Enchanting is without a doubt the best adjective to describe the experience: ending my attendance of the Turner Classic Movies film festival with the screening of The Thief of Bagdad (1924) on Sunday night meant ending it on a high note. The magic was supplied not only by the big screen, but also by the live performance of the movie score. The Mont Alto Orchestra relied on so-called compiled score, as opposed to the composed and improvised variants of photoplay music that were in use during the silent movie era.
As small as the ensemble is (five permanent members), they truly filled every nook of the theatre with music. They choose to use a modified version of the James C. Bradford cue sheet for the film, and this adapted version can be found on their website.* Mont Alto Orchestra is celebrating the variety that the cue sheet interpretation process offers, as it represents the experience past audiences had more closely. They would probably not be pleased with me using the term “original” to describe the score of Mortimer Wilson, which existed as another legitimate option available to the silent era theatre musicians. Wilson’s composition was not intended as a binding dictum for each screening across the country. I can only attest to the fact that their choice and their rendition of the score has earned them quite a few bravos and a standing ovation, as it was quite essential to the viewing.
The Thief of Bagdad is flamboyant in a good way. The sets are a fantasy playground constructed by William Cameron Menzies, and according to Jeff Vance, the costumes truly complement the set design on a conceptual level for the first time in the history (of American movie making). Jeffrey Vance, who has written an eponymous book on Douglas Fairbanks, was the special guest for this presentation, interviewed by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz. Vance pointed out that the venue for the screening of the digital restoration could not have been better, since the film premiered at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood in July 1924.
Vance seems genuinely enthralled by Fairbanks’ larger-than-life persona, and was thus pleased when creators of The Artist (2011) shared with him that Fairbanks, as portrayed in his book, was an inspiration for the main character in their film. Indeed, the many insights Vance offered during the brief introduction make Fairbanks seem very much the kind of man, whose confidence is so catchy that it makes dreamers out of the most jaded men. Fairbanks definitely transformed every adult in attendance of the screening into a child. The audience was awed, joyous, clapping, laughing with relief as the hero miraculously overcame obstacles and got his princess, defeating schemers and monsters alike, and even resisting temptation, always self-assured, brave, with no option but victory. The trademark, winning smile served the thief better than any armor.
Fairbanks was 40 years old when The Thief of Bagdad was made. He looks much younger, and the agility and effortlessness he brings to the role is the force that pulls the viewer in and doesn’t let her go for the two and a half hours. “He dances and mimes his way through“(the film), Jeffrey Vance said of his performance. It is noteworthy that Fairbanks was only 5’8’’ tall, and at the time of filming weighed 150 pounds – “and not an ounce of fat” Vance was quick to point out. According to the author, German expressionism and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were Fairbanks’ chief influences. This is apparent not only in his acting, but in the aforementioned set and costume design. (As a producer, Fairbanks had selected his set designer. He was also often involved in directing, and he wrote, using his two middle names – Elton Thomas – as a pen name.)
Menzies’ minarets, elongated proportions in windows, gates, statues in almost cubist fashion, geometric patterns and their repetition throughout are so highly stylized, they make it seem as though a painting has come alive. It is not their purpose to reproduce reality, but to create an elaborate fantasy. The taste with which it is done is remarkable. The air of opulence is created without the need for overwhelming ornament; the art deco balance of arabesque with empty space and clean line provides for a feather-light feeling. Asymmetry is another welcome element, delivering freshness, as the eye moves along with the dancing thief.
This is repeated in the costume design. The attire of the Mongol prince is fantastic: geometry of his hat, balanced with the long thin braid, robust platform shoes, sharp lines of his jacket allowing for ample embroidery. The Princess is dressed in white lace and pearls to contrast Anna May Wong’s dark deceptiveness and sleek sexiness in her turn as a servant in a tube top (!). It would be predictable, save for the exotic setting inspired by One Thousand and One Nights: harem pants add unexpected edge to the standard good versus evil color scheme. The exaggeration and playfulness is inherent in every aspect of the film. We are kept aware that it is a fairytale we are watching, but we are welcomed in this world warmly, and truly taken on the magic carpet ride.
That is perhaps the achievement of the film: nearly a century after it was created, it charms the audiences just the same. It allows all age categories to simply enjoy themselves; so lighthearted, it feels like a Christmas present. The marvel of the prohibitively expensive production (Vance told an anecdote on the subject; apparently only Fairbanks could have produced it, because Pickford did not have the money, and Chaplin hated to spend it), all the novel visual effects make every viewer feel special – this show was put on for you, kindheartedly, to conjure up a delightful experience. It inspires the same confidence that Fairbanks carries through the picture in the audiences. Indeed a lovely film. I was smiling as I wrote this.
*Information about motion picture music and the orchestra itself sourced from Mont Alto.