Under the heading of “Exceptional Films of every Era and Many Lands” comes The Thief of Bagdad (UK & USA 1940). As it was being readied for filming, Hitler was signing alliances with Italy and Japan; had sent troops to occupy Austria in 1938; then invaded Ukraine in 1939. Both Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany after the Nazis began occupying Poland in 1939.
That war would again ravage most of Europe was clear to many, including the Korda brothers who were 1930s Hungarian emigres to England, Alexander (1893–1956) had worked in Hungarian, Austrian and German film industry prior to his British-American career as a producer-director and founder of London Films. Zoltan (1895–1961) was a screenwriter, film editor, cameraman and director. Vincent (1897–1979) was an art director and production designer. All three worked both in tandem and separately. The Thief of Bagdad was one of their joint efforts.
Years after the Korda film was first made, the influential movie critic Roger Ebert wrote “The film was a breakthrough in technique and vision, influential in shaping the entire genre. There are few effects in Star Wars (1977) that cannot be found in Thief. Some of them, such as blue screen [the predecessor of today’s green screen] were still being perfected.”
Dismissing the warning that too many cooks spoil the broth, the Kordas deployed six cameraman, five special-effects magicians, five scenic artists, three producers, and six (!) directors. There was a lot of ground to cover: Painted Desert, Blue Mesa Badlands and Grand Canyon in Arizona to the Welsh coast and the Cornwellian peninsula at the south-west tip of Britain to multiple rented studio facilities in Hollywood. Yet the Kordas gave a coherent production.
Miles Malleson, one of Thief’s screenwriters also played the elderly toy-besotted Sultan. The inevitable beggar-prince and cloistered princess were played by John Justin and June DuPrez. Rex Ingram played the giant genie.
Like the Kordas themselves, the two primary stars of The Thief of Bagdad were immigrants. Sabu (Abu) was a fatherless stable boy discovered by a British film crew in Mysore. The 12-year-old boy was hired for a small role in Elephant Boy. An instinctive talent, he proved convincingly suited to the camera and his role grew larger. He became the first Asian Hollywood heartthrob since Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong. Sabu died, age 39, of a heart attack.
The villainous Jaffer was played by Conrad Veidt (1893–1943), who also died of a heart attack, at age 50—a year after playing the Nazi Colonel Strasser in Casablanca. Veidt donated most of his life savings and his salary from his Hollywood and British films to Britain’s war effort against Nazi Germany.
Veidt was the Weimar Republic’s most important movie star, and after Hitler took over, Veidt refused to work with Nazis. In love and solidarity with his Jewish wife (with whom he would live the rest of his life) Veidt claimed to be Jewish on his own passport (he wasn’t) and they left for Britain in 1933.
Veidt wasn’t fearless; he was brave—even as an actor. He played despicable Nazis in his late 1930s and early 1940s English and Hollywood films despite his contempt for Nazis, becoming as typecast as were Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi and Sidney Greenstreet.
Most of Veidt’s great roles, though, were in the silent film era: his musician in 1919’s Different from Others, regarded as the first sympathetic film portrayal of a homosexual; Ivan the Terrible in Waxworks (1934), another musician in The Hands of Orlac (1924); and the cruelly disfigured The Man Who Laughs (1928); but it is the enduring memory of his Somnambulist in 1920s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and its avant-garde WWI German Expressionist art design that remains paramount for those of us who admire Conrad Veidt, the actor and man.
A fine Technicolor copy of The Thief of Bagdad can be watched free of charge online here:
Movies in the Mountains (in Exile) is presented for The Independent by Frank Cullen, published historian and novelist, cofounder of the American Vaudeville Museum, and 2011 recipient of NYC Theatre Museum Award for Excellence in the Preservation Theatre History. Send inquiries and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.