Douglas Fairbanks in 'The Thief of Baghdad.'
Mary Evans/Ronald Grant Archive/Everett Collection

Of all the swashbucklers featuring the swinging king of the silents, Douglas Fairbanks, none is more fanciful and dreamlike than The Thief of Bagdad. In this One Thousand and One Nights-inspired escapade, the suave, wiry Fairbanks is Ahmed, a devil-may-care thief who delights in stealing whatever he wishes, wheeling through the city in a pair of billowing chiffon pants, heedless of the laws of God or man or anyone who insists men shouldn’t wear printed silk. While the upstanding citizens of the city are distracted by their daily prayers, he steals a magic rope, a whatnot with a thousand and one nefarious uses. But his plans swerve when he falls in love with a stunningly beautiful princess (Julanne Johnston): he must win her love, even if that means outwitting her watchful servant (played by a very young Anna May Wong). The Thief of Bagdad, director Raoul Walsh’s breakthrough film, cost roughly $1.14 million, a small fortune at the time, and took 65 weeks to make. Audiences adored it, and even today, it’s easy to see why. (Fairbanks and some of the other actors wore brown makeup in their roles, not uncommon at the time, as unacceptable as it would be today.) The special effects may be technically primitive by today’s standards, but that doesn’t diminish their enchantment. In the final sequence, Fairbanks’ Ahmed whisks his beloved through the sky on a flying carpet, his arms crossed jauntily, as the stars reassemble themselves to spell out a final message: “Happiness must be earned.” Sometimes, though, it arrives in the form of a somersault, a mischievous silent cackle, or a silky little rug soaring on an air current, defying science in the name of delight.

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