Monday, March 18, 2024

This Day in Film History (Douglas Fairbanks in Career Triumph at ‘Thief of Bagdad’ Premiere)

Mar. 18, 1924— At the premiere of his latest film, The Thief of Bagdad, Douglas Fairbanks gave everything his fans could want: carrying wife Mary Pickford on his shoulders past the crowd of 5,000 waiting outside their limousine; having New York’s Liberty Theater transformed into a scene from The Arabian Nights that had inspired his latest spectacle; leaping onto the stage at the conclusion of the movie; and, in between, packing the 138-minute silent with splendid pageantry and special effects to go along with his usual athleticism.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to see this classic—not in one of those cheaply made versions in the public domain, but restored with beautiful original color tinting, and put on the big screen by the Barrymore Film Center in Fort Lee, NJ.

Film technology has advanced markedly in the last century, but Fairbanks’ good looks, charm and charisma remained timeless for those of us in the packed auditorium that night.

All these qualities helped Fairbanks virtually create the template for the cinematic swashbuckling hero. Yes, sword fights and period costumes are required for the genre, but above all, you need a devil-may-care protagonist who is good at heart, and open to love by a woman.

That was the formula already fashioned by Fairbanks from the start of the Roaring Twenties, in The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers, and Robin Hood, and it would continue to be through the end of the decade.

Matinee idols of the studio system in the sound era—Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Burt Lancaster, and Stewart Granger—owed much of their early success to vehicles patterned after his. But what they accomplished in those movies don’t measure up to the standards set by Fairbanks.

Why? It doesn’t necessarily have to do with skill. (Lancaster, of course, eventually won an Oscar, and Flynn and Power were also recognized as quite capable late in their careers.)

Rather, it’s because Fairbanks as an independent producer (and as part of the group that formed United Artists in 1919, with wife Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith) generated his own films and image—engaging the financing, writing the stories (in this case, with a nom de plume derived from his middle names, “Elton Thomas”), and explaining to collaborators what he wanted through his elaborate charts.

In short, Fairbanks had become what later film scholars would term an “auteur”: a filmmaker whose artistic control over the product is so great that he is, practically speaking, its “author.”

Director Raoul Walsh, in one of his greatest silent films, gave ample evidence of the energy and panache of his Warner Brothers movies of the sound era.

But it was a professional he had worked with on the East Coast, in a Fort Lee film studio, art director William Cameron Menzies (later to direct Things to Come and to design Gone With the Wind), along with special effects mavens Hampton Del Ruth and Coy Watson and the star's own brother Robert, serving as technical director, whom Fairbanks called on for most of the movie’s most prodigious feats of cinematic magic, including:

* a fire-breathing dragon (a crocodile shot with the actor using double-exposure);

*a giant spider;

*a flying horse, featuring a real horse running on a treadmill against a screen;

*the underworld mermaid kingdom, shot through a curtain of thin gauze as if the Thief were swimming underwater, then tinted blue in post-production;

*an invisibility cloak;

* the famous flying “magic carpet,” which Walsh claimed to have conceived while watching a steelworker hoisted aloft on a crane—but which still required a 3/4 inch piece of steel, along with 16 piano wires fastened to the carpet’s corners and anchored to the top of a 100-ft. construction crane.

The intricate sets also reflected its star’s precise calculations for his stunts, according to Laura Boyes’ July 2023 post on her “Moviediva” blog: “Props were designed to make whatever feat he was attempting look easy: a wall was the right height to leap, a table proportioned to make a dive over it appear effortless.”

The 41-year-old actor was in magnificent shape, wrote Margarita Landazuri in a winter 2013 article, courtesy of daily exercise in a gym on the lot. But the kind of prop Ms. Boyes had in mind included trampolines placed in large jars that Fairbanks’ title character would jump in and out of to elude frustrated pursuers.

Contemporary audiences would also be enthralled by the film’s exotic apparel, even for the 3,000 extras a day engaged for the production (all requiring different clothes, according to costume designer Mitchell Leisen).

For a long time, estimates of the movie’s expenses ranged from $2 million to $2.5 million. Perhaps these numbers were a Hollywood publicist’s attempt to hype the movie’s production values.

But in 2008, Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance disclosed that the budget was only half that previously supposed: $1,135,654.65. What this meant was that the actor and his creative team had used extra ingenuity to create what looked like a far more opulent spectacle.

The Thief of Bagdad would be remade six more times in the past century, with a Technicolor 1940 version winning Oscars for Best Cinematography, Special Effects, and Art Direction. But Fairbanks got it right the first time.

Quite simply, the original, according to critic Richard Schickel’s December 1971 American Heritage article, “was full of wonders that, if often imitated since (and in some cases technically improved), have never been surpassed in their ability to delight.”

To get to this point, Fairbanks had been a shrewd judge of his career, using his acrobatic skills and sunny optimism to bound from Broadway to vaudeville to cinematic adventure hero to his current niche as the embodiment of swashbuckling.

But with the coming of sound, the Great Depression, and his own aging, the actor could no longer nimbly negotiate these transitions. 

When he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 56 in 1939, a new generation of movie fans, upon hearing the name “Douglas Fairbanks,” was more likely to associate it son Douglas Fairbanks Jr., then in the middle of his own thriving career.

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