Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuesdays Overlooked (or Forgotten) Films: THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD starring Sabu, Conrad Veidt, Jane Duprez, John Justin and Rex Ingram.

Tuesday's Overlooked Films is a weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason at  SWEET FREEDOM. Don't forget to check in and see what other overlooked films other bloggers are posting about today.

I'm cheating here because the Oscar winning film, THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD wasn't all that overlooked when it first hit the theater screens in December of 1940. But since then, I'm thinking that some of us might have overlooked or forgotten it, so it's time for a reminder.

THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD was one of  British/Hungarian producer Alexander Korda's biggest and splashiest fantasy extravaganzas. Korda was so exacting, he went through six directors, though Michael Powell is generally the name most associated with the film. But the resulting film was worth all the backstage drama.

The cinematography is exceptional, as is the sound track by Miklos Rozsa. The art direction and set design by Vincent Korda are brilliant and the glamorous costumes by John Armstrong, Oliver Messel and Marcel Vertes, simply ravishing.

THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD won three very well-deserved Academy Awards in 1941: For cinematography, art direction and special effects.

Unfortunately, the film hasn't been re-processed yet, but the color on it is still good. At least on the version I watched on youtube which had to be viewed in parts. The only full version was, for whatever reason, only available dubbed in Spanish. Go figure.

Anyway, this is such a gorgeous film that I put up with the inconvenience. I think once someone gets hold of it and fine tunes it for Blu-Ray, I'm going to buy the dvd for my granddaughter. This is a perfect film for any holiday, full of razzle-dazzle fantasy and fun; a truly evil villain, a beautiful princess, a handsome king cast out of his kingdom and a wily thief who befriends the hapless hero.

The cast is superb, most especially the one and only Conrad Veidt as the evil Grand Vizier, Jaffar. Veidt was a brilliant actor born in Berlin. He'd had a successful silent film career, but left Germany with his Jewish wife in 1933. They lived for a short while in Great Britain then later, settled in the United States.

Veidt was generally called upon to play villainous Nazis for much of his career, but it's as Jaffar, I think, that he is best remembered. This wonderful actor unfortunately died young, in 1943 at the age of 50.

The exotic Jane Duprez is exquisitely beautiful as the Princess (un-named), a part originally planned for Vivien Leigh.(According to IMDb Leigh was offered GONE WITH THE WIND and that, as they say, was that.)

John Justin, in his first film is Ahmad, slim, chiseled, handsome and devoted. A young and very naive king of Baghdad who is easily tricked out of his kingdom by his Grand Vizier, Jaffar.

This is one of those fairy tales where love is all that matters and love at first sight matters even more.

The Princess is cursed with a transcendent beauty that apparently drives men to frenzied distraction. (Certainly Jaffar and Ahmad have that in common.) This was back in the day when a woman's beauty was all that mattered - it was naturally assumed that outer beauty meant inner beauty. You know how it is in myths and fables, not to mention, movies. Of course it isn't like that in real life. Right.

The wonderful Sabu, a popular actor born in British India and discovered by a documentary film maker, plays Abu, a wily thief who spends part of the film as a dog. (Jaffar's dirty work.)

Here's the plot:

We learn in flashback of the evil Jaffar's dirty work. As the Grand Vizier of Baghdad, he has great influence in the young king's court.

Through trickery, Jaffar has had Ahmad, the rightful king, thrown in prison.

There Ahmad fortuitously meets Abu who helps them both escape.

They travel to Basra where Ahmad spies the Princess and is instantly transfixed. Her father, a child-like Caliph played endearingly by Miles Malleson (who also wrote the screenplay) is a collector of mechanical toys, the bigger and more intricate the better.

When Jaffar demonstrates a flying white horse, the Caliph in his delight promises Jaffar his daughter, the Princess.

Jaffar beguiles the old man with his mechanical tributes..

But then he uses his wizardry to destroy the Caliph by having a many armed mechanical figure, a woman, lure him close then stab him to death.

Ahmad is blinded by Jaffar and reduced to begging in the streets. Abu has been turned into a dog. Jaffar absconds with the Princess but she is falls into a dreamy sort of sleep from which she won't awaken.

 Jaffar has Ahmad brought to her bedside and the Princess awakes.

But, the pair are easily tricked once again. Jaffar lures the Princess on board his ship and they hit the high seas, sailing off into the wild blue yonder. Well, actually, they wind up back in Baghdad. The Princess must give herself to Jaffar in order for Ahmad's sight to be restored.

She allows Jaffar to hold her and presto-change-o, Ahmad's sight is restored. Abu is changed from dog back to human.

They jump in a small boat and sail after the Princess. Jaffar calls up a storm with his powerful wizard powers and Ahmad and Abu wind up cast away on a desolate beach. There, Abu finds a magic bottle which contains a genie, played by the fabulous Rex Ingram - an inspired bit of casting.

Long story short, the genie, after an aborted attempt to kill Abu, is tricked into re-entering  the bottle. He promises to behave if Abu will let him out again. To that end, he grants Abu three wishes. Eventually Abu wishes Ahmad back in Baghdad, but he is left behind to get back without the help of the genie who has flown the coop.

Abu must evade a giant spider in its giant web as well as steal the all-seeing eye of a huge Buddha - the usual.

Eventually he also steals a flying rug and makes it back to Baghdad in style. Just in time to spark a revolt among the oppressed populace and restore the rightful monarch, Ahmad to his throne. But not before Abu kills Jaffar with a magic crossbow.

Ahmad the King and his Princess are rightfully restored to their proper rank. Abu takes off on the flying carpet for parts unknown (he has a horror of being sent to school) and all live happily ever after.


