do.

I can remember one scene specifically that really put the audience through the wringer emotionally. All the royal suitors paraded through the palace gate in order to woo the Princess. Would Douglas get his girl, or would the evil Mongol king prevail and steal the princess? Everyone in the theater sat in rapt attention. I was on the edge of my seat.

Just when it seemed that the villainous lord had won, Fairbanks came to the rescue. The organ music swelled into a heroic frenzy as applause resonated throughout the room. We might as well have been in 1924 at that point.

Looking around the theater, I noticed all sorts of different people: students from the nearby art college, young families with very little kids, elderly couples, and a few movie geeks like me. All were sucked into the fantasy world of the film. No one moved, and not one child seemed restless.

This spell The Thief of Bagdad cast over us had nothing to do with a cutting edge technological experience. We watched it on a 4:3 screen from an old 16 mm print. It had nothing to do with its ground-breaking and edgy story. It was just a simple tale of heroism. It wasn't the snappy dialogue. I remind you there were no words. It wasn't even due to its narrative perfection. As a film, It had its flaws. But still, it didn't matter that it was 93 years old. Everyone in the audience still felt something, as evidenced by the laughter, gasps, and triumphant applause I had heard that evening.

Thief's was a simple recipe: images and music. Oh, and I forgot one thing... an inimitable, uncontainable talent for story-telling. Sometimes ( dare I say every time?) that's all you need.

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