With Miss Piggy socks on my tootsies and hot cocoa to my lips, I sat back in glorious expectation for a good old-fashioned movie night. The feature film was The Thief of Bagdad (’24) starring the dashing and athletic, Douglas Fairbanks.
The music from the grand orchestra began to fill the room, when the screen showed “Happiness must be earned” written in stars across the night’s sky. From that moment, I knew I was in for a treat!
Throughout the film, aside from Fairbanks’ elaborate escapades, the filmmakers expertly weaved in special effects that brought life to the story. There was a Pegasus who galloped across the sky, mermaids and a flying carpet! Another interesting aspect was that they used colored gels to indicate whether a scene was taking place at night, inside, etc.
The Aladdin-esque movie was filled with magical objects derived from folklore of the mysterious Middle East. Our hero, Ahmed (Fairbanks), was a thief who loved his work. His motto was, “What I want, I take!” and since he did a lot of wanting, he was a very busy crook.
His outlook on life changed, however, when he saw the beautiful Princess (awww…). The story works itself out, as our little thief faces numerous perils, defeats the villainous Mongolian Prince and flies off into the sunset on a magic carpet with the Princess in his arms.
It wasn’t that the story was so novel, or that the characters were exceptionally deep that caught my eye, though. What I found most enchanting about The Thief of Bagdad was how beautifully intricate the visual details were.
The massive sets had delicate facets that offered a larger-than-life quality. Unlike today’s movies with computer generated special effects, the movies of yore had to create the illusion of whatever scene they needed, using expertly crafted sets and specific camera angles.
Silent films, to me, are like a magic show in that everything is technically “real”. The horse might not have wings, but it is a real horse … the carpet might not fly, but they are really sitting on a carpet … and so on and so forth.
The trick is that these real things look like something they are not. It’s an illusion, and that’s what makes it so enthralling!
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t detest modern cinema. I do, however, feel that it lacks the sparkle of old-timey films. There was no green screen or computer animation to fall back on in the 1920’s, so filmmakers had to work very differently in order to fool the audience.
Granted, the acting is over the top and it’s not filmed in Technicolor (heaven forbid!), but that doesn’t mean these ancient masterpieces aren’t entertaining. Fairbanks effortlessly performs every jump, climb and flip, which is something you can’t say about most modern movie stars.
However, out of everything these classics have to offer, what I cherish most is how they manage to transport you to a different time. A time when the cinemas delivered magic and whimsy. Where your wildest dreams could be lived out on the big screen. That’s why I watch these silent antiques, and why I encourage others to do so too.
So, to all you movie mavens and magic aficionados, I beg you give Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin and the other silent greats a chance.
Once you enter their magical world, you too will discover that the unspoken word can speak volumes.