Distributed by United Artists
Directed by Lewis Mileston
Cast: William Boyd (W. Dangerfield Phelps III), Mary Astor (Mirza), Louis Wolheim (Sergeant Peter O'Gaffney), Ian Keith (Shevket), Michael Vevitch (The Emir). M. Visatoff (The Skipper), Boris Karloff (The Purser), DeWitt Jennings (American Consul)
Photoplay said, "This is a real comedy." (1) The New York Times called it a "genuinely clever comedy," (2) and Harrison's Reports simply began their review with "Good!" (3)
The reviews of the time for Howard Hughes' second production effort seemed to all agree that "Two Arabian Knights" (1927) was good comedy. Viewing today supports that opinion; however, don't be led to believe it comes anywhere close to the Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd caliber of comedy.
Of course, the stars - William Boyd and Louis Wolheim - were not known as comedians in the silent era, and so that makes this film all the more enjoyable because the humor is subtle and underplayed and arises from the situations - not exaggerated expressions or corny visuals. The story was written by Donald McGibney, a negligible name in cinema history, and was obviously patterned after the famous "What Price Glory" which was released the previous year. The constant bickering of the two soldiers and vying for the girl are all too familiar from the more famous screen offering. According to Photoplay's reviewer, director Lewis Milestone was given a dramatic script and turned it into the comedy we now have. If that is true, the film is all the better for it. Although an enjoyable tale, one cannot imagine the storyline being strong enough to carry a serious note throughout.
Boyd is W. Dangerfield Phelps III, of a wealthy Philadelphia family, and Wolheim is Peter O'Gaffney, who, we learn, is a small-time crook who apparently has found refuge in the army. The film gets off to a rousing start as we are shown a very realistic nighttime battle scene, rain pouring and nothing but mud all around. Phelps jumps into an unusually deep bomb crater and find another soldier lying unconscious, covered in mud. He goes to help him, but when he realizes it is Sergeant O'Gaffney, he pushes the sergeant's face back down angrily and throws mud in his face. Of course, when O'Gaffney awakes, they end up in a fistic battle that continues until O'Gaffney, lying on his back, looks up and sees a proportionately spaced circle of Germans around the top of the hole, guns and bayonets extended in perfect unity. Milestone framed an excellent shot from O'Gaffney's perspective looking up at the imposing sight. The added touch of a flare bursting overhead makes the shot all the more impressive.
A significant portion of the film from this point on involves the escape of the two doughboys. As noted, Milestone provided us with believable realism in the opening battle scene, and he continues to ensure that "Two Arabian Knights" is a quality production in every way. The German prisoner of war camp is a well-made set, the barracks appearing appropriately rough and scruffy, snow covering the ground and the intense cold of the night indicated by the steam from Wolheim's and Boyd's breath as they talk. They escape from the camp by overpowering and taking the white, hooded cloaks of two Turks in the camp. This allows them to crawl through the snow, under the electrified fence undetected by the tower guard. Unfortunately, as they are walking through the woods, they accidentally fall right in line with a large number of Turkish prisoners, and they German guards think they are simply a straying part of the group. Next we see them make a daring escape from a train which is transporting them to Constantinople by diving from the boxcar into a hay wagon. Buried in the hay, they are deposited into the hold of a ship bound for Arabia.
It is on the ship that we encounter the beautiful and very young (she was 21 at the time) Mary Astor as the Arabian princess Mirza. Why she is on a small boat with a makeshift sail alongside this freighter, we do not know. However, the small boat capsizes dumping her and several others into the ocean, and Phelps and O'Gaffney dive in to rescue her.
The events taking place on the ship provide several entertaining moments. Unconscious, Mirza is taken by the despicable Turkish captain to a cabin. His intentions are made clear by the panning of the camera from her feet, along her body, to her head - so the viewer may see how the skipper is talking a lustful view of his unexpected passenger. Of course, Phelps and O'Gaffney are soon vying to be the first to see her without her veil, and their shenanigans to outsmart each other provide some of the film's most humorous moments. For example, the two are waiting for their clothes to dry after their rescue plunge - both intending to go check on Mirza as soon as the clothes are wearable. O'Gaffney gets the idea that he will go into the bath, close the door, and soak Phelps' uniform in the tub so he can get out the door faster. Phelps catches on, and once O'Gaffney is fully dressed to go, he pushes the sergeant into the tub full of water.
Later, we see Phelps on deck with Mirza and O'Gaffney inside the cabin in his tunic and long johns looking for his pants. Later we find out that Phelps was wearing his own pants AND O'Gaffney's!
This hidden pants routine evolved into more humor when Mirza goes back to her cabin, turns on the light, and finds the captain waiting for her in the dark. She screams, and the two doughboys burst in. After getting the captain out, Phelps takes the shaken Mirza over to sit on the bed. (Now, a little background is needed for the joke that's about to come.) For quite awhile aboard the ship, Mirza would not let on to the guys that she knew English. As a matter of fact, Phelps had learned of her ability to speak English only just moments ago when they were on deck. O'Gaffney still didn't know she could speak English and stands there in her cabin spewing forth something about the captain (there are no intertitles) obviously laced with profanities. Phelps makes a face and covers Mirza's ears. We can tell from O'Gaffney's expression that he is questioning, "What does it matter?" since she doesn't know English. At that moment, Mirza states in perfect English, "I quite agree with him." O'Gaffney is startled and embarrassed. Realizing his embarrassment, she goes over and takes his hand, but then begins to laugh uncontrollably - so much so that she has to leave the room. O'Gaffney looks at Phelps with a quizzical "What is she laughing at?" Phelps points down at his companion's legs - O'Gaffney had come out without ever finding his pants!
