Gracefulness isn't a prized commodity in contemporary fantasy-adventure films, so to see 1924's The Thief of Bagdad, one of the pioneering films of the genre, is to be transported not just to a distant land but also to a bygone era of silent cinema when mainstream entertainment could be this unashamedly balletic. Director Raoul Walsh's film, now showing in a restored print, follows the exploits of the titular thief (Douglas Fairbanks, at his most impossibly pretty) as he tries to woo an Arabian princess (Julanne Johnston). Because this is a movie and not real life, those attempts at courtship don't involve dinner dates and heartfelt talks but, rather, a series of physical challenges in order to acquire an elusive magic chest. The Thief of Bagdad 's three major selling points -- William Cameron Menzies's exceptional larger-than-life sets; Hampton Del Ruth's innovative special effects; and Fairbanks's grinning, athletic exuberance -- remain undiminished after 85 years, but what comes across strongest is the film's striking tonal contrast to the many popcorn movies that have followed in its path. Granted, the thief's arduous quest recalls the videogame plotting of modern-day action films, and Walsh's emphasis on spectacle over character has become a genre staple, but The Thief of Bagdad 's dashing, boyish charm displays none of the machismo overkill or kid-friendly preciousness that coarsens so many of its spiritual descendants. At a time when big-budget blockbusters are only getting more juvenile, The Thief of Bagdad stands apart as a wonderfully grownup adventure film: sweet of spirit, fleet of foot, and so delightfully quaint that for younger viewers its old-fashioned romantic sweep and wide-eyed joy will feel positively revelatory.
Fri., March 20, 7:30 p.m., 2009