I don’t know what the newest film will be to play at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, but I’ll bet I know the oldest. The festival will show a digitally-restored print of the 1924 swashbuckling classic “The Thief of Bagdad,” starring screen legend Douglas Fairbanks.
It’ll likely be one of the most memorable screenings at the festival (April 11-18), akin to the Milwaukee Film Festival screening the restored “Metropolis” a couple of years back. But until then, the 2K restored version is out on Blu-ray this week from Cohen Media and is, in no uncertain terms, a stunner.
The restoration process, based off two original 35mm prints, took two months, and the result is a positively vivid picture. The sharp detail and depth of focus makes it look like one of those careful silent film recreations in “The Artist,” not a film that’s genuinely 89 years old. This may sound strange, but watching it, I could almost feel the wonder of early cinema, imagine how amazing it would have been for a 1924 audience to see lifelike characters moving around on a flat screen.
And the characters do a lot of moving around, especially Fairbanks; in the behind-the-scenes featurette accompanying the disc, historian Jeffrey Vance explains that there are relatively few on-set photos of Fairbanks simply because he was always in motion, moving too fast and too much for the still camera to capture him. His barrel-chested, broad-grinning dynamism shines through in “Thief,” considered his masterpiece, as he plays a lowly street thief who gets embroiled in a scheme involving a beautiful princess and an evil suitor. Fairbanks is lithe and graceful throughout — watch him shinny up a rope to a balcony to steal some food, or hang on the underside of a carriage, insouciantly grinning as he plucks the rings off the fingers of the unwise royal passenger snoozing within.
Using gigantic, expressionistic sets to invoke the palaces and minarets of a Bagdad that only exists in the imagination, along with state-of-the-1920s-art visual effects for the flying carpets, invisibility cloaks and other flights of fancy, this may be one of the first Hollywood films to justify the overused term “epic.” (Raoul Walsh is credited with directing, although it’s widely perceived that Fairbanks was the actual man in control.) Instead of stark black-and-white, the images recreate the original tints of the theatrical release, which means that the outdoor scenes have the yellow of old parchment, the night scenes a steely blue, the indoor scenes a lustrous pink.
Add in an absolutely fantastic full-orchestra score by composer Carl Davis that quotes liberally from the works of Rimsky-Korsakov, and you’ve got a true classic of early cinema brought back to its original glory.