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27 June 2015

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Yes, this week, we're back in Italy for the 29th Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna! One of this edition's sections is Technicolor & Co. It is a rediscovery of the original colour of film with a special celebration of Technicolor, which in 2015 turns 100! The section includes the last film made in Technicolor, The Thin Red Line (1998) by Terrence Malick, and the digital restoration of Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) in 3D, an ‘impossible’ restoration of a film that was not originally conceived in three dimensions. And today, there is that wonderful classic The Thief of Bagdad (1941) by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan. Alas, not all our postcards are in Technicolor.

The Thief of Bagdad
Italian programme card for Il Cinema Ritrovata 2011. Photo: publicity still for The Thief of Bagdad (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda, William Cameron Menzies, 1940) with June Deprez as the Princess and Conrad Veidt as Jaffar. Vivien Leigh was originally cast in the role of the Princess, but when, in late 1938, she won the part of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Producer Alexander Korda gave the role to Duprez.

The best Arabian Nights adventure ever


There have been several film versions of the story of the good-natured young thief of ancient Bagdad (as it was once spelled). Raoul Walsh made the first, silent, rendering of Thief of Bagdad in 1924, starring Douglas Fairbanks. Still a marvellously entertaining film.

But the best Arabian Nights adventure ever is the 1940's Technicolor version of The Thief of Bagdad. It has a startling, magical panoply of top quality special effects, which still work their charm after more than seventy years, a stellar cast and wonderfully catchy music. The Thief of Bagdad is simply one of the best fantasy films ever made. But who was the director?

Bruce Eder at AllMovie: "Essentially behind (the original director Ludwig) Berger's back, British director Michael Powell was brought in to shoot various scenes - and Powell's scheduled work grew in amount and importance whilst, in the meantime, Korda himself did his best to undercut Berger on his own set; and while publicly siding with Berger on the issue of the music, he also undercut Berger's chosen composer (Oscar Straus) by bringing in Miklos Rozsa and putting him into an office directly adjacent to Berger's with a piano, to work on a score. Eventually, Berger was persuaded to walk away from the project, and American filmmaker Tim Whalen, who had just finished work on another Korda-produced movie (Q Planes) was brought in to help augment Powell's work."

Producer Alexander Korda was so demanding that he went through six directors during the production of The Thief of Bagdad, including his brother Zoltan Korda and leading art director William Cameron Menzies. For the special effects, from a magic flying carpet to the gargantuan genie who pops out of a bottle with a tornado-like black swirl, two men were responsible: Lawrence W. Butler and Tom Howard. Both had long and distinguished careers in technical wizardry.

Bruce Eder: "Accounts by those involved have varied across the decades, but most maintained that hardly anything directed by Berger made the final cut; the film is considered a prime example of Powell's early output, displaying the wit, flair, and stylish camerawork that would inform his subsequent work."

Sabu in The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
German collectors card by Küno's Film-Foto in the series Der Dieb von Bagdad, no. 1, presented by Sparkasse bank. Photo: publicity still for The Thief of Bagdad (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, 1940) with Sabu as Abu.

John Justin and Sabu in The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
German collectors card by Küno's Film-Foto in the series Der Dieb von Bagdad, no. 2, presented by Sparkasse bank. Photo: publicity still for The Thief of Bagdad (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, 1940) with John Justin as Ahmad and Sabu as Abu.

A genie with an attitude


The Thief of Bagdad stars Sabu as the boy thief, Abu, the debuting John Justin as the dreamily in love prince Ahmad and young up-and-coming starlet June Duprez as the lovely princess sought by Ahmad and pursued by the evil vizier, Jaffar, played by a sinister Conrad Veidt. Rex Ingram plays the giant genie in the bottle who has an equally massive attitude.

The story focusses on Prince Ahmad, the rightful King of Bagdad. The idealistic prince wants to slum it amongst his people for a while to check things out. But the evil Vizier Jaffar takes his chance to imprison the beggar-prince and seize the throne.

Ahmad is cast into the palace dungeon where he meets Abu, the best thief in all Bagdad. Together they escape and make their way to Basra where Ahmad falls in love with the beautiful Princess.

However, Jaffar also journeys to Basra, for he desires the Princess. Her father, the Sultan (Miles Malleson, who also wrote the screenplay), is fascinated by the magical mechanical flying horse Jaffar offers and agrees to the proposed marriage. Upon hearing the news, the Princess, by now deeply in love with Ahmad, runs away.

The prince and thief are haunted by Jaffar. He magically blinds Ahmad and turns Abu into a dog. The spell can only be broken if Jaffar holds the Princess in his arms.

It's just the start of Ahmad and Abu's dazzling adventures that involve an all-seeing magic jewel, a giant spider, a flying carpet and that massive Djinn in a bottle.

Sabu in The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
German collectors card by Küno's Film-Foto in the series Der Dieb von Bagdad, no. 3 presented by Sparkasse bank. Photo: publicity still for The Thief of Bagdad (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, 1940) with Sabu.

Sabu in The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
German collectors card by Küno's Film-Foto in the series Der Dieb von Bagdad, no. 4, presented by Sparkasse bank. Photo: publicity still for The Thief of Bagdad (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, 1940) with Rex Ingram as the Djinn.

The tops of the actresses' costumes had to be buttoned up


Filming of The Thief of Bagdad began at London's Denham Studios, which had just merged with J. Arthur Rank's nearby Pinewood Studios.

Because of the Blitz, the production had to be relocated to Hollywood. There was such a long break in production, Sabu's early scenes had to be re-shot because he had grown several inches.

When filming began in the US, the stricter censorship codes of the Hays Office there were applied. One of the most obvious differences between the scenes shot in the UK and those filmed in the USA is that the tops of the actresses' costumes were buttoned up all the way to satisfy the Hays Office. That kind of clue makes it easier to identify the US-shot scenes than trying to spot differences in the sets.

The film won three Oscars: Production design by William Cameron Menzies and Vincent Korda, Cinematography by George Perinal and Special effects by Osmond Borradaile . Furthermore one nomination for the evocative and oriental musical score by Miklos Rozsa.


Trailer for The Thief of Bagdad (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, 1940). Source: Plamen Plamenov (YouTube).

Sources: Bruce Eder (AllMovie), Il Cinema Ritrovato 2015, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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