Over the weekend: Shadoe Stevens mashes up Douglas Fairbanks' 'Thief of Bagdad' with the music of Electric Light Orchestra
On Saturday night at Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, radio personality/Craig Ferguson announcer/Fred E. Rated of Federated Group TV commericials and all-around-L.A. character Shadoe Stevens screened a project that he described in introductory remarks as "a lifelong obsesssion -- I don't know why": creating a new score to one of his favorite films, Douglas Fairbanks' landmark 1924 silent epic "The Thief of Bagdad," and pairing it with the music of 1970s British art rock band Electric Light Orchestra.
The movie, an early Hollywood masterpiece with stunning sets (by art director-set designer William Cameron Menzies) and gasp-inducing special effects, was made for a then-enormous budget of $2.5 million on six acres of empty Hollywood land, and tells the story of a skillful, cunning thief (Fairbanks) who roams the city of Baghdad in ancient times picking pockets, scaling walls (to sneak someone's dinner), falling in love with a princess (Julanne Johnson) and undertaking a journey that echoes the structure of Homer's "The Odyssey" to win her hand.
What Stevens described as a lifelong obsession is exactly that. He told the crowd at the Silent Movie Theatre that he constructed his first score for "Thief" in the early '80s, but that his son, Bradley, urged him in 1989 to revise it. With Bradley's help, Shadoe began again in 1997 to work on another -- definitive -- version.
In those early attempts, ELO was one of many artists Stevens employed for the new score. But then he had an epiphany.
"I finally siezed on the idea that everything that the Electric Light Orchestra did that was part of the movie was magic," he said, "and I had to figure out a way for the whole film -- almost 2½ hours -- to be all Electric Light Orchestra." The packed room, consisting of a healthy mix of ELO, Fairbanks and silent movie fanatics, erupted in applause. "And so we worked through the night in a borrowed studio -- for weeks! It's crazy. In the middle of the night, I'm ordering pizza at one in the morning going, 'Why am I doing this? I don't even know. I can't help myself.' "
After they finished it, the elder Stevens contacted Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who was fascinated by the idea, but was never able to see it; Stevens did screen it for ELO mastermind Jeff Lynne, however, who Stevens described as amazed. "He said, 'My God, it was like the music was written for the film.' And I said, 'I know!' " Big applause from the audience.
In the last few years, Stevens said there have been at least four other "definitive" versions ("I thought, 'I did it on iMovie. I can do it better on Final Cut' "), all of them leading up to the moment when Bradley, along with Cinefamily at Silent Movie Theatre's proprietor and programmer, Hadrian Belove, suggested screening Shadoe's creation. His response: "Are you kidding? I've been waiting 30 years for this!"
When Shadoe finished his intro, the lights darkened and the opening shot appeared: an Arabian boy sitting beneath a starlit desert sky, the smoke from a magic lamp rising into the air to spell the words, "Happiness must be earned."
Over the next two-plus hours, the grand, orchestral swells of classic ELO filled the theater while on the screen, our hero, the sculptured scoundrel Fairbanks, thieved and cunned his way through ancient Baghdad. When he meets his heart's desire, the daughter of the king, Stevens cued the band's gilded 1976 prog-rock classic, "Do Ya," and the audience applauded as Lynne sang the words:
In this life I've seen everything I can see woman,
I've seen lovers flying through the air hand in hand
I've seen babies dancing in the midnight sun,
And I've seen dreams that came from the heavenly skies above
I've seen old men crying at their own grave site
And I've seen pigs all sitting, watching picture slides
But I never seen nothing like you.
Throughout the screening, lyrics and music combined with the mise-en-scène to create magic. Before the thief departs on his journey, for example, Stevens used the song "The Diary of Horace Wimp," from the band's prog-disco classic "Discovery" (the cover of which features an Aladdin-looking boy holding in his hands the band's iconic UFO logo). As Fairbanks' thief prepares, the lyrics echo the storyline: "... go out and find yourself a wife/Make a stand and be a man/And you will have a great life plan."
And when Fairbanks' character flies through the air on the back of a Pegasus in one of the most gorgeous shots in early cinematic history, viewers hear ELO's hit "Mr. Blue Sky." On and on the music and film go; the band's early output featured many epic instrumentals, which Stevens uses to underscore drama, love, fear, danger and all the emotions in between.
When the screening was over, the crowd gave Stevens a deserved standing ovation for his astoundingly quixotic acheivement. He said he hopes to someday be able to officially release the film with his score, but many licensing and copyright hurdles will no doubt render such a task difficult, he added. But, as the film itself declares -- and Stevens' many "definitive" versions attest -- "Happiness must be earned."
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Douglas Fairbanks as "The Thief of Bagdad." Credit: Charles Warrington / AMPAS.