Welcome to Public Domain Theater, your home for the wonderful world of films that have (in the United States, at least) fallen into the public domain, and are free for everyone to see!
This month, we have for you one of the progenitors of the epic fantasy film. Before there was The Lord of the Rings, before there was Conan the Barbarian, before Ray Harryhausen so much as took the training wheels off his bike, there was The Thief of Bagdad! (original, 1924 version)
Loosely inspired by The One Thousand and One Nights (elements of a few specific stories are incorporated, but it’s more an adaptation of mood and style than of plot), it tells the tale of an unscrupulous thief who becomes smitten with a beautiful (natch) princess, and ends up becoming a better man as he seeks to win her hand in marriage, going on fantastical quests, hatching wild schemes, and even saving the city from an invading army.
This movie is simply a marvel to watch. The sets and costumes are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, the stuntwork is terrific, and the special effects (depicting everything from magic spells to giant monsters to cities in the cloud) are not amazing simply for an old, silent movie; they are amazing, period. And selling the whole thing is Douglas Fairbanks in the lead role, delivering a magnetic performance as he bounds through scenes with gymnastic grace, conveying the Thief’s mercurial nature through beautiful physicality. (He spends almost the whole film shirtless, too).
Often comic, often romantic, and always thrilling, The Thief of Bagdad is a film that (so long as you can overlook the Yellow Peril villains) provides a spectacular feast for the eyes.
To go along with this picture, we have another Hollywood attempt at adapting, less a specific Thousand and One Nights tale, but more the general idea of one. It’s the epic length (nearly 18 minutes!) animated short “Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves” (a spiritual sequel to “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor”). There are a couple bits where it leans into Middle Eastern stereotypes (though not as badly as you might expect from a 1930’s cartoon), but mostly it’s an excuse for Popeye to have yet another hyper-exaggerated slugfest with a musclebound jerk, and Fleischer Studios does their typically wonderful job at bringing the slapstick to logic-defying life.
So roll out the magic carpet, friends, and take a trip with me to a land of wonders and marvels, a land we call Public Domain Theater.