"HAPPINESS must be earned" is the moral of the movie, written in the stars to open and close this epic. The emphasis is on "earn" and, boy, does this movie earn everything it gets.
This is a big movie, crammed to the brim, determined not to skimp on anything. In the center stands producer/storywriter/star Douglas Fairbanks, today mostly known as the original star of the Zorro and Robin Hood movies and the main inspiration for the revival silent film "The Artist." This was his most cherished role, and he's remarkable.
While his acting might lack the subtlety that modern movie lovers might look for, his winking charm and effortless athleticism more than make up for it. It's easy for audiences to miss how marvelous it is that he scales walls and slides around bad guys because of the post-production techniques that allow any star today to do the impossible. Fairbanks, lithe and smirking all-the-while, is his own special effect.
Of special note in the supporting cast is Anna May Wong, who was born in Los Angeles in a family of second-generation immigrants and became the first ethnic Chinese film star outside China.
Her life, including political activism in the US and China, and her frayed relationship with Hollywood and Chinese film critics, will fascinate anyone with even a passing interest in those subjects.
She plays a nameless "Mongol slave" to the princess of Bagdad. But even in her limited role, she catches your attention, admittedly in no small part due to her revealing outfit, one that would've likely been censored a few years later. Nevertheless, at only 19 years old, Wong's presence on screen is as magnetic today as it was to film-goers 90 years ago.
It's barely possible to cover even the basics of "The Thief of Bagdad" and its impact. Its presentation of a mystical Arabia influenced Western culture, including Disney's "Aladdin." The special effects bring to life the Indian rope trick and create a dragon. Fairbanks' role as producer and auteur in filmmaking was pioneering. And that just scratches the surface of the film's significance.
The greatness of "The Thief of Bagdad" is its scale.
It's fun to try to break it down, but better to take it in all at once.