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Thursday, September 27, 2018

What We Treasure, and Why?

The Thief Of Bagdad (1940) Was Someone's Happiest Memory

Name quick a most popular and influential pageant from the 40's, one that set then-youth upon clouds of joy. Ask author Alan Barbour, if he were still here, and the answer would be Korda's The Thief Of Bagdad. Barbour was viewing child of a decade when new sensations were buttressed by returning hits from the 30's. He saw them all, repeatedly, and wrote memoir that was A Thousand and One Delights, just one of a brace of books that walked down his memory lane. If you want first-hand recall of what moviegoing was like in a truest Classic Era, here it is. Trouble for us moderns is no one from back then telling their stories on the internet, being too old, or too departed, to participate in online discussion. Eyewitness testimony from later dims by the day as well. How long before we can't find anyone who saw The Day The Earth Stood Still when new, with exit of those who saw NBC's March 1962 broadcast premiere close behind. What do we achieve for recount of youth but confession of age and sand seeping from hourglass of memory? It's humbling then to read Alan Barbour and know what it was to grow up in a real Garden of Eden. He wrote prolific (fanzines, photo/ad collections, plus the books) until premature passing in 2002. Barbour called The Thief Of Bagdad a supremely high adventure, its Technicolor a summit of the process. He would see the show over and over whenever theatres brought it back, which was evidently often through the 40's. So how come we forgot what a trend setter The Thief Of Bagdad was?

A Whole Line Of Bagdad Dolls --- Collect Them All!

Fashion Tips For 1940 Inspired By The Thief Of Bagdad
There was a book written about The Thief Of Bagdad in 2004. Co-author Malcolm Willits had a memorabilia shop on Hollywood Boulevard. He was born in 1934, so probably rode Korda's magic carpet early on to whatever revivals came his neighborhood's way. Question, then, to all: What single film, if any, would you devote book-length effort to? I could think of fifty titles easier than one, though the doing would require true, if not obsessive, commitment. Was The Thief Of Bagdad better suited to an earlier generation of fans? You could say that about any Classic Era favorite, being it's true of them all, but I don't hear The Thief Of Bagdad being praised at the level of a King Kong or The Adventures Of Robin Hood, two with which it has elements in common, though really, there is nothing else like The Thief Of Bagdad, other than a silent version Douglas Fairbanks did in the twenties. Follow-ups and imitators would be rife, and last right into the sixties. Most immediate trade on The Thief Of Bagdad were the six Maria Montez-Jon Hall adventures, the first of which set a pattern and was hat-tip enough to include Bagdad's Sabu among Universal's contract-starry cast. It wouldn't be long before spoofs led the way, crowds after the war more inclined to laugh at lamps that gave wishes and camels as conveyance (look at A Thousand and One Nights for extreme 1945 example).

Sex was safer-served with all else so divorced from reality. Domestic tilts at Arabian Nights were diminished more than helped by harems heaped with starlets, none invested in the spirit of exotic fantasy as June Duprez was in the 1940 trend-setter, but then, the British wouldn't condescend to exotic content the way we later would. Crudity of Bagdad special-fx can be overlooked in the face of effort so sincere, and what US copy-cat had Conrad Veidt as evilest of viziers? June Duprez was decades-later interviewed by another lifelong devotee of the film, John Kobal, who cherished The Thief Of Bagdad from first seeing it amidst postwar rubble of his English boyhood. Kobal's account is as vivid a picture of filmgoing as I've ever read, as told in preamble to his visit with Duprez in the 1985 book, People Will Talk. He's disappointed when she elects not to recall The Thief Of Bagdad in glowing terms. It was a job from which June Duprez moved on (and not to success in Hollywood, which made Bagdad that much easier to forget). Include Kobal then, among Thief Of Bagdad disciples who would write stirringly of impact the movie had. Like with Alan Barbour and Malcolm Willits, the bloom would not fade with passage of years. Again, are there such films that register so strongly, or permanently, for those of us younger? I tried sampling The Thief Of Bagdad through 40's eyes, advantage mine thanks to HD broadcast on TCM, but what am I saying? --- they got three-strip Technicolor on 35mm nitrate, and imagine what that would have looked like.

1947 Finds Genie Rex Ingram Lured From His Bottle To Help Promote  
Whatever impression The Thief Of Bagdad made when new (there was $1.1 million in domestic rentals) was redoubled when a next generation got hold of it in 1947. Strategy was not unlike Disney's with backlog, every seven years adequate to let a next audience gestate and begin buying tickets. The Thief Of Bagdad was as evergreen as any live action feature, and proved as much with extended runs and 1947 boxoffice to rival whatever was new at the time. Alexander Korda had leased a group of his features to "Film Classics," a thriving postwar reissue mill. The Thief Of Bagdad would pair with The Jungle Book, another Technicolor-ful flight of fantasy. These two, as with The Four Feathers and Drums (US re-title of UK's The Drum) were richer canvasses than the norm, deeply felt by those lucky enough to thrill with them in theatres. Regrettable coda to this was a following year's surrender of the Korda group to television, among first deals made for major features seen at home and for free. Twenty-four titles were leased to New York's WPIX, and they could peddle the lot as well to other stations nationwide ("approximately 13 television areas" were identified as possible customers). Technicolor that had distinguished many of the Kordas was lost to arid B/W on tiny tubes. Showmen would not thereafter want The Thief Of Bagdad or others thanks to Judas act of the Brit producer in letting the enemy have them. Here was where The Thief Of Bagdad began to lose its standing, except in hearts and minds of fan-ship that would become writer/historians. We have The Thief Of Bagdad on a Criterion DVD and various Blu-Rays from Region Two. I haven't looked to see which is best.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The first version of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD I saw was the Steve Reeves version which was fine but which pales beside this version. The Douglas Fairbanks version is in a class by itself. This version is unsurpassable.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dennis Atkinson
Back several eons ago, Stanley Stark at Dominate Pictures was releasing THE THIEF OF BADGAD in b/w. I call him and suggested that it would be nice if it was in Technicolor. He called back and said it would be a little more costly as the prints were from England. Well I order it and it arrived believe it or not on the night before Christmas. The best $800.00 I ever spent. It ranks with Don Juan (1926) as my favorite film. Until death do we part.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

