A Magic Carpet Ride with Douglas Fairbanks

Posted by on Mar 29 2014 | History, Motion Pictures

90 years ago this month, Douglas Fairbanks released his fantasy spectacle The Thief of Bagdad. This was Fairbanks’ biggest and most prestigious film produced to date and was one of the most expensive films of the 1920s with a budget of over $1,000,000. Fairbanks wrote, produced, and starred in the film, and was able to bring his artistic vision to the screen with the exceptional assistance of director Raoul Walsh, production designer William Cameron Menzies, and cinematographer Arthur Edeson. The special effects and immense sets were the film’s biggest selling points – in addition to the star power of Fairbanks in the lead, of course.

The Stills, Posters and Paper Collection in the Moving Image Department has many wonderful artifacts for this film that have safely survived the 90 years since the film’s release. This souvenir program was sold at theatres during The Thief of Bagdad‘s exclusive roadshow engagements in larger cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Inside is the cast and personnel list, a retelling of the film in story form, quotes from the critics, and information about the art design, all beautifully illustrated with scenes from the film. Note the cover price of 25¢ (roughly equivalent to $3.50 today).

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For those who didn’t want to spend 25¢ for the souvenir program, there was also a free program available to pick up inside the lobby of the theatre. This one is from the Liberty Theatre in New York City, where the film premiered on March 18, 1924, and includes the basic information about the film — cast, production personnel, and a brief synopsis of the story — less elaborately presented than in the souvenir program.

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A common form of advertising movies during the 1920s was the movie herald. These small flyers were handed out at local theatres to advertise films coming soon to that theatre. They were, in effect, heralding the coming attractions. This tri-fold herald for The Thief of Bagdad was handed out at the Lyceum Theatre in Rochester, NY. It manages to pack in a synopsis, praise from the critics, and blurbs about the fantastic sequences in the film, all amidst a striking graphic display of images.

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A music cue sheet for The Thief of Bagdad was provided to theatres to help their accompanists prepare the music to play with the film, whether a lone accompanist on piano or organ, or a multiple piece ensemble or orchestra. It gives suggestions for music pieces to be played for each scene in the film, cued to either an intertitle or an action that the accompanist would see on screen.

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The Douglas Fairbanks Nitrate Still Negatives Collection at George Eastman House is a treasure chest full of images from The Thief of Bagdad, which boasts the largest number of still negatives for any of Fairbanks’ films in this collection – over 1,700. In addition to the typical stills shot of scenes in the film, there are amazing behind-the-scenes and production shots that show the cast and crew at work, construction of sets, and costume and makeup tests.

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Douglas Fairbanks on set with director Raoul Walsh:
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These rare stills show Fairbanks posing before the camera to test how effectively the makeup work depicted scars his character suffered after receiving a flogging when he is discovered to be a thief:

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Most fascinating of all these are the production stills showing how some of the magic of the film was created, such as the construction of the fanciful sets, the underwater sequence, and the flying magic carpet.

The staircase in the Princess’s bedroom, during construction and once completed:
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The underwater sequence, where Fairbanks is tempted by the beckoning sirens:

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And the spectacular magic carpet ride:

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Finally, discoveries in internal correspondence and in one of the Technicolor collections at George Eastman House raise the question of whether Fairbanks was considering filming The Thief of Bagdad in what was then Technicolor’s two-color process. After completing Robin Hood in 1922, Fairbanks began planning his next film, which he wanted to be a pirate story. He felt that a pirate story would best be filmed in color as he “could not imagine piracy without color.” However, he was not at all satisfied with the technical aspects and limitations of filming in color. At about the same time that he was exploring his pirate film, he received as a gift a book of tales of the Arabian Nights, and he then shifted his attention to The Thief of Bagdad.

Although he had put off the pirate film for the time being, color was no doubt on Fairbanks’ mind in 1923 and 1924 while The Thief of Bagdad was in production. Anna May Wong, who played the Princess’s duplicitous slave in the film, talked about working on the film in a 1957 letter to George Pratt, assistant curator of motion pictures at George Eastman House. Wong stated that starring in The Toll of the Sea, the first full length Technicolor film (produced in 1922), established her in the public’s mind and also attracted producers’ attentions to her dramatic efforts. One of the producers was Douglas Fairbanks, “who at that time was very interested and studying different color processes with the intention of making his forthcoming film in color.” Fairbanks signed Wong to a contract, but “decided at the eleventh hour to continue using black and white film for making The Thief of Bagdad.”

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It’s not too far of a leap to venture that Fairbanks was likely testing the waters with Technicolor to see what they could do for him and his desire to produce a film in color. A test frame in Technicolor’s research files for its two-color process shows actress Etta Lee posing in an exotic costume much like those seen in The Thief of Bagdad:

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Lee was in the cast of The Thief of Bagdad, playing the Slave Girl of the Sand Board. Although none of Lee’s costumes in the film is the one seen here in the test frame, the top of a musical instrument can be seen in the background. Compare this with a still from the film, showing the Slave of the Lute, played by Winter Blossom:

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Whether Fairbanks was considering filming The Thief of Bagdad in Technicolor, or if he just made use of his current production to have color tests made for his anticipated pirate film, is mere speculation. Perhaps Technicolor, knowing of Fairbanks’ interest in making a film in color — as well as his dissatisfaction with the limitations of the color process — was trying to court him and keep him interested. After all, a Fairbanks feature film in Technicolor would undoubtedly have been a major achievement for the company in advancing its color process. Perhaps Technicolor initiated and offered further testing at Fairbanks’ studio, using actors, costumes, and props that may have been on hand for his current production. Whatever the case, these artifacts certainly give valuable clues to further study of the film, Fairbanks, and the technical achievements of the time.

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All images are from the George Eastman House Collection, Moving Image Department.

 

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    Nancy Kauffman is the Archivist for the Stills, Posters and Paper Collections in the Moving Image Department.

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