Saturday, February 6, 2016

On the Big Screen: HAIL CAESAR! (2016)


Hail Caesar! may be Joel and Ethan Coens' most infuriatingly lazy film. They've been lazy before, but their laziest effort heretofore, Burn After Reading, was redeemed by hilarious performances from George Clooney, John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. Clooney's along for the ride again, in his fourth film for the brothers, but this time he has pathetically little to work with. You can sum it up as "dumb actor" or, at most, "impressionable actor." He never gets to go over the top as he did in Burn After Reading, nor does anyone else in the overcrowded cast. The problem may be that the picture isn't about Clooney's dumb actor nor any of the other eccentric contract players at Capitol Pictures. Instead, it's left to Josh Brolin to hold the picture together as Eddie Mannix, Capitol's "head of physical production." Named after the nearly legendary M-G-M fixer who figures in many Hollywood myths, Caesar's Mannix is a hustling, guilt-haunted manager who answers reverently to the unseen and also-based-on-reality moneyman Nicholas Schenck. Along with tracking down or ransoming his kidnapped actor -- I assume everyone knows that detail from the commercials -- Mannix has to create a cover story for the impending birth of an illegitimate child to his squeaky-clean swimming star (Scarlett Johansson), smooth the transition of the studio's singing-cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) to drawing-room dramas, and secure the approval of Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Jewish leaders for the Hail Caesar! picture within Hail Caesar!, a mash-up of Sam Zimbalist's M-G-M epics Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959) in which the Clooney character stars, and all while placating, stalling or lying to rival gossip columnists who are twin sisters (Tilda Swinton x2). On top of all that, he has to consider a promising job offer from Lockheed that could save him from a doomed business while trying (and failing) to quit smoking. All this results in an amusing satirical scene with the religious leaders, in which the Jew is perhaps more mocking than he might have been at the actual time, and a framing gag about Mannix's obsessive recourse to the confessional. The joke here is that Mannix lives by lying, or at least by making promises he's not sure of fulfilling, yet the lies he confesses to have to do with his promise to his wife to quit smoking. It's as if he doesn't recognize most of his own lies as lies, but that's par for the course in Hail Caesar!, where the main thematic subtext is a human capacity for self-delusion that found midcentury expression in both Hollywood bible epics and the International Communist Conspiracy.

This is a meta movie in which the film itself and the film within the film are both narrated by Michael Gambon. That's meant to call our attention to the essentially mythic nature of the main story, in which a more malevolent version of the Hollywood Ten carries out the Clooney kidnapping and at least one major studio star is an active agent of the U.S.S.R. I'd like to assume that the unreality of the whole thing is obvious enough that no 21st century leftists will cry foul, though they may resent the parallels the Coens present between communism and Christianity. They're more amused than we are, I suspect, by the idea of Clooney being more or less converted by the commies, if only because he's so sociably impressionable, while he's such a bad actor that he can't sell the spiritual experiences of his movie character, a Roman converted to Christianity. But the way they film both the argument of the religious leaders over the nature of Jesus and the doctrinal bickering of the commies suggests that they view both Christianity and communism with their characteristic, much-deplored distanced disdain. Let's put it this way: I was never so conscious of how dialectics almost rhymes with dianetics as I was while watching this film, though that may have a lot to do with the time period Caesar! is set in, c. 1956. This is all rather interesting, but after a certain point the Coens give up on using the story to demonstrate the argument, and give up on the story as well.

