A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 362 – The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Thief of Bagdad (1940) – February 25th, 2011

We own two versions of this story and we did a bit of debate over them tonight. We do indeed have a rule that states that series must be watched in the correct order, but we don’t have anything about remakes or different versions of a story. There’s nothing in the rules saying that we had to watch all our versions of Hamlet in chronological order. We watched the original Hairspray after the remake, after all, but then we didn’t own the original when we watched the remake, so we couldn’t have. Still, it feels a little odd, watching the 1940 version of this when we have a silent version from 1924 as well. But the silent version is super long and we just weren’t up to it tonight and well, it’s not against the rules. So here we are.

There’s a lot of movie in this movie. It’s a grand old film full of elaborate sets and fun special effects that are far and away better than anything Sharks in Venice had despite being from about fifty years earlier. And it’s not a budget thing. It’s an attention to detail thing. It’s a pride in the end product thing. Because it’s a fantasy epic and it feels large and well made from start to finish.

There’s also a lot of story in this movie. The title would suggest that the story is about the thief, Abu, but the begin the movie hearing the story of Ahmad, an exiled king whose grand vizier (seriously, it’s always the grand vizier and they need to abolish the position) tricked him and tried to have him killed before blinding him and leaving him a beggar. A good half to two thirds of the movie follows Ahmad and his romance with the princess of Basra. Ahmad is imprisoned by his grand vizier, then Abu helps him escape. They go to Basra, where Ahmad sneaks into the garden where the princess is and meets her (and of course they totally fall in love), and then he’s caught by the vizier again. The vizier blinds him and turns Abu into a dog and we hear all about this from Ahmad himself, telling the story to a group of women in his old palace where he’s been brought to wake the princess from a deep sleep that only her true love will break.

Sounds like it’s all about Ahmad, right? Except no. It really is largely about how Abu saves Ahmad’s ass again and again. While there’s a romance going on and the story of an exiled king and an evil usurper, the real story here is about the plucky thief who manages to get into the middle of it all and bring it to its rightful (and prophesied) end. It’s kind of fascinating to see the movie try to do both stories, and it largely succeeds. Sure, there are bits where it feels a little uneven, but I’d have to say that Sabu’s performance as Abu is what makes the movie about Abu. He steals every scene, which is as it should be. He is playing a thief, after all. And that’s not to say that John Justin is bad as Ahmad, it’s just that Sabu really plays his part up. I liked Justin and thought he did a nice job with the romance and I thought the same of June Duprez as the princess. But they’re just not as interesting to me as characters as Abu is. But then, I do like clever thieves.

Truth be told, I could have done with even more Abu, but I did get quite a lot for him anyhow. He meets a djinn and goes to steal a magic eye from a hidden temple and there’s some great stuff there. The djinn is a nicely sinister character who enjoys tricking Abu, but Abu ends up with the upper hand. I did feel that the magical kingdom that showed up out of nowhere was a bit of a cop out, but eh, it was fun, and they gave Abu a pretty pink quiver of arrows and a bow and a magic carpet, so how can I argue?

It’s a fun movie, and really, it stands up fairly well considering its age. The plot could have been a little tighter, with the various plot points joined together more smoothly, but that’s really my only complaint. It was well acted, with lovely sets and some fantastic makeup and effects. There’s whimsy to it, and not the cloying kind. It’s fanciful and enjoyable and I had fun watching it. I’m very curious now about the silent version, but we’ll be seeing that one soon enough.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

February 25, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

My dad took me to see this in the theater. I think it must have been at the Coolidge Corner theater. This would have been some time in the early eighties, so this movie was already more then forty years old at this point, but it didn’t strike me as dated. It’s an epic tale of love, betrayal, and magic. Even today it retains its wonder for me.

Partially it’s the story telling. We come into the story in the middle, which I always love, and the blind beggar Ahmed tells us the tale of why his dog is so clever, why he’s blind, and why a sinister German in a turban wants him brought to a sleeping princess. Partially it’s the lush beautiful look of the movie. This was an early technicolor film and like Wizard of Oz one year earlier it has a vibrant, exciting palette. The vast lush sets for the Sultan’s palace, for example, are done in a lacquered red that fairly pops out of the screen. Partially it’s the rich, magical world – filled with genies, curses, wonder and true love.

Ahmed, you see, used to be the naive king of Bagdad, so pampered and isolated in his palace that he was unaware that his people hated him and longed for his death. He takes the advice of his Grand Vizier Jaffar (never a good idea) and goes out into the city dressed as a common man only to be arrested and thrown into prison for sedition. There he befriends a witty young thief named Abu who helps him escape from Jaffar’s clutches. The two of them set out to find adventure in the wide world and very soon Ahmed falls head over heels in love with a beautiful princess, only daughter of a dotty old Sultan with a love for mechanical wind up toys. Of course at this point he’s only a penniless beggar and thief himself, but that doesn’t stop her from falling in love with him as well. Of course Jaffar, now the self styled king of Bagdad, shows up to ask the Sultan for the princesses hand in marriage, so she flees. Ahmed and Abu are captured by the Sultan’s guards and Jaffar lays a curse upon them. Ahmed will be blind, and Abu is transformed into a dog, until the day that Jaffar should have the princess in his arms.

All of that is just the back story.

In many ways this is a very straight forward love story with Ahmed and the princess (who would appear to have no name oddly enough according to the credits) mooning over each other and a lot of flowery language about their undying love, but it’s also a swashbuckling adventure story. There are songs, prophesies, and a lot of simple but effective special effects.

It also has a fun cast. Conrad Veidt is a fantastic nefarious bad guy. Sure, his strong German accent might seem a little odd in a fairy story about the middle east, but it also lends him a very sinister vibe. In many ways he reminded me of nothing so much as Bella Legosi when he was at his peak with his evil glare and inexplicable mannerisms. The romantic leads John Justin and June Duprez are inoffensive and pretty, which is I think what they are intended to be. Their love is more of a motivator for the adventure than anything believable, but it’s still fun to watch. The best part of the movie, though, is Sabu as the irascible Abu. His acting is perhaps a little overblown (look at his “surprised face”) but he imbues the movie with so much energy and charm that I don’t care at all. He gets all the best parts of the movie – rescuing the king, outsmarting the genie, stealing the all-seeing-eye, and ultimately saving the day through a deus-ex-machina encounter with an ancient race of wise men who treasure curiosity and heroism above all else.

I love the fantasy world on display here. I love the fairy tale tropes such as the very puss n’ boots way in which Abu tricks a mighty and enormous genie into granting him three wishes. I love the really quite well done giant spider. I even love the sappy romance at the heart of the movie and the friendship between the thief from the streets and the deposed king. I have always craved rich, beautiful fantasy worlds, and this completely blew me away in the theater more than twenty years ago. Then, as now, it captured my imagination and filled me with joy.

Tomorrow: Douglas Fairbanks.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment