The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

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Who’s Your Bagdaddy?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Could there be a more enchanting silent adventure than The Thief of Bagdad? – A film which is enormously pleasurable, fun, captivating and relaxing to watch. Even at the lengthy running time there was never a dull moment and in my opinion is far superior to the 1940 version. The film has a dream like state, one which I’m happy to see go on and on. This is a rare film which I feel you can pop into at any point and watch from there.

The Thief of Bagdad has a straightforward message which is literally spelled out in the stars at both the beginning and end of the film; “Happiness must be earned”. The film also opens with a verse from The Koran; “Praise be to Allah – the Beneficent King – the Creator of the Universe – Lord of the Three World!”. The remainder of the film however portrays the religion of Islam in a non-proselytizing manner. The film isn’t afraid to show the extent of slavery in the Islamic world of the time, likewise the thief himself isn’t big into faith and even dismisses Allah as a myth in a Mosque right in front of worshipers. What’s particularly interesting about this scene is the Imam (Charles Belcher) prevents the worshipers from attacking the thief after the makes his comments. Islam is touted as the so called “Religion of Peace” and this is at least symbolised in this scene. The Thief’s distaste of religion doesn’t last though as he later asks the Imam to be his catalyst in his transformation (“Allah hath made thy soul to yearn for happiness, but thou must earn it”). Anyone who grew up associating Bagdad with bombs and terrorism, seeing a movie which refers to Bagdad (or Baghdad as other sources spell it) as “dream city of the ancient east” is surreal to see. What happened to this dream city? Did such a place ever really exist or is it just fictional fantasy?

The Thief of Bagdad was one of the most expensive films of the silent era and that money sure went to good use. William Cameron Menzies’ huge, D.W. Griffith like sets are a marvel to behold in their grandiosity and opulence. There’s so much going in many shots with people moving in the background and doing their own thing. Like other silent epics The Thief of Bagdad is a movie of predominantly long shots which offer a voyeuristic like insight into this fantasy world. Not to mention many shots like a 2D platformer video game, so feel free to hold a controller while watching the movie and pretend to play away.

Julanne Johnston’s role as the Princess is very limited as she isn’t given a huge amount to do. However the real stand out female performance is Anna May Wong at the Mongolian slave girl, a real toxic sexual siren. She acts as an insider for the villain of the film, the Mongolian Prince in helping him take over the city. Although considering she is a slave at the hands of a foreign power and the Mongolian Princes’ seizing of the city could ensure her freedom, I can empathise with her character. She is last seen telling the Mongolian Prince to escape with the Princess on the flying carpet all while one of her fellow slaves sees her doing this; the viewer is left to decide what happens to her character. The Mongolian Prince himself does not have much to his personality other than being overtly evil but is delightfully evil all the same while giving off the Fu Manchu vibes.

Like Errol Flynn who would come after him, on screen Douglas Fairbanks projects a real lust for life. He is a marvel to watch with his athletic prowess, feline grace as well as his ability to give the middle finger to the laws of gravity and physics; and nice pecks too. Like some of the great silent comics, he also displays lateral thinking skills. Just looks at the scene in which he creates a makeshift pulley out of a turban, a chair leg and a donkey in order that he can get up to a balcony and steal some food. If his later films are anything to go by, Raoul Walsh was a great director of action. The Thief of Bagdad is a movie full of glorious action set pieces full of those oh so glorious “how’s he going to get out of this?” moments.

The fantasy element of The Thief of Bagdad really kicks in during the final hour. The special effects on display are not of the delightfully fake kind but are actually very convincing. The creature in the Valley on the Monsters or that creature in the sea are definitely something to be feared, or the Enchanted Tree – very eerie stuff. The movie’s two big money shots on the other hand do not disappoint. The first being the shot of the thief flying away on the winged horse, one of those cinematic images that always stay with you. The second of these being the first instance in which we see the flying carpet in action. You’ll believe a man can fly…on a carpet.

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Gentleman Jim (1942)

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A Boxer and a Gentleman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

There’s something about Gentleman Jim which makes the film uplifting, it has a real aura of celebration to it. There’s nothing better than hearing Auld Lang Sang during the opening credits of a piece of classic Hollywood filmmaking. Compare this to the many bleak biopics which portray historical figures going through unprecedented amounts of suffering, Gentleman Jim really stands out with its combination of comedy and drama which never takes itself too seriously to create something unique; historical accuracy be dammed!

Errol Flynn and Jack Carson make for a fun duo as a pair of part time con-men. Flynn’s reaction at the film’s beginning to the pickpocket currently in the act of robbing him, just a quick “get outta there” and a slap on the wrist as he continues himself to con other people, it’s so brief you would almost miss it and if it doesn’t show what a great actor he is then I don’t know what will; such sly confidence.

