Thursday, March 31, 2016

Harness My Zebras

"Harness my zebras - gift of the Nubian King."
So sayeth Mary of Magdala, who was a bit miffed that her fave hunk was off gallivanting around the countryside with some carpenter.
Oh, the shame.

Which means that the big old fashioned Hollywood epics have been showing again somewhere in the recesses of memory, as well as on the tv, and on my wall. That video projector I gave myself for Christmas has reignited my on again off again affair with one of my first loves, the Hollywood movie; as well as the offshoot subgenre, the Hollywood Movie Spectacular (usually with special effects for things like giant apes, cataclysms, flying carpets, various and sundry miracles, etc.).

A little over a week ago, my attempt to gain useable space in my DVR resulted in watching the 1924 silent version of 'The Thief of Bagdad'. I have the 1940 version waiting as well, he bragged with a happy feeling that found visible expression in a sly smile of delight. It's been years since I've seen either. The silent version is a sort of major Hollywood studio super colossal big budget auteur epic. Produced by its star, Douglas Fairbanks, the director's credit is given to Raoul Walsh but it was Fairbank's project all the way. (He wrote the script under a pseudonym.) The releasing studio was United Artists, which had been formed a few years earlier to give greater artistic control of its product (and, needless to say, financial participation) to its principals; Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford (Mrs. Fairbanks at the time), Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith.

How big is that set? See along the bottom area of the picture? Those little forms are actors.
The sets, among the largest ever built, were constructed for Fairbanks' 1922 production of 'Robin Hood', and said to be 10 stories in height. They were redesigned into an art nouveau Bagdad by William Cameron Menzies. The walls of old Bagdad were later re-used for the gate to King Kong's part of Skull Island. The set was ultimately burned to ashes as a stand in for Atlanta in 'Gone With the Wind'. Those scenes of that particular epic, by the way, were directed by William Camron Menzies. It is said that among the old sets burned for 'GWTW' were parts of a set used in the silent 'King of Kings'. I have not yet figured out if the silent movie Jerusalem was another redressed variation of Nottingham/Bagdad revisited or just how the 'King of Kings' (via DeMille and Paramount studios) got into that conflagration. When I was in my teens, I read that the Kong gates were originally from the Babylon set of the 1916 epic 'Intolerance'. I've since read that the Intolerance sets, which were left standing after filming ended (i.e. the money ran out) were taken down in 1919. I guess Hollywood history is a lot like Hollywood versions of history. A major shopping center, which includes an 'event' theatre (where tv shows like the Academy Awards are staged) now sits on the site that was once ancient Babylon (at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenues in Los Angeles), while Nottingham castle/Bagdad (and maybe Jerusalem) were at Santa Monica Blvd. and North Formosa Avenue, several blocks to the southwest. 

Nottingham Castle on the Pickford-Fairbanks lot.

Two years after the set was built for Robin Hood, it became Bagdad.
As a by the by kind of thing, Pickford and Fairbanks had purchased the former Jesse Hampton studio for their productions. It later became the United Artists lot. In the sound era, Joseph Schenck and Samuel Goldwyn filmed there, adding offices and sound stages for productions like 'Wuthering Heights'. The dual ownership status became a problem after the land and studio buildings were left to various inheritors. The courts, in settling the various claims and lawsuits, forced a sale. For a time it was owned by Warner Bros. An independent rental facility known as "The Lot" now occupies part of old Bagdad. Other parts of the former Pickford-Fairbanks studio are now used for an apartment house, a water processing plant, and various retail stores. Among the productions which filmed there are "The Best Years of Our Lives", "The Bishop's Wife", the Roy Rogers tv show, "Guys and Dolls", "Some Like It Hot", 'The Apartment",. "West Side Story", "Apocalypse Now", and in some odd turn of fate, "Robin Hood - Men in Tights".
The Fairbanks 'Thief' is a heck of a lot of fun, but it is definitely best seen on as big a screen as possible. Camera positions constantly shift from intimate close-ups of the principals to shots intended to show the enormity of the sets; human figures are so dwarfed in some shots that one might assume the humans were miniatures. They weren't - the sets were that big. It doesn't help that the aspect ratio is assumed to be 1.33:1 (which is what is listed on the Internet Movie Database). At the time, a 1:1 ratio was common. Printing the film (or showing it) using 1:33:1 thus cuts off a small portion of the frame. Usually, it is the top of the frame that goes missing in such situations. With the Fairbanks Thief, however, the height is kept for effect, while the bottom of the picture frame is impacted. For example - in the shot below the thief, while trying to become worthy of the hand of a Princess, is tempted by sirens in a scene of only a few seconds duration, part of a larger underwater sequence.

