Josh Feit on Magic (and Racism): Douglas Fairbanks’ ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ Celebrates 100 Years of Hollywood Spectacle

[Editors note: during the year 2024, Oblivioni Magazine will celebrate the top movies released during the year 1924, most of which remain vital even today. We begin with The Thief of Bagdad, one of the most influential movies in history. More to come.]

Released in 1924, Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad is a 100-year-old Hollywood film.

A special effects marvel in its own time (flying carpets, winged steeds, crystal-ball visions, demonic monsters that would make Sigourney Weaver shiver) and an acrobatic spectacle of athletic stunts (shirtless Fairbanks leaping over walls and off balconies with his trusty magical rope), The Thief of Bagdad remains eye-catching and entertaining in Twenty Twenty-Four.

The movie’s arresting visual charm has plenty to do with the $20-million-in-today’s-dollars sets too: lush palace interiors, bustling street scenes, fiery mountain crags and swaying underwater sequences.

It must be said: The layers of racism in this 1920’s Hollywood movie are evident. Why for example is the princess of Baghdad white? And the dastardly Mongol prince and his nefarious informant — played by his scheming Asian ally Anna May Wong (who, by the way, steals the show in this, her breakout role as “the Mongol Slave”) — feed off white tropes of eyebrow-arched Asian villainy. To make it even grosser, all these racist clichés take place within a condescending Western narrative of magical Baghdad. As modern reviewer, Darragh O’Donoghue pointedly quipped in a Senses of Cinema review, Fairbanks’ adventures settle into “orientalist drag.”

O’Donoghue correctly calls The Thief of Bagdad “a great, but flawed film.” The “greatpart is definitely wrapped up in the artistic set design and action-packed plot.

But for me, the beauty here is in how the movie conjures a rhapsody of city energy: The magnificent replicas of city infrastructure and architecture featuring sweeping palace garden plazas above, and thriving noisy street bazaars below; the nod-and-wink urban diversity (one of the princess’ royal suitors is played by a woman, Mathilde Comont, disguised in a mustache); and the playful homo-eroticism (there are lots of close ups of Fairbanks’ tush and the guardsman, Sam Baker’s, buff torso and giant sword).

And I’m always a sucker for an urchin-chic plot line about a fancy-free pickpocket; in one Charlie Chaplin-worthy move, balletic and incorrigible Ahmed (Fairbanks) robs unsuspecting worshipers during afternoon prayers.

This city medley turns The Thief of Bagdad into a boisterous silent film that captures the urban energy of its source material, One Thousand and One Nights. (The screenplay was written by Afghani-American pulp fiction writer Achmed Abdulla.)

Historian Ben Wilson’s must-read 2020 history of cities, Metropolis, identifies Medieval Baghdad as the world’s first great international city. And The Thief of Bagdad makes the glamorous cinematic case for this theory as Baghdad’s princess (played by fainting flapper waif Julanne Johnston) draws regal suitors from India, Persia, Mongolia, and Baghdad itself (in the guise of Fairbanks’ own Little Tramp character). All against a backdrop of geopolitics, high culture, and thrilling street life.

^^^

You can watch The Thief of Bagdad on Amazon Prime, among other streaming sites.

Josh Feit has published two books of city planning poetry, Shops Close Too Early (Cathexis NW Press, 2022) and The Night of Electric Bikes (Finishing Line Press, 2023). He is the speechwriter at Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional mass transit agency. You can find him online at https://www.joshfeitpoetry.com/.

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