Douglas Fairbank’s wonderful “The Thief of Bagdad,” released in 1924, played in front of an enthusiastic crowd today at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. The movie features Fairbanks as the title character, Ahmed, a witty and athletic burglar, pickpocket and master thief who has his way stealing money and jewels near the great palace of Bagdad. He soon embarks on a series of incredible adventures that take him from the bottom of the sea to the surface of the moon, while wooing a beautiful princess and finding the world’s rarest treasure.
The movie’s tremendous production values and beautiful sets transport the viewer into the exotic world of Bagdad, while the endlessly fascinating story takes many strange turns. After Ahmed discovers a magic rope, he uses it to climb over the walls of the royal palace. He’s after a treasure, which conveniently displays right out in the open in a big chest, guarded by fat and sleepy guards. Ahmed has no trouble pinching the loot, but soon he discovers a beautiful sleeping princess played by Julanne Johnston; smitten, he steals one of her slippers and takes off without the loot. From then on, the story follows Ahmed’s quest to marry the princess.
Fortunately for Ahmed, the kingdom sponsors a contest, whereby competing princes from other lands can arrive in Bagdad to woo the princess. The princes include a cruel and powerful ruler from Mongolia whose aim is to conquer Bagdad. A mystic predicts that the princess will choose the suitor who touches the palace rose bush. Ahmed enters the palace disguised as a prince and aggressively courts the princess, but she makes an additional demand that the successful suitor must travel the world to find the “rarest treasure.” Ahmed and the other princes then set out on a fantastic journey to find the treasures, which provide the producers with ample opportunities to display the film’s terrific special effects and fantastic sets. It’s particularly fun when Ahmed goes to the realm of the mermaids and fights a sea monster, which looks like a giant mechanical bug.
Cast as a Mongol Slave, the wonderful Anna May Wong plays a spy for the Mongol Prince, played by Sôjin. She easily steals all her scenes, and even takes the audience’s attention away from Julanne Johnston. Fairbanks must have known her screen power, since he essentially directed the movie, even though Raoul Walsh gets the screen credit. The movie becomes an incredible tour de force, accented wonderfully by the live playing at the Castro Theater by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The Cohen Colllection provided the excellent restoration.