The set for this scene took months to build - the art nouveau seaweed and jellyfish were made of cut glass.
Sadly, the bottom of the picture is cut off - I assume due to the wrong aspect ratio being used.

The art nouveau design definitely creates a texture  and feel that is different from all other film versions of the tales. It's old Bagdad in context of a slightly fevered Maxfield Parrish dream. I have read that Fairbanks initially wanted to hire Parrish to do the design work. Here's one of William Cameron Menzies sketches, part of a set he produced in a weekend's time to persuade Fairbanks to hire him.

Fairbanks was around 40 when production work began, and while he still looked pretty good, and wore costumes that accented his (ahem) assets, he was getting a little long in the tooth for such roles. Still, he had a field day jumping and dancing around enemies and situations with the abandon of his younger self. Most of the time it's a most enjoyable and naturalistic performance, marred only on a couple of occasions by old silent film pantomime techniques such as scratching the palm or grasping at the air to denote the thief's desire to obtain something for his own. It's not that such actions spoil any of the proceedings, it's more that such things are so startling in otherwise fluid storytelling that they become minor distractions.

The storyline rambles all over the place in a most delightful fashion as our hero undergoes transformation and various quests. (Well what did you expect? What good are heroes without quests?) Along the way are rival suitors, a hiss-able villain (an evil Mongol prince), descents into brutality (the whipping of a man over a minor bit of thievery, and a later whipping of the titular thief), dragons and other monsters (my favorite being a giant underwater spider), valleys of fire, a crystal ball, flying horses, flying carpets, armies from grains of sand - so much in fact that viewers have a tendency to offer audible gasps of astonishment, and mutter "What now?" or "You gotta be kidin' me" in sympathy with our hero as he approaches his next challenge.

The whipping of a small time thief
 Taking on an attacking underwater spider (from an untinted print)
 The Mongol villain (boo- hiss) (the following inter-title gives an idea of his evil ways)

The print shown on the Turner Classic Movies channel was easily the best quality I've seen on this title, made up from two sources, from what I gather. The tints seem slightly strong when viewed television sized, but blown up in projection are subtle, lovely, and add much to the atmosphere. This version had an orchestral score which utilized themes from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. From a quick look online I did a month or two ago, there are (I think) two versions out there on DVD/BluRay which have orchestral scores - one using a small orchestra in a reading of the original score sent to theatres (which used Rimsky-Korsakov) and the version I'm writing about which came form the Cohen group which has a Carl Davis score, which also utilizes the Rimsky-Korsakov themes.

When originally shown in the big city theatres, Fairbanks had the various movie palaces scented with perfumes, with extra atmospherics provided by performers who chanted the call to prayer, costumed to enhance an Oriental mood.

It was also fun to watch both the silent 'The King of Kings' (1927), and the sound 'King of Kings' (1961) later in the same week. I'd quite forgotten the physical brutality of the first part of the Nicholas Ray version. This time around, I kept noticing that playing Jesus Christ got a little iffy for the actors involved, as both productions are short on character development. Just the same, the silent version (as noted at the link above) opens with the zebra drawn chariot, and ends with the resurrection as the world explodes into two strip technicolor as though we have all landed in Oz. I saw the 1961 version in 70mm Super Technorama back when. (Super Technorama was an anamorphic widescreen process using film exposed to run through the projector in a vertical manner rather than horizontal - similar to Todd-AO. The idea was to provide widescreen without using lenses which could adversely affect the image. So of course they added anamorphic lenses to it.) When I first saw it, I thought it dwelled too much on the politics of the time, and wanted it to get on to miracles and stuff. Nowadays the political parts seem to go by rather quickly (Barabbas is a revolutionary plotting the overthrow of the Roman state in Judea). (There was, by the way, another movie released in 1961 with Anthony Quinn as "Barabbas". My memory of it is not clear, but clear enough that I no desire to refresh my memory of it.) Plus, the 1961 version has that glorious Miklós Rózsa score - one feels sanctified just by listening to it.

Last night I finally caught up with the Bing Crosby "Pennies From Heaven". I've got company coming, so I'll have to make reference notes later - along with notes on several other movies I've watched recently, either for the umpteenth time, or for the first, i.e. "Boyhood", "The Third Man", "Mark of the Vampire", the 1929 "Bulldog Drummond", "Dracula A.D. 1972" (and "Dracula, Prince of Darkness"), the 1933 "Alice in Wonderland", and a few others I am embarrassed to admit I can't think of at the moment. Hopefully, I'll remember what I wanted to note.


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