Another germ of an idea is Caesar!'s use of the singing cowboy character. Presumably inspired by John Mack Brown, a retrospectively implausible leading man for Greta Garbo, and Tim Holt, who actually acquitted himself admirably in The Magnificent Ambersons, Hobie Doyle seems intended to emerge as the true protagonist of the film and a sort of amateur detective. His insight about extras being more suspicious than regular crew members is proven correct by what we've already seen of Clooney's kidnapping, and it's Hobie who follows the money to Clooney's place of comfortable confinement. One can imagine the fantastic or satirical potential of a singing cowboy solving the mystery, but the Coens clearly were uninterested in making the sort of comic action picture that would have resulted. Similarly, Hobie has a charming first date, arranged by the studio, with a Carmen Miranda-esque musical star (Veronica Osario), but the Coens aren't interested in following up on it. Likewise, the identity of a commie spy within the studio is clearly meant to surprise us, but since the Coens couldn't be bothered to build that character up as a person rather than a mere performer, the revelation leaves us indifferent. The brothers reject every opportunity to create thrills, and might argue that they never meant to make a thrill picture, but when the potential is so obviously there you can't help seeing the end result as slapdash and half-finished. For almost the first time I could believe the libel that the Coens are self-satisfied and contemptuous toward their audience, given how half-assed Hail Caesar! is. Maybe they got distracted by the writing for hire they've done lately for Steven Spielberg and Angelina Jolie, but none of that justifies the mess they've dumped on us. There's still just enough comedy to keep this from being their worst film -- their 2001-4 run remains the trough of their career -- but knowing what the Coens are capable of when they really care, I suspect I'll dislike this one more than many films that are objectively worse. Some people can't help making bad films, but when the Coen Brothers do it, it's like they're ripping you off. Perhaps they'd like to confess something now, but I doubt it.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: A MODERN HERO (1934)

G. W. Pabst was as cosmopolitan a director as the early-talkie period produced. The German director of late-silent classics like Pandora's Box didn't want to lose his international standing with the coming of sound. So like the Hollywood studios he made multiple versions in different languages of several of his early talking films. He also became a cinematic nomad, leaving Germany with the rise of Hitler, the Nazis being no fans of his Threepenny Opera or Kameradschaft, to make films in France. It was probably inevitable that he would follow fellow German geniuses Ernst Lubitsch and Friedrich W. Murnau to Hollywood. The Pre-Code period probably was the best time to cross over, and Warner Bros. probably was the ideal studio for Pabst. Warners assigned him an adaptation of Louis Bromfield's 1932 best-selling novel A Modern Hero. I can't help wondering if that was because the novel's hero starts in a circus, since German cinema made a lot of circuses. Modern Hero traces a singular rise-and-fall character arc as Pierre Radier (Richard Barthelmess) rises from bareback rider to automobile tycoon, loving and leaving ladies along the way and changing his name to Paul Rader to better fit into the upper crust. While the women in his life are disposable, he retains a soft spot for the boy he left behind, the one he sired in a one-night stand with starstruck Joanna Ryan (Jean Muir) in Pentland back in his circus days. His ambition is twofold: to make a name for himself and to give the boy, who only knows him as a friendly patron at first, all the opportunities he missed in his youth. As for the women, Pierre's mother (Marjorie Rambeau), a maimed animal tamer turned alkie fortune teller, sums it up for another of her boy's paramours by saying, "Being a woman ain't much fun, is it?"

There's a frankness about Pierre's sexual adventures that's part Pabst, part Pre-Code, and by the standards of rise-and-fall melodrama Modern Hero is admirably understated until the final reel, when it goes completely off the rails. The script (if not the novel) arranges for Paul Rader to lose his fortune to a bad investment and his son to a car wreck all in one day. We're invited to see this as some sort of comeuppance as Paul, on a train ride back to Pentland, relives his mistakes as flashbacks that recede to the horizon as the train moves on. It looked like a set-up for suicide to me, but the film ends on such a preposterous note that I find it hard to believe that Pabst himself filmed it. Paul goes looking for his mom but is told that "Madame Azais" has moved away. She hasn't quite, however, and instead we get a sentimental reunion in which the mother, who hasn't yet started drinking ("I'm bad when I'm drunk" she told a customer earlier), reassures her boy that all may have been for the best, since now Pierre presumably knows the difference between what's worthwhile and what isn't. Mother and son decide to start over in Europe, Pierre promising to become worthy of his mom. That looks like Pre-Code covering its tracks -- the film was an April 1934 release, so Code Enforcement was no excuse -- but very little like Pabst, who himself went back to Europe, and eventually back to Nazi Germany, after Modern Hero failed at the box office. Trade papers reported that he'd sign with RKO, but nothing came of that, and with Code Enforcement coming Pabst's window of opportunity to do anything worthwhile in Hollywood was closing fast.

