- Thieves of Baghdad:Transnational Networks of Cinema and Anime in the 1920s
From Waxworks to The Thief of Bagdad
Although cinema has been a transnational cultural form from the very beginning of its history, it has often emerged as a national cinema, formed by specific discourses on nationalism and modernization. This essay examines both the transnational and the national aspects of the 1926 Japanese animated film Bagudajō no tōzoku (The Thief of Baguda Castle) by Ōfuji Noburō. As the film's title indicates, Ōfuji's work was based on The Thief of Bagdad, the 1924 American feature film by Raoul Walsh, which was in turn inspired by Paul Leni's German film Waxworks that was released in the same year. According to the film scholar Miriam Hansen, "To write the international history of classical American cinema . . . is a matter of tracing not just its mechanisms of standardization and hegemony but also the diversity of ways in which this cinema was translated and reconfigured in both local and translocal contexts of reception."1 This essay is one such attempt to write "both local and translocal" history of cinema on how narratives cross national, cultural, and generic frontiers and how they are received and appropriated. Comparing the Japanese and American versions reveals some significant similarities between the two [End Page 83] contexts. The similarities have to do with the pressures that nationalisms exert on tales that are overtly marked as foreign. The two versions are parallel instances of a shared cinematic nationalism but in different national contexts.
First, how could The Thief of Bagdad be located in the context of cinematic nationalism in the United States? The Walsh film partook of "Americanization" discourses of the 1920s. When The Thief of Bagdad was released in the United States, the renowned American poet and popular lecturer during the temperance movement, Vachel Lindsay-who was also a radical critic of white supremacy, even though it was commonly assumed that his view about race relations in America was too naive-expressed his excitement about the Americanization of the Arabian fairy tale by Douglas Fairbanks: "As he [Fair-banks] mounts his horse and rides across the plains, throwing sand and so calling up men from the ground, it is surely the Douglas Fairbanks gesture of triumph carried back into the days of the dream world of the Arabian Nights, and he is indeed a fairy tale hero, as fairy tales are read by American boys under the shadow of the Star Spangled Banner. . . . This is the American Art."2
Americanization was in fact a significant issue in the production of The Thief of Bagdad. In the 1920s, there was a boom in Hollywood to produce films set in the exotic Middle East or Asia and to build oriental-style movie palaces. This orientalist trend, however, was not meant to provide any subversive messages to the American film viewers, especially on the issues of race and sexuality. Instead, after the scandal of the silent comedy star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Hollywood was in the middle of various attempts to acquire cultural legitimacy for middle-class audiences.
Under these conditions, Waxworks was excellent material for making another orientalist film, but it also was too foreign to be simply remade in Hollywood.3Waxworks is composed of three episodes. A young poet visits a wax museum and writes a story about each of the wax figures. The first episode is about Caliph Haroun al-Raschid in Baghdad, who does not believe in monogamy and loves a different woman every day.4 He sneaks out of his castle to seduce a young baker's wife who is not satisfied with her life in poverty. The baker cuts off the caliph's hand and steals his magic ring to accommodate his wife's wish. Eventually, it turns out that the hand the baker cut off is that of the caliph's wax figure. In the end, the caliph gives her up and becomes a guardian of the young couple.
The seduction of other men's wives by the "Fatty"-looking caliph, despite being played by the renowned actor Emil Jannings; the murder attempt out of greed (or, the symbolic...