Myths and legend tend to gather around these old Hollywood productions until it's mostly impossible to know the facts, but here is what's certain: in 1924, 40-year-old Douglas Fairbanks was in the midst of the run of '20s swashbucklers that made him one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and as one of the four founders of UA, he'd spent most of that decade writing and producing his own vehicles, allowing for a degree of control over his image that made him one of the wealthiest movie stars in the world. Somewhere in the early '20s, he picked up an idea to make a fantasy film, set in the legendary Baghdad of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. No expense would be spared in creating the finest special effects that had ever been put to film. And thus did the world receive the first visual effects epic in American filmmaking history, and by some accounts the first movie ever made with a seven-figure price tag: The Thief of Bagdad.

I cannot say if, as it is sometimes held, Fairbanks was influenced by the Italian, German and French experiments in epics and the fantastic, or if his goal was to establish Hollywood as those countries' superior in innovative visual experiences; I only know that with The Thief of Bagdad, Fairbanks kick-started the modern effects tentpole, ultimately giving birth to the modern American trend of massively expensive and profitable summer films that finance the whole year's worth of small adult-oriented dramas. Which Fairbanks surely couldn't have foreseen, although it's intriguing just how many of the sins of the modern blockbuster The Thief of Bagdad actually commits: it has a flimsy plot, thin characters, and the overall sense that we're just treading water waiting for the next wonder.

But such wonders they are! Admittedly, we must put on our "watching an 80-year-old movie" cap to fully engage with the film; but that done, the film has a joyful sort of grandeur that's basically dead in the modern cinema. Every set and every frame crackles with the naked desire to impress the audience, and most of them, they succeed. This was an early film for designer William Cameron Menzies (who would go on to, among other things, Gone with the Wind), and it's the kind of work that a career should be remembered for: the sets are a crazy mash-up of Art Deco and storybook Orientalism, never looking even a tiny bit realistic, not that it matters even a little bit.

Meanwhile, the director was one of the great unsung masters of the studio system, Raoul Walsh. His work here is perhaps not as mature as it would be in twenty years, nor does it show the imagination of many of his contemporaries, but it's far more than merely "serviceable." He keeps the story moving along at a quick pace - it feels much shorter than its two and a quarter hours - and the swift efficiency with which he ushers the story through some of its clunkier exposition is a godsend, keeping the movie from slowing down where it might have been fatal. God knows I'm not one of those people who bitches about how slow silent movies are, but without a steady hand guiding it, The Thief of Bagdad certainly has the sort of story that might have been a bit to meandering for its own good, in the early scenes.

Which is my cue for a plot recap? Sure. The thief (Fairbanks, and this is one of those silent movies where all the characters are "The Function," which I truly adore) is an amoral layabout in Bagdad (Baghdad? I'll stick with the vintage spelling) whose days consist of wandering the streets lifting food and money for the thrill as much as out of any real need, and whose nights consist of shooting the shit with his enfeebled thief roommate (Snitz Edwards). As our story begins, the thief notices a street magician with a magic rope that will hang in the air, and he endeavors to steal it almost immediately during that afternoon's call to prayer, loud-mouthed apostate that he is.

On a lark, he uses the rope to sneak into the palace of the Caliph (Brandon Hurst), and is prepared to abscond with some handfuls of jewels until he stumbles into the bed-chamber of the princess (Julanne Johnston), with whom he falls desperately in love before being found out by her Asiatic slave (Anna May Wong, in what I believe was her star-making role). Posing as a princely suitor the next day, he manages to get her to love him right back, but after the slave girl alerts her secret boss, the villainous Mongol prince (Sojin Kamiyama), he is thrown out once again, given a last chance at the princess's hand when she proposes that the three princes courting her all go on a quest to find the rarest treasure in the world. The thief is off to the fabled Mountains of Dread Adventure, where lies a cave of fire, a valley of monsters, a flying horse, and ultimately the prize that will win his true love.

There's a whole lot of plot recap there, for which I am sorry, but I needed it to make a point: for a film whose main draw is unabashedly the exotic adventures and the visual trickery found there, the movie takes its precious damn time getting there - 80 minutes out of 137 until the thief leaves on his adventure. In the meantime, there's a lot of him running around Bagdad, lengthy scenes introducing each of the princes and their entourages, more scenes of the thief running around Bagdad, and so forth. This isn't inherently a bad thing: if nothing else, Fairbanks's comically overblown acting style (15 years out of date by 1924) is a lot of fun to watch, especially when he's performing the various sleight-of-hand tricks that are the thief's stock in trade.

But there really didn't need to be so much of them. The unbearably obvious comparison is to Disney's Aladdin, which gets the thief and the princess together by minute 12, has the hero in the Cave of Wonders by minute 20, and has a full act and a half still to come by the time it reaches the approximate point that The Thief of Bagdad ends at around minute 40. Setting that aside, the first time Fairbanks flashes his shit-eating grin after dodging a guard or lifting a purse is funny and cute, but when he does it 15 times in an hour, it begins to get draggy.

But then there's the back half of the story, with its catalogue of visual miracles, and it's everything you've heard it is and want it to be. The effects range from charmingly dated (the giant waterbug puppet) to effective even in our post-CGI world (the second protracted magic carpet scene), but there are no straight-up failures. I have no doubt that it dazzled audiences in 1924, and while we're made of sterner stuff now, I like to imagine that it's at least a bit dazzling even now, for if you're the sort of person who seeks out silent films, you're the sort of person who isn't going to bitch about old movies having old filmmaking techniques. Besides, The Thief of Bagdad is play, trying to impress us with whiz-bang imagery and not with anything "clever" or "smart," and that kind of simple fun is something that we don't see much of in Thief's modern descendants.