The most interesting thing about A Modern Hero is Richard Barthelmess's performance. Pierre Radier is supposed to be a serial seducer but Pabst gets Barthelmess to give a coolly introverted performance, toning down his regional accent to achieve a soulless flatness. Despite how that all sounds, it's actually one of Barthelmess's most relaxed performances in talkies. The one problem with it is that the role presumes a certain irresistible quality in Radier/Rader, while Barthelmess, once a beautiful youth, is definitely starting to go sour inside at age 38. Hero was his last film but one for Warner Bros. It may be regrettable that Pabst didn't get to work with the real stars of the Warners stock company, but for Pabst's purposes a more naturalistic acting style than Cagney or Robinson or Muni practiced was required, and to his credit and the film's Barthelmess delivered the goods. In the end A Modern Hero is a failure, too short on the melodrama that fuels its genre until there's way too much, but for the most part it's a worthwhile failure, i.e. a failure worth a look.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

THE MARTIAN (2015)

There's an interesting choice in the competition for the Best Actor Oscar between two kinds of survivor. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio are the front-runners for the award, and that's remarkable in itself in that Damon's character in The Martian is completely fictional, while DiCaprio's in The Revenant is several degrees removed from his real-life original. But this mano-i-mano also gives Academy voters a meaningful choice between two sorts of performance as well as two types of survivor. DiCaprio is favored for internalizing the ordeal of his character, filming under harsh if not mortifying conditions. His performance is as much an act of will as his character's survival is in the film. By comparison, Ridley Scott's Martian is the movie that gave us one of the lines of the past year, when Damon's character says "I've got to science the shit out of this." It isn't elegant but it makes the point. As most people know by now, his character, astronaut and botany expert Mark Watney, is abandoned on Mars when a freak accident during a storm cuts off his life-sign monitors and his ability to communicate with his crewmates. Right here the difference between Martian and Revenant couldn't be more stark; DiCaprio is abandoned by human malice, Damon by pure accident. The differentiation continues as it comes to take a planet, nearly, to rescue Mark Watney, while his crewmates, belatedly informed of his plight, risk their lives to lend a hand. The Martian is a fable of cooperation as well as personal ingenuity, while The Revenant is all about the powers of will and hate. Mark Watney is a 21st century Robinson Crusoe, but only for a brief time is he as truly alone as Crusoe was for so many years. Martian is less an existential survival tale than All is Lost or even Gravity; the internal life of the astronaut ends up relatively irrelevant, and for the story's purposes all we really need to know about Watney is that he's really smart and resourceful. In turn, all Damon really needs to be is a clever Everyman in a way DiCaprio's revenant isn't. Watney is a glib, narcissist Everyman dedicated to recording himself -- not that that's a bad idea, given his historic as well as perilous situation -- without contributing much introspection to the recordings. I doubt the film could stand much of that, anyway. It aims to please, sometimes to a crass extent, from its have-it-both-ways attitude toward disco music -- it's there to sell a soundtrack album, and because it's apparently all Watney has to listen to, but he hates the stuff -- to one of the most belabored in-jokes in movie history to exploit Sean (Boromir) Bean's presence as a NASA mission director. I can forgive its sins of crassness or shallowness because I think The Martian is the sort of optimistic celebration of human potential we ought to have in movie theaters alongside the more artistic and self-indulgent stuff. Though a period piece, Revenant is a kind of apocalyptic survivalism that isn't meant to inspire and doesn't have to to impress us. On some level it probably appeals most to people who imagine having to live like DiCaprio does someday. The Martian, meanwhile, should have people asking what happened to our manned space program, which has only progressed in the film's fantasy world that otherwise looks exactly like ours. That both films have been very popular tells us something about our divergent attitudes toward survival and progress. Which of the two stars wins the Oscar -- if either does -- may tell us something else of interest.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Too Much TV: ASH VS. EVIL DEAD (2015-?)

Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert are the last believers in the half-hour drama format. Back in 2000, after the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys series wrapped, the brains behind Renaissance Studios filled Herc's time slot with two shows: the sci-fi action series Cleopatra 2025 and the Bruce Campbell vehicle Jack of All Trades. Neither lasted long but it was an interesting experiment. Raimi, Tapert, Campbell et al are back with a much-belated follow-up to their most beloved property, the Evil Dead movie franchise. Campbell, of course, is Ash Williams, at once hero and zero and little changed, except in girth, from when we last saw him -- though for this show's purposes, and for legal reasons, that last time was Evil Dead 2 rather than Army of Darkness. It makes no difference, though. Ash is still a loser who sometimes rises to a crisis, especially when the Evil Dead are involved. Of course, the Evil Dead are involved again because Ash, in a stoned attempt to impress some girl, reads "poetry" from the accursed Necronomicon. Realizing his error, Ash embarks on a quest to end the horror by finally destroying the hated book. Since this is modern television, he can't be alone on his journey. Along for the ride in his trailer are two fellow employees of the ValueShop store: Pablo (Ray Santiago), an earnest, eraserheaded young man who inexplicably idolizes Ash, and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), a more hard-boiled young woman whose family gets wiped out by the Deadites early. On their trail are a policewoman (Jill Marie Jones) who has survived an Evil Dead attack and suspects Ash of committing serial atrocities, and the mysterious Ruby (Lucy "Mrs. Rob Tapert" Lawless), who owns some alarming relics, including Ash's amputated, possessed hand, and is willing and able to torture Deadites for the info she needs. We meet many other characters along the way, most of whom suffer grisly deaths before becoming Deadite tormentors of Ash and his allies, until the chase leads back to the cabin where all Ash's troubles began so long ago.

At more than five hours long, including Sam Raimi's extra-length premiere episode, the show is the ultimate test of Ash's staying power as a character. In any given episode, Campbell has to hit a range of notes: arrogance, ignorance, horniness, and a capacity for self-sacrifice. Ash careens from irresponsibility to responsibility, anchored, burdened and emboldened by an awareness that fighting the Evil Dead is the only thing he really does well. Santiago and DeLorenzo make good foils for Campbell. Pablo is a well-meaning weakling while Kelly becomes something more like a genre-tv badass female, but the contrast works to both actors' advantage. Jones's policewoman becomes a sort of straight man for the main trio and for Lawless, whose character and role seem to have evolved as the cameras rolled, given the difference between how Ruby was described in preview interviews and who she turns out to be by the season finale. I'd bet that the early assurance of a second season gave everyone more ambitious ideas of what to do with Lawless, who by virtue of her work on Xena:Warrior Princess, Battlestar Galactica and Spartacus is more or less the dowager empress of genre TV.

But the main attaction of Ash vs. Evil Dead is the gore. Airing on Starz, the home of Spartacus and Black Sails, the show is constrained only by budget, but when have low budgets stopped the Evil Dead franchise? The show is predictably, exuberantly, hilariously violent. So far it has not run out of interesting ways to destroy Deadites, my favorite being to feed one face first into a deli meat-slicer. The blood flows and flies in such volume hear that The Hateful Eight's vaunted gore hardly made an impression on me. The Deadites, too, are their old charming selves, taunting and cursing and kvetching in fine counterpoint to Ash's laconic-badass mode. When you take that element away, you get the generic blandness of the Evil Dead remake movie, but for the Renaissance crew it's second nature. You wouldn't really want anyone else to mess with Ash and his world. The remakers just tried to make a horror movie, but Ash vs. Evil Dead, with all its over-the-top mayhem and accompanying attitude is one of the funniest shows on TV right now. If it actually scares anybody, that's a bonus.

