"The Thief of Bagdad: An Arabian Nights Fantasy" (1924), Blu-ray. An E One Entertainment / Cohen Media Group release from 2013.
Video on this one is 1080p/24, Tinted Black & White, presented in 4:3 Aspect Ratio. This is a Silent Film, accompanied on this disc by a modern orchestral score from Carl Davis, offered in both DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM 2.0, 48kHz 24-bit.
Extras include an excellent Commentary track from Douglas Fairbanks Biographer, Jeffrey Vance.
Also included are a 17 minute, auto advance (with music) slide show of rare production stills and behind the scenes stills, and the 2012 Trailer for the restoration. All the Extras are well worth the time.
At both the start and end of the film: "It is written in the stars: Happiness Must Be Earned"
Wow! THIS is why we watch restored classic films!
Douglas Fairbanks' fantasy epic is presented here in a new digital restoration; the first output from the Cohen Media Group's acquisition of the famed, Rohauer Film Collection in 2011. This is a new, 2K scan made from two, separate, acetate dup negatives, struck from original nitrate prints in the 50s. The scan has been treated to extensive digital restoration, and digital tinting matching the original print instructions. And the results are flat out terrific!
Fairbanks, a co-founder of United Artists, and first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was an early advocate for filmmaking being treated, taught, and PRESERVED as "Art". He made sure his own personal archives were donated to the Museum of Modern Art, which still holds the original nitrate negative of this film. All this in a period when Silent Films were widely assumed to have NO commercial value after their original, Theatrical release ended.
Although it is still imaginable MOMA might be able to retrieve all or part of the film from that original, nitrate negative, the likelihood is the ravages of nitrate decomposition will have made that a long shot at best. And thus the dup negatives from Rohauer may very well represent the best surviving source elements.
The original, nitrate prints used to strike those dup negatives were of the full-length, "Road Show" version of the film -- all of 2 1/2 hours long. And that's WITHOUT any credits! Road Show screenings of prestigious "Photo Plays" were produced like Broadway stage presentations (and priced to match). Upper crust audiences -- all dressed to the nines -- were given program books on the way in. And thus, on-screen credits were considered unnecessary!
Despite Fairbanks' efforts to preserve the physical film itself, the actual copyright on the film was allowed to lapse -- again, under the assumption films had no residual, commercial value. And thus many bad prints, of varying length, were eventually made for "revivals", TV presentation, and home media -- often with no tinting or (even worse) bad tinting.
There are no such problems in THIS transfer! PQ is amazing for the vintage: Rock solid in the frame, expertly tinted, and with detail so fine you can actually see the strands of piano wire suspending the "flying carpet" from its massive, 90 foot crane! Now, the lenses and film stock of the time didn't allow for modern levels of detail, but I don't think anyone watching this is going to have any complaints on that score. It is also clear the digital restoration was done with due care not to blur the film with full-on noise reduction. Grain is well preserved and there is a patina of fine scratches which remain. (Presumably removing them would have done more harm than good.) The image is not "perfect" from end to end -- that would be hoping for too much magic -- but it is darn close to perfect! There is some light pulsing of contrast in a few scenes, and at a few rare points the image degrades briefly in what looks like frame damage, or possibly the degradation of looking through splicing tape.
The audio track is a modern, full orchestral score composed and conducted by Carl Davis, and based on themes from Rimsky-Korsakov (e.g., "Scheherazade"). It was recorded in the 90s. I've not been able to find details on how that recording was done. Blu-ray.com suggests the Stereo LPCM track on this disc is a down-mix. But to my ears it sounds like the Stereo is the original and the 5.1 track is processed up from that. In any event they both sound excellent, with the 5.1 track heavily front-staged. My preference is for the 2.0 LPCM track.
Recent findings from the Fairbanks archives have established the true production cost of this film at just under $1.2M (in 1920s dollars). As astoundingly large a figure as that was for filmmaking of the time, it is only HALF the OVER $2M film historians had previously guessed it cost Fairbanks to make this film! The spectacle which actually ended up on screen looks just that expensive!
To pull this off, Fairbanks' studio refaced, expanded and heightened existing sets from his "Robin Hood". The "Bagdad" set evidently still holds the record as the tallest and most widespread set ever constructed in Hollywood. Fairbanks was so proud of it, he had a big "BAGDAD" sign erected over it afterwards to make it harder for other filmmakers to steal shots using it!
As big as it was, they also used optical illusion tricks -- such as painting the upper portions darker colors and using reflective flooring -- to make it look even bigger on screen. And then they expanded on THAT with glass matte shots! Fairbanks was a big fan of such special effects shots (all of which had to be done "in camera" at the time) and used ALL the tricks in making this film. He also filled his screen with a cast of thousands: Literally -- over 3,000 extras in some shots. To do THAT the studio sent buses through Los Angeles each day with signs offering people free rides to see Fairbanks shooting a film. These became his extras. 100s had to be turned away!
Production design was by a young William Cameron Menzies, direction by Raoul Walsh. As big as these names CAME to be, at the time they were just establishing themselves, and indeed it was Fairbanks himself who took control over every aspect of the film -- even to the extent of personally approving the hiring and costuming of each of those extras!
At first look -- to modern eyes -- Fairbanks' performance on screen looks bizarre! Mugging at the camera and striking poses which show off his shirtless physique. This goes beyond the stagey, "over acting" typically associated with Silent Films.
But any snickers are rapidly dispelled once you see him move! As the Commentary correctly points out, his performance is more like a dance than stage acting. Every pose, and every motion, is part of the story.
And there's no denying the physicality of his performance! Watch him running and leaping about, balancing from railings, gliding up stairs. It's hard to believe he was 40 years old at the time this film was shot! (He would die of a heart attack just 15 years later.) Consider one iconic scene where he is shown escaping from pursuers by jumping into and out of enormous Persian urns -- each taller than an adult. That's actually him jumping between those -- no camera tricks. Each urn had a small trampoline placed inside. He had to practice for MONTHS to develop the necessary height and accuracy to do this stunt!
This is a long film, but the time flies by. (Although it's reported audiences at the time thought the mushy bits rather too long: They wanted to see nothing but Fairbanks doing stunts!) At the 1 1/2 hour mark you've seen Fairbanks fully establish his credentials as Bagdad's "prince of thieves". You've seen him scaling shear walls, outwitting pursuers, climbing "magic rope" and stealing everything that isn't nailed down (and even some of that). You've ALSO seen him impersonating a Prince and attempting to abduct the Princess of Bagdad. You've seen him unmasked, flogged, and undone by the surprise that he's fallen in love with the Princess.
And you've STILL got an hour to go!
And THAT hour has all the really BIG, action set pieces!
My gosh, they just don't make 'em like THIS anymore!
That quote in the stars, above, is the moral of the film. Fairbanks' thief starts off purely out for himself; he takes what he wants. The TRUE villain of the piece -- the Mongol Prince -- also takes what HE wants. But Fairbanks' love for the Princess brings a change the Mongol Prince will never achieve -- the thief learns true happiness must be earned.
There's some wonderful, silent screen, character acting rounding out this story. Comedian Snitz Edwards plays "His Evil Associate" - no kidding, that's his character title -- and provides the necessary foil for Fairbanks' antics. Julanne Johnston is The Princess. The Mongol Prince (a deliciously sinister Sôjin -- the actor went by that single name) is aided by the lovely and treacherous Mongol Slave girl in the Princess' retinue (an early and truly outstanding performance by Anna May Wong).
As I said at the start, WOW! This is one of a very few films I've cued up to play a SECOND time immediately after it finished! This is must see stuff.