Home Video Reviews
Cohen's parent company, the Cohen Media Group, now owns the Rohauer Library, a collection of over 700 films amassed by the late film archivist Raymond Rohauer, which is heavy in silent and studio-era titles like The General (1926), The Strong Man (1926), Jamaica Inn (1939), Hangmen Also Die! (1943) and Sudden Fear (1953), to name but a few. There are also scores of classic British films and musical shorts. The company has promised that these films will be meticulously restored, often from original nitrate elements, and given deluxe presentations on Blu-ray. If The Thief of Bagdad is any indication, these presentations will be rich with commentaries, extra audio-visual features, and scholarly liner notes, all in attractive packaging.
The Thief of Bagdad is a good place for the Cohen Film Collection to start, as it's just a splendidly extravagant and appealing silent adventure film, full of wonder and enchantment, and as alluring for kids as for adults. As a common thief who falls for the caliph's daughter and then sets out to turn himself into a prince, Douglas Fairbanks practically leaps off the screen as he bounds about with energy, playfulness and laughter. His overall physicality is remarkable (especially since he was 41 at the time), and his movements through the frame are fluid, rhythmic and dance-like. (It's no wonder Gene Kelly later cited Fairbanks as a profound influence.) Fairbanks' flair for comedy also shines through and is a big part of his appeal here. While the actor is best-remembered today for his eight swashbucklers, before making those films he starred in dozens of modern-day comedies, developing and honing his comic timing.
The Thief of Bagdad was directed by Raoul Walsh, who already had dozens of credits and would later come to be regarded as one of Hollywood's greatest action directors, but this film really bears less his stamp and much more of Fairbanks', who took a hand in writing, producing and even approving the costumes designed by Mitchell Leisen (later a top director himself). And as fine as Fairbanks and his acrobatic stuntwork are, they are aided tremendously by truly extravagant sets designed by William Cameron Menzies -- sets which Fairbanks climbs over, leaps off of, and makes himself at home in. The sets don't function as mere backdrops; they become a vital, unforgettable part of the action, including in a spectacular underwater sequence.
In fact, the mysterious and otherworldly quality of all the sets go a long way toward making us accept the astounding visual effects and creatures that soon arise in the movie: the magic carpet, the winged horse, the magic rope, the giant spider, sea monster and more. They are all of the same imaginative piece. The Thief of Bagdad was so innovative, some of the effects still cause modern audiences to scratch their heads and wonder, "How'd they do that?"
Cohen has restored the film from two negatives and incorporated the proper color tinting of the original release prints. The result is a superb, glistening image with excellent contrast. Carl Davis' evocative score, composed in 1984, blends in portions of Rimsky-Korsakov's Orientalia and is a perfect complement.
In addition to a fine transfer, Cohen has included an engaging commentary track from Fairbanks biographer and historian Jeffrey Vance. Vance knows his stuff and relates it in a highly listenable, conversational style, explaining in detail how Fairbanks was so much more than just a matinee idol, co-founding the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, helping to form the earliest university film curriculum (at USC), co-founding United Artists in 1919, and working as an early proponent of film preservation. Fairbanks is surprisingly under-remembered as a film industry pioneer. Vance also delves into how many of the visual tricks in The Thief of Bagdad were achieved, and is insightful in analyzing specific scenes.
Vance further has created a 17-minute guided video tour through the film's production stills, with brief and informative written introductions to each group of stills that follows. (If anyone missed Anna May Wong's mesmerizing beauty in the film itself, her production stills will do the trick.) Especially interesting are shots of how the magic carpet effect was achieved, with the carpet hung from a huge crane by steel wires.
Well-written liner notes by North Carolina Museum of Art film curator Laura Boyes round out this classy package, which is a must-have, or at least a must-see. The Thief of Bagdad was designed to be seen in a large movie theater with an orchestra and big audience. Its design and shooting style are clearly geared for a big screen. (For instance, there are few close-ups -- the better to show off the enormous sets.) Consequently, the film will lose some power regardless of how big a television screen it's shown on, but this Blu-ray provides the next-best thing. It's hard to believe the film will ever look better on home media.
For more information about The Thief of Bagdad, visit Cohen Film Collection. To order The Thief of Bagdad, go to TCM Shopping.
By Jeremy Arnold