Gentleman Jim is a movie full of blink-and-you-miss-them moments of subtle comedy. One of my favourite of these is the moment in which a child asks his mother during a fight “why doesn’t daddy look that like in his underwear” and her response of “shh, he did once”. I love the child’s reaction with his eye’s rolling up as if he’s saying “oh, I totally get it”. The movie does also have its more overt moments of humour in the form of Corbett’s entertaining family of screwballs led by a scenery chewing Alan Hale. Yet even Hale’s chewing of the scenery is outdone by Ward Bond as the over the top, manly force of nature that is John L. Sullivan.

Gentleman Jim differs from most boxing film partially due to its time period setting. The film acts as a piece of 1890’s nostalgia when there would still have been people alive in 1942 to remember this period. It is easily apparent the filmmakers put great strides into recreating the time period with its lush sets and great attention to detail. However the other aspect which makes the movie stand out amongst boxing pictures is its presentation of boxing as a real gentleman’s sport, making the movie really live up to its title. This isn’t a story with Rocky Balboas nor does it take place in sweaty, gritty inner city gyms. I guess somewhere along the way the sport of boxing became less sophisticated and more middle to lower class.

Classic Hollywood films are generally not known for their realistic boxing scenes with their use of sped up footage and not very convincing punches. Gentleman Jim does a better job than other boxing films of the era. Flynn learned to box for the role and no body doubles where used while the fights for the most part do come off as convincing.

The meeting between Corbett and Sullivan after their fight is the film’s real tearjerker moment: what true gentlemen. An acceptance that your time has come to an end and that it will happen to all of us eventually.

They Drive By Night (1940)

We’ve Got a Great Big Convoy Running Through the Night!

They Drive By Night captures the seedy and often dangerous world of the truck driver; the lack of sleep, the long distances to travel, the time missed with family, the comradery between truckers. The movie definitely highlights the dangers of trucking from the risk of falling asleep at the wheel, which in part lends itself to one very thrilling action sequence. With Warner Bros being the master of social commentary pictures, I enjoy movies like this which give you an insight into the lives of the lower class at the time; people trying to get by a day at a time with clearly little money to spare.

Thirty minutes into the picture we meet Ida Lupino, in my view possibly the epitome of the tough dame. Talk about a star making performance, she owns the show as soon as she enters the picture. Every time she is in frame it’s hard to take your eyes of her as struts, poses and applies makeup to herself, even when her comedic foil of a husband Alan Hale is in frame acting like a buffoon. Her most notable scene in the film is one of the greatest, most gloriously over the top on screen breakdowns ever committed to film. Charles Manson blamed The Beatles, Ida Lupino blamed the doors. Seeing Bogart as a family man is odd at first, the total opposite of his persona he would have in films such as those with Lauren Bacall. But he fits comfortably into the role, showing how adaptable an actor he was. George Raft is the weakest player out of the four stars, I’ve never saw Raft as much of an actor, but playing alongside these heavyweights manages to bring out the best in him.

What is the overall plot of They Drive By Night? There isn’t one; there’s no three act structure. It’s almost like getting two movies for the price of one, with the first half focusing on trucking and the second half focusing on a murder. Comparing the two you wouldn’t think this is the same movie, but the odd combination works and makes for a unique viewing experience.

 

White Heat (1949)

Get Up Stand Tall, Put Your Back Up Against the Wall

To date White Heat remains the only instance in which my first encounter with an actor instantly turned me into fan. Typically for me I become a fan of a performer over a period of time and after seeing a number of their films. Not James Cagney though. The scene early during White Heat in which Cody Jarrett gets a headache and needs to be comforted by his mother, my instant reaction was, “I need to watch any movie with this guy I can get my hands on”. I have no hesitation putting Cagney’s performance as Cody Jarrett in my ten favourite movie performance of all time. At this point in my movie watching life I had never seen an actor so on fire, so electrifying. His twitchy mannerisms, machine gun way of speaking his violence against women and possibly above all, his mother complex, exposing a unsettling, adorable side. Like wow, you do not want to be stuck in elevator with this guy. I would later discover White Heat came after the classic Warner Bros cycle of gangster movies, making White Heat a nostalgic revival of the genre, making Cody and his mother products of a different age. Margaret Wycherly as Ma Jarrett is the next great stand out performance for me, a character who appears as the stereotypical “aw shucks” mother common in classic Hollywood, but her attitude could not be more different.

Boy is this movie fast paced. White Heat is one of the few times my heart my beating so much out of how exciting the movie was. When the film was over I had the closest I could fell to that sense you get after coming of a rollercoaster, expect getting it from watching a movie. I feel that’s the best way to sum up White Heat, a rollercoaster of violence and emotions. Even the scenes of police officers discussing Cody’s psychological tendencies and the examination of their late 1940’s tracking techniques are riveting, but they do save the best for last. The Warner gangster movies ended with incredible final scenes with brilliant closing lines, White Heat’s may be the best of them all. I question if I’ll ever experience such a high level of movie watching euphoria on a first time viewing again.