The 90th Anniversary of The Thief of Bagdad at the American Cinematheque

June 5, 2014

This article was originally written for the American Cinematheque, and they graciously gave me permission to re-print it here.

 

Douglas Fairbanks' epic The Thief of Bagdad premiered on March 23, 1924. On the film's 90th anniversary (to the day!), March 23, 2014, the American Cinematheque hosted Fairbanks historian Tracey Goessel for an illustrated discussion on Fairbanks and a look behind the scenes of the film's production, followed by a screening of the movie. 

Goessel provided the audience with interesting facts and images from the making of The Thief of Bagdad, starting with some design sketches by production designer William Cameron Menzies. Menzies' intricate, detailed drawings were amazingly reconstructed with great care for the screen, exhibited by a set piece produced for an underwater fantasy sequence which included bubbles made of hand blown glass sent all the way from Maine! 

Though it's hard to see, the top photo is a reproduction of Menzies' original vision, while the bottom is the final result in the film - very close reconstruction! (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Underwater fantasy sequence in which the imported glass was used.

Fun facts surrounding the cast also made for some interesting trivia points. For instance, one of the main Princes in the film, the Persian Prince, was actually played by a French woman, the uncredited Mathilde Comont! Goessel admitted she didn't know that tidbit for a number of years, but now when she sees the movie, she finds it hard to believe she didn't realize that before.

 

Touching upon another prominent Prince, the Mongol Prince, Goessel revealed a little known truth: two actors play the role, Sojin, who is credited, and Sadakichi Hartmann, who was actually a well-known critic and poet. Sojin was originally cast, but apparently he was quite hard to work with and often butted heads with director Raoul Walsh over creative differences. Thus, Goessel said he was probably asked to leave and replaced with Hartmann. So, how can the average viewer discern who's who in the movie? Sojin was missing a front tooth, while Hartmann had all his front teeth!

The Princes. A woman, Mathilde Comont, played the Persian Prince, far right, and two actors, Sojin and Sadakichi Hartmann, played the Mongol Prince, far left. 

How to tell the difference between Hartmann (left) and Sojin (right)? The teeth! (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Hartmann in his younger years, left, and on set of The Thief of Bagdad, center. On the right is Sojin, whom Hartmann replaced.

There was also another casting change for the part of the Princess. Originally, actress Evelyn Brent was set for the role, but when production was pushed back a few months, she had to drop out and was replaced by Julanne Johnston. Interestingly, in the late summer of 1923, the movie magazine Screenland published a piece hinting that an affair between Fairbanks and Brent angered Fairbanks' wife Mary Pickford and was the real reason behind Johnston's casting. Fairbanks, Pickford, Brent, and Brent's new husband all sued Screenland, and Brent, in later years, admitted that she only met Fairbanks a few times. Thus, an affair between the two seems unlikely.     

 

For a film made 90 years ago, The Thief of Bagdad boasts some impressive sequences, most all of which were filmed on a backlot on the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Formosa Ave. in West Hollywood. One sequence involves a white horse named Bessie (as seen on the poster above), which Fairbanks purchased specifically for the film from Barnum and Bailey. In the movie, Fairbanks rides the horse through the sky - how do you think that effect was achieved? Well, back in the late 1920s, the filmmakers just put the horse on a treadmill (ASPCA, anyone?).

 

Another scene from the very end of the movie involves a magic carpet ride. Goessel shared a still from the production that showed both Fairbanks and Johnston filming on the carpet, reinforced of course, 80 feet above ground. Johnston was seated and strapped in, but Fairbanks was standing, with no support and nothing between him and the ground 80 feet below! As you see in the movie, the carpet does sway a bit, and luckily, there were no accidents while shooting this dangerous scene - at least none that were reported, that is.

Douglas Fairbanks and Julanne Johnston filming close-ups on the carpet (Picture by  Kim Luperi)

The carpet was 80 feet above the ground in this picture. Johnston was buckled in, but Fairbanks had no harness and was standing up! No way would that be allowed today. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Goessel concluded by noting that the year before the movie was released, 1923, was a high point in Fairbanks' personal and professional life: his marriage to Mary Pickford was going smoothly, and his film Robin Hood, which would be the most successful film of his career, played at the Egyptian for 6 months and eventually traveled the nation. Thus, he was in a position to be able to invest - more than anyone else at the time - a large amount in The Thief of Bagdad. Every penny spent is evident in the finished product, making Fairbanks' only fantasy film an amazing experience to behold on the big screen. 

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