  1. A great old favorite of mine, I like even better than I do the great silent film that preceded it (my consistently least successful joke that I stubbornly like: whenever you think of old Baghdad/Mesopotamia/Iraq, the first actors you would think of are, of course, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr and Anna May Wong)...even the weak remakes fairly recently aren't actually terrible, what I've seen of them.

  2. This is due for a re-viewing. I have fond memories of seeing it for the first time on TV on one of the Sunday afternoon movie shows that I was addicted to when I was a teen. Astonishing special effects for the time and gorgeous use of color. I'm not sure I remmber much of the Fairbanks silent version - that one was done in a very early color film process. But I can tell you the Photoplay edition of THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD with the color DJ and the eight hand-tinted color plates is a real treasure to book collectors.

  3. Yes, less color than colored...tinges of various hues similar to sepia.

    Randy's film this week is an early Korda...

  4. My mother had loved this so when it arrived on tv, we watched it every possible chance. I remember most vividly the many-armed murderous creation and Sabu's song (unless my mind has failed me altogether) "I want to be a sailor sailing out to sea, no more tinker, tailor will I ever be...I want to be a bandit, can't you understand it.." Do I have the right movie? I haven't seen it since childhood though in my 20s I had a grand reproduction poster. Yes, a must see. Another fine post.

  5. Todd: I love Douglas Fairbanks Jr. though I've never seen the silent version of TOB all the way through. I'm also a big fan of Anna May Wong. She was so exotic and glamorous. I once wanted to dress up as Wong for Halloween. Crazy notion - or what?

    I love the Arabian Nights visualization of Baghdad as this mystical, mythical place. The Mesopotamia of our dreams.

  6. John: If I ever see the book in a store, I'll grab it! Though the truth is, I never have. :)

    Like you, I am very fond of this film. My brother and I like to sing along with Sabu as he sails along the sea. Remember the little ditty?

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  8. Todd: Haven't had a chance yet to make the rounds of the Tuesday bunch. Will do. :)

  9. Marylinn: You got the song just right! I couldn't remember all the words, but thanks to you, voila!

    As I mentioned above, my brother and I used to sing along with Sabu. EMBARRASSING. Ha!

    What a grand movie!

  10. One of my favourite movies from when I was kid Yvette, great choice. You can get very good DVD versions on the MGM and Criterion labels which are based on the restoration undertaken by the British Film Institute in the 90s (in fact I used to work there at the time when they did it). The versions on YoTube are not exactly legit, so I guess you get what you pay for ...


  11. Great news, Sergio. I wasn't sure if a really good copy was available. I will be looking to purchase it for sure then.

    Don't want my granddaughter to miss out. :)

    Wait. You worked at the British Film Institute? How about a story on your blog about the good old days?

  12. One of my favorite films. Like John, I first saw this on television when I was a child. Since it was a black and white TV, I didn't realize that this was a color film, let alone that it is a spectacular color film. I have carried memories of some of the dialogue in my head for decades - and probably most of what I recall is at best close to accurate.

    Genie to Abu after he has stolen the eye of the idol: Not for ten thousand years will she grow another.

    Jaffar to the Caliph (the great Miles Malleson!) about the mechanical woman: She will...embrace you.

    And above all, the song that Marylinn quotes!

    There is a film book by a man whose name I can't recall in which he talks about meeting June Duprez (in a supermarket or some place like that) and quotes from memory the passage in which Ahmad meets the princess (which I am copying from IMDB):

    Princess: Who are you?
    Ahmad: Your slave.
    Princess: Where have you come from?
    Ahmad: From the other side of time, to find you.
    Princess: How long have you been searching?
    Ahmad: Since time began.
    Princess: Now that you've found me, how long will you stay?
    Ahmad: To the end of time.
    Ahmad: For me, there can be no more beauty in the world, than yours.
    Princess: For me, there can be no more pleasure in the world, than to please you.

    Not a bad way to introduce yourself to a beautiful actress.

  13. Wonderful memories of a great movie, Steve. I, too, saw it first on a black and white TV. Then later in the most wonderful color. Many years ago.

    Jane Duprez will always be the Princess. She really was extraordinarily beautiful and exotic.

    I love those quotes from the film.

    Had you known that Miles Malleson also wrote the script? I didn't until I checked IMDB. He is perfection as the child-like Caliph. I hate the treachery that does away with him. Upsetting.

    I've always wondered what happend to John Justin. I can't remember ever having seen him in another film.

  14. I was surprised by how much I really enjoyed this movie. I was just looking for something to watch on Netflix and there it was (and I am generally a fan of both Alexander Korda and Michael Powell).

  15. Lauren: It holds up - doesn't it? Really a wonderful movie.

  16. Adore the movie--Jaffar's my favourite Veidt character. *sigh* There is a Blu-Ray version out in Europe, so if you can get your hands on a multi-region player, it's a great choice. It doesn't have the colour restoration of the Criterion version (most of your screencaps seem to be from that) but then again, the Criterion version cropped the edges off the image and mistakenly removed the original blue night filter from the scene when Jaffar makes Ahmad go among his people at night. Here's hoping there will one day be a not-cropped and properly colour-restored HD version of it available everywhere!

  17. Funny thing, gingerguardian, last night I was watching CONTRABAND with Conrad Veidt playing one of his few hero roles - a Danish sea captain. A terrific little spy thriller if you haven't seen it yet by the way.

    Buf of course, it is as the evil Jaffar that we love him most. I'll keep my fingers crossed for a non-cropped and properly color restored HD version too. But at least the film is so good that its attractions transcend technicalities. Though of course it's always best to see the film as its creators intended.


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