Second Time Around

The Thief of Bagdad
In the 1924 silent version of the Arabian Nights adventure, Douglas Fairbanks overflows with physical euphoria. He's different from the action heroes we usually see today. He's got the body of an acrobat, not a bodybuilder: It's as taut, agile, and graceful as it is powerful. His wedgelike torso probably served as the model for the first comic-book superheroes. And as the star of this exotic extravaganza he gets to be faster than a speeding street mob, more powerful than a Mongol army, able to leap tall castles with a single bound. Fairbanks wrote the script (pseudonymously), and, as the producer, hired director Raoul Walsh and art director William Cameron Menzies. But Fairbanks the actor is his most astonishing creation.

As a thief who lives by the seat of his harem pants, he displays the atavistic instincts of a dog (able to sniff out dinner cooking and then steal it) and the reflexes of a master gymnast (descending a collapsing magic rope). His romantic impudence spurs him to court a princess and abandon his life of petty crime. Even more than the movie's special-effects and design wizards, Fairbanks wins our applause -- and laughter -- whether he's fending off monsters or racing over the backs of worshipers bowed in prayer. His seductively outrageous movie -- co-starring Snitz Edwards as his droll sidekick, sinuous Julanne Johnston as the princess, Sojin as the creepy Mongol villain, and Anna May Wong as the princess' beautiful, treacherous Mongol slave -- is an adolescent daydream come true.

-- Michael Sragow

The Thief of Bagdad screens Thursday, June 12, at 7 p.m. at the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant (at College) in Berkeley. Russell Merritt will introduce the film as part of the PFA series "Cinema and the Realm of Enchantment"; Jon Mirsalis will provide the piano accompaniment. Tickets are $5.50; call (510) 642-1124.

 
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