Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)


Producer Alexander Korda takes movie audiences on a magic carpet ride to the magical adventures of Arabian nights in his Technicolor spectacle The Thief of Bagdad. This brightly colored motion picture would be one of the first major uses of chroma key, better known by many as “bluescreening,” in a heavy special effects laden film that captured imaginations of audiences as the movie appeared to provide actual movie magic the business over. This British produced picture would be affected by the outbreak of World War II, causing production to move to Hollywood mid-shooting, and with its timing and high creativity it proved to be one of the highest praised films of its era.

The Thief of Bagdad is a fantasy adventure set in the time of Arabian Nights where a young king is usurped by his magic-wielding advisor, he then befriends a quick thinking street thief plans to win back his kingdom while rescue the prettiest maiden in the all the world. The king’s advisor, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), cons the na├»ve King of Bagdad, Ahmad (John Justin), out of his kingdom and attempts to marry the princess he loves (June Duprez). Ahmad befriends a street wise thief named Abu (Sabu) who aids Ahmad in his battle for his throne and his love. In an adventure that hurdles the heroes throughout Arabia including encounters with a genie (Rex Ingram), a deathly monsters, magical stones, and a flying carpets Abu helps Ahmad regain his throne and the Princess.

If one was to quickly describe what makes this particular feature stand out from its 1940 counterparts it is easy to say that the beautiful Technicolor cinematography and the breakthrough special effects are what make this picture stand out. Producer Alexander Korda sought to create a motion picture with the magical fantasy of a Walt Disney cartoon with the majestic live action color and wonder seen in The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

Sidestepping the idea that the picture’s effects are dated from eyes of much later decades, this film as a product of its age was a masterpiece/prestige picture. The movie utilizes the first major use of chroma key where actors or objects are filmed in front of a solid colored backdrop (usually blue, but years later more commonly green) and through post production film processing can substitute another filmed background in the place of solid color. This effect allows characters to be in places unvisted, or achieves sizes greater or smaller than real life based on the filmmaker’s creativity. The effect had been utilized before in other motion pictures, but here it is used to make men appear small, genies appear humungous, or make horses or magic carpets fly through the clouds. This film would be a benchmark with its date as to how chroma key would one day become a standardly used means of filming special effects shots through the decades, decades later to be greatly mastered by the likes of Industrial Light and Magic and Weta Workshop.

Ahmad and Jaffar
The Thief of Bagdad was a labor of great pride for producer Alexander Korda, but would become a headache picture due to world events during a turbulent period in Europe and Korda’s overbearing nature towards his filmmakers during its production. Produced under Korda’s London Films the shooting began in England, but as the Nazi German forces blitzed British soil the production was halted in London and moved the Hollywood, greatly slowing the schedule. Due to changes casting and schedules were greatly altered. Even early scenes of Sabu, then only 15 years old, had to be reshot as he had grown several inches in height over the period of shooting dates.

Korda’s grip on how the production was in his mind made it difficult on men behind the camera directing the picture. Over the course of production the name on the director’s chair changed six times. The film began with German filmmaker Ludwig Berger behind the helm, but would be handed off to other directors through the picture’s journey, including English director Michael Powell, and American Tim Whelan, and even landed in the laps of the uncredited group containing Korda himself, his brother Zoltan, and even art director William Cameron Menzies. During production Alexander Korda was known to be difficult to work for, so to see direction jump all over the place would be understandable, as well as the style to appear to change through the picture.

Abu flies away to his next adventure.
The film was intended to be a remake of the very popular 1924 silent feature starring the very famous Douglas Fairbanks in the title role; however the story of the picture greatly transformed. Most notably was the split of the main character into two separate characters as the thief and the king. Much else of the picture would modified because of this split, but from observation this split was probably done in order to separate the romance of the story with Ahmad with the more daring adventures shared by Abu. In the end we ultimately get the same result, but it enables the character of Abu to not be tied down by emotions of being in a romance, but always seeking his next adventure. This fact is made clear in the finale as Abu flies off to discover his next escapade.

Sabu would become a shortlived star for his leading role.
The film starred the young British-occupied Indian Sabu Dastagir, an actor discovered by documentarian Robert Flaherty, who had cast him at the age of 13 in a drama/adventure picture. Soon after his cinematic debut Korda began making films intended for the young, energetic star. Commonly billed by just him first name, Sabu was cast in adventurous role such as the title character in The Thief of Bagdad which helped make him an international star.

Despite the film being titled The Thief of Bagdad the real central character of the plot is that of Ahmad, the King of Bagdad whose crown is taken from him by the trickery of his sorcerous advisor. Debuting actor John Justin would portray the young king who would carry the romance of the picture opposite of his love interest in the Princess played by June Duprez. Justin has with him a Errol Flynn type of quality, but without the adventurous side in this first major role of his. Duprez had become a London Films regular, and replaced the originally intended Vivien Leigh who left production to film Gone with the Wind.

Playing the villain of the picture was long time film veteran, German born actor Conrad Veidt who was best remembered for his silent films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Man Who Laughs. A wondrously villainous character actor Veidt provides a classic scoundrel sorcerer-type to the picture.

Rex Ingram as the Genie
Portraying the brief, yet very memorable role as the genie was African American actor Rex Ingram, who was best known for his roles in The Green Pastures and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Unfortunately, like most of his roles, as an actor he was overlooked for his work in the picture.

A lack of chemistry in the films romance.
The feature itself was a rather well liked picture. Critics greatly enjoyed the imaginative story and special effects alongside of the beautiful Technicolor presentation. Sabu would gain great notoriety for his work, and his performance along with Conrad Veidt was most often praised. Justin and Duprez’s chemistry would be the lacking feature, and duly noted for by critics of the time, but the overall scope of the picture polished out this deficient measure. The spectacle would earn itself three Academy Awards, winning for Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction, and Best Special Effects.

The Thief of Bagdad would accomplish what it really set out to do and outshined the 1924 original. Setting new bars on special effects it would motivate future generations of filmmakers for years to come. The feature’s style would even continue to inspire films as late as the 1990s which can be heavily seen in Disney’s animated picture Aladdin. The Thief of Bagdad brought with it a new standard in special effects and it continues to be its legacy in the history of cinema.

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