June Duprez...sigh...Mary Morris...sigh.
Saw DAY live as a kid, too young for THIEF.
The Wolf, man.

3:08 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Can't help but notice how much Jafar in Disney's ALADDIN resembles Conrad Veidt!

3:12 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Born in '55, I remembered Disney being the only reissues. But at that age, I wouldn't have recognized other movies as being reissues. The Disneys were constantly familiar from TV clips, comic books and merchandise; I knew plot lines, music and characters of nearly all as a kid, even though I didn't actually see some of the movies until UCSC in the 70s, when on-campus programs and the Sash Mill, a full-time revival house, accelerated my cinema education. I think that's where I first experienced "Thief of Bagdad", although I had faint memories of seeing Sabu's first meeting with Rex Ingram's giant genie while switching channels.

I became aware of reissues in the 60s, when we saw a full-fledged re-release of "Around the World in 80 Days" at a first-run palace. When the campy "Batman" played the neighborhood house in Morgan Hill, it was double-billed with DeMille's "Greatest Show on Earth". Suspect the latter was not a major re-release but just something that was available.

The classics Barbour got to see at Saturday matinees were mainly B&W television discoveries for me. Hosted monster movies and old comic vehicles, especially from Paramount, seemed to be the most reliable weekend fare; I eventually learned to scan TV Guide for anything starring Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Marx Brothers, etc. Stumbling onto an Errol Flynn swashbuckler or any kind of kid-appeal spectacle was a surprise and sometimes a revelation. They seemed to be haphazardly mixed in with the dreaded "talky" grownup movies, so enlightenment was longer in coming.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Film Classics was actually established during the war (April 1943), the original intention being to reissue Gaumont British imports. When FC went after the Alexander Korda and Samuel Goldwyn backlogs, the company found plenty of takers. Some of the reprints were reissues of Technicolor features, but FC wouldn't spring for Technicolor prints -- and probably couldn't get them anyway, with the Technicolor lab working overtime to fill the orders it already had. So BECKY SHARP and THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES came out in Cinecolor. (The posters just said "color," carefully refraining from saying which color.)

The Hal Roach backlog came next (after Roach filed a lawsuit, because Film Classics had been dragging its feet in reissuing Roach's features).

10:15 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The best memorabilia piece for this film is the poster for the 1947 reissue drawn by Osvaldo Venturi in Argentina. Unlike Film Classic, the reissue package was distributed by Guaranteed Pictures, a company that commissioned newer (and frankly superior to the original) advertising elements.

4:57 AM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

Alas, I never warmed up to THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. For me it is THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

On Criterion's THIEF OF BAGDAD DVD, Francis Coppola remembers seeing it during 1947 reissue at a theater in Flushing, Queens. Interesting that Film Classics' reissues include THE NORTH STAR, which had made its first (and apparently last until the 1980s, at least in its original version) on TV in New York City in 1946. Goldwyn had apparently sold it off before then, though I still haven't figured out who the purchaser was. NTA, of course, eventually got ahold of THE NORTH STAR and politically "rehabilitated" it by editing out the more pro-Soviet references, adding narration and newsreel footage of the Soviets' Hungarian invasion.

4:47 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

The re-edited "North Star" was titled "Armored Attack."

Alan Barbour ... there's a name I haven't heard in ages. In my teens, I read his "Cliffhanger" book, and I recall seeing ads for Barbour's fond pastiche of Republic serials, "Captain Celluloid vs. the Film Pirates" ("Whirlwind Fist Fights!...Explosions!") Don Glut (whose "Frankenstein Legend" was also part of my long-ago reading list) did similar filmed "tributes" in his youth.

6:34 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

It went over really well in our house when our daughter was little. Very magical.

7:12 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I've sometimes wondered if it was accidental that the three Popeye two-reelers were all based on the Arabian Nights.

Granted, the first two kept everybody but Bluto in the present with their usual characters, and the third framed Aladdin's tale with Olive writing a screenplay for Popeye and herself. Even so, it seems odd to stick to such a specific genre.

Did the Fleischers simply cling to what felt like a winning formula? Or did Paramount demand it?

Later, did anyone think to book two or three together as a main attraction? For that matter, were any of them ever shown with "Thief of Bagdad" and its 1001 imitations?

5:27 PM  

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