Monday, January 25, 2016

In the name of diversity, a purge

The current regime at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, embarrassed over the #oscarssowhite controversy, apparently has come to the conclusion that the Academy's problem is that too many members are old. Accordingly, the Academy has abolished automatic lifetime membership except for those members who have received Oscar nominations. Everyone else will have their membership reviewed every ten years, the main criterion for renewal being whether you've remained active in the industry over that period. So it looks like no more screeners for some people, and others will say those people have it coming, the assumption being that those people have not taken proper advantage of those screeners to sample a wider range of movies. The Academy's hunch is that age, rather than race, determines whether people are willing to give certain movies a chance. This notion makes sense if you see Straight Outta Compton as the #oscarssowhite poster child. The N.W.A. biopic has an 88% score at Rotten Tomatoes, which is better than current front-runner The Revenant and equal to Best Picture nominee The Big Short. Given that stat, and presumably others, there may be reason for protesters to suspect that Compton was denied a more just share of nominations because many Academy members simply were uninterested in a film about rappers and didn't bother to look at it. This is the crux of the issue, regardless of the backlash opinion that black talent just wasn't good enough last year. It's one thing for call-in cranks to say so, having almost certainly not seen it -- nor have I, for that matter -- and another for the Academy to send the same implicit message if members never actually gave Compton a chance. The logic of youthening the pool of nominators through attrition is that younger people of all races are probably more interested in hip-hop and less likely simply to ignore Compton than their elders. More damning yet to some protesters is the fact that Creed wasn't nominated for Best Picture, Best Writer or Director, or Best Actor, but only for sentimental-favorite Supporting Actor Sylvester Stallone, despite a gaudy 94% score on Rotten Tomatoes. I haven't seen that one either, but it's pretty clear from what I've read about it that it's something more than yet another Rocky movie, yet the Academy treats it, in effect, as nothing but that. Some have speculated that the Academy is biased against sports movies in general, the subject matter being almost the opposite of Oscar-bait, but who can say. You could at least argue that younger Academy members might pay more attention to Michael B. Jordan compared to Stallone, but that line of thinking may lead us to protests against ageism down the line.

I'm not as passionate pro or contra on this whole subject as some are because I don't recognize the Oscars as either a meritocracy or a mirror of the audience. Second-guessing the Oscars of the past is practically a hobby for some people, and for every critic who chides the Academy for picking an inferior picture to some year's masterpiece there may be another who sees the Awarding of the very same picture as elitist snobbery. There is an argument to be made for making the nominees, at least, as representative a sample as possible of quality moviemaking, even if I'm not entirely in agreement with it. Unfortunately, the #oscarssowhite debate comes at a toxic moment in racial or identity politics, and the protesters and boycotters fit the profile, in many eyes, of entitled whiners who throw tantrums (or hold riots) if they don't get their way. I'm giving the protesters what I think to be a generous benefit of the doubt when I assume that they don't want everyone to automatically praise pictures like Compton or Creed as great but simply want people to give them a chance or take them seriously when many probably aren't. The problem is that whether the Oscars are a meritocracy or not, they are a competition, and conservative people are inclined to see the results of any competition, including a preliminary round like a nomination process, as just and fair, and anyone who questions the results or the process that produced them as sore losers. The news that some people are going to lose some privileges in an attempt to get different results in the future will only enrage such conservatives further. Looking at the larger picture, beyond the trivial realm of entertainment, this election year probably wasn't an ideal time for an #oscarssowhite controversy to happen. One can only hope that consequences don't ripple too far beyond the land of fantasy into everyone's reality.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

DVR Diary: LITTLE BIG SHOT (1935)

The thinking at Warner Bros. seemed to go like this: Shirley Temple went over big in Little Miss Marker, which is sort of a gangster film; Warner Bros. does gangster films better than anyone else; so all we need is to find our own Shirley Temple, make our own Little Miss Marker and laugh all the way to the bank. The find was Sybil Jason, a 7 year old (billed as 5) out of South Africa. The result is a transitional picture from the first full year of Code Enforcement, with some of the old violence but also a distinct softening if not neutering of Warners assets as the studio scrambles to imitate successful trends elsewhere.

Our heroes are two sidewalk peddlers: Robert Armstrong sells cheap watches whenever the coast is clear from cops, while Edward Everett Horton is his shill, putting on as many disguises as time allows to talk up the product. They're having trouble making the rent at their quite-comfortable looking room, but they can depend