If The Thief of Bagdad is the earliest British Technicolor film to command wide affection and respect, this is surely a tribute to producer Alexander Korda’s vision, and sheer determination. As the first film from his new company, formed early in 1939, he wanted it to be the biggest and best of its kind. But what exactly was its kind? Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 version had long been a benchmark for Arabian Nights spectacle and thrilling effects. Now Korda wanted to make his mark, and the command to Vincent Korda, his brother and the resourceful art director, has become legendary: “build it four times as big and paint it all crimson!”.
With a knowing, often witty script by his longtime collaborators, Lajos Bíró and Miles Malleson (who also plays the Sultan), Korda’s main problem was injecting directorial vision. The German Ludwig Berger proved best at intimate scenes, so was sidelined as Hollywood veteran Tim Whelan and then Michael Powell were drafted in to create excitement. Powell revelled in his first experience of working on a big budget and in colour, and shot the scene with Sabu and the newly released Djinn on a South Wales beach. He also advised on painting the great eye on the prow of a ship that carries Conrad Veidt’s evil Jaffar, recalling the great actor’s beginnings in German expressionist horror. Chief cinematographer Georges Périnal was part of the Korda team since they arrived in Britain, and had already shot two of Korda’s ‘empire’ adventures in Technicolor, The Drum and The Four Feathers. But this required innovative matte work for the flying and fighting sequences and elaborate models for the Arabian Nights’ legendary Bagdad. Another Korda, Zoltan, contributed to direction when the production had to move to Hollywood on the outbreak of war; and another Hungarian, Miklós Rózsa, received an Oscar nomination for his charming score. Coming soon after The Wizard of Oz, and triumphantly released for Christmas 1940, Korda’s elaborate fantasy took Technicolor into new realms of artifice and poetry, “reaching boldly into a happy world”, as the “New York Times” put it, and lodging in the childhood memory of countless future filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
Cast and Credits
T. alt.: The Thief of Bagdad. An Arabian Fantasy in Technicolor. Scen.: Miles Malleson, Lajos Bíró. F.: Georges Périnal. M.: Charles Crichton. Scgf.: Vincent Korda. Mus.: Miklós Rózsa. Int.: Conrad Veidt (Jaffar), Sabu (Abu), June Duprez (la principessa), John Justin (Ahmad), Rex Ingram (Djin), Miles Malleson (il sultano), Morton Selten (il vecchio re), Mary Morris (Halima), Bruce Winston (il mercante), Hay Petrie (l’astrologo). Prod.: Alexander Korda per London Film Productions Ltd. · 35mm. Col.
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