The next day a boat arrives at the ship to take Mirza home. This is the first encounter between Phelps and Mirza's betrothed - Shevket Ben Ali - played handsomely and threateningly by Ian Keith. No words are exchanged - the two simply glare at one another - no words necessary.
The final section of the film involves the boys' efforts to get to Mirza. The captain of the ship has gone to the American Consulate because O'Gaffney "rolled" (as in "robbed) his purser, so they can't go there for help. Shevket tells Mirza's father that the "infidels" have seen Mirza without her veil, so the father declares that they must dies. However, the boys unwittingly and blithely walk up to palace for an audience with the father thinking he will reward them for rescuing their daughter.
Mirza sees them at the gate from a balcony overlooking the courtyard and quickly throws them a note. At the same time, the gates are opening for them, so they decide to read the note later. After meeting the father, they think they are being escorted toward some reward when Phelps pulls the note out to read which reads, "Do not enter - Death!" The boys barely escape, but now they are fugitives in the town. Of course, O'Gaffney wants to leave, but Phelps refuses to leave without Mirza.
There are some neat turns and twists as they make their way back to the palace, and Phelps is caught by Shevket and his guards in Mirza's room. A particularly neat surprise has been built into the story when Shevket offers to have a duel with Phelps - with the winner taking Mirza. The duel is with pistols, but, as Shevket explains, one has a real bullet - the other a blank cartridge.
As noted, "Two Arabian Knights" does not have a strong storyline. However, there are other elements that make it an enjoyable viewing experience, the most significant of which is the engaging performances. William Boyd and Louis Wolheim are excellently paired - and believable. Mary Astor is charming and appropriately reserved, as the part requires. The New York Times praised all three. "Mr. Wolheim is capital in his portrayal of alarm, annoyance, anger, satisfaction and relief. Mr. Boyd also contributes in no small way to the gaiety of this piece. In fact, although it is a comedy, Mr. Boyd's acting in this screen effort is even better than his serious working other productions. Mary Astor is seen as Mirza and she, too, is deserving of her share of credit." (4) Photoplay echoed the praise. "Louis Wolheim, the new screen-actor with a face so homely that it requires no make-up, will make a hit in this picture. You will remember him as Captain Flagg in the stage version of "What Prices Glory." William Boyd rises to new comedy heights. He is funny, yet sympathetic. Mary Astor sparkles by her dashing young beauty." (5)
It must be admitted, however, that Wolheim deserves the top acting honors. He the epitome of the rough and tough guy off the streets, and he plays the "uneducated" part well without making his ignorance silly (which means credit it also due to Milestone and title writer George Marion, Jr.). One particular joke relating to O'Gaffney's ignorance is worth mentioning. The robed man who is constantly with Mirza on the ship is a puzzle to O'Gaffney. He asks Phelps, "Who is he?" Phelps replies, "He's her eunuch." "What's a unick?" O'Gaffney questions. Phelps leans over to whisper the explanation in O'Gaffney's ear. Eyes widened, O'Gaffney slowly turns to look at the man, tilts his head slightly to one side and looks pitifully as if to say, "Aw, poor guy!" Of course, no intertitles are necessary. Much later, at the end of the movie, as O'Gaffney is driving the carriage away with Phelps and Mirza inside, O'Gaffney sees the eunuch standing in a doorway outside the palace. He turns his head and gives that same pitying look he gave earlier in the film. The expression is made all the more comical by Wolheim's pug-ugly pan.
Howard Hughes' most famous productions were 1930's "Hell's Angels" with Jean Harlow and the 1943 production of "The Outlaw" which featured the buxom Jane Russell. However, following "Two Arabian Knights," he continued to produce some excellent silent films. The next two are superb productions - "The Racket" (1928) with Thomas Meighan and Louis Wolheim and "The Mating Call" (1928) with Thomas Meighan and Renee Adoree. Fortunately, Jeffrey Masino of Flicker Alley took an interest in Hughes' work, found these three films at the University of Las Vegas, and made arrangements to have them digitally restored. However, the arrangement with the Howard Hughes Corp. was that the material would only be available for research and study purposes. Fortunately for silent movie fans, they were screened for the first time on Turner Classic Movies in 2004 - and they continue to be seen there occasionally.
Masino noted that the films were in "fairly rough condition," (6) and although "Two Arabian Knights" is excellent quality throughout most of the film, there are a few instances where mild mottling is apparent and a couple of scenes where the mottling does interfere with the viewing. As usual, Robert Israel's orchestra score is superb. You'll particulary like the lovely melody during Boyd's and Astor's lovemaking scenes.
1. Photoplay magazine. November 1927.
2. The New York Times. October 24, 1927.
3. Harrison's Reports. October 29, 1927.
4. The New York Times
6. King, Susan. "Putting Howard Hughes' films back on the radar." Los Angeles Times. December 15, 2004.
Copyright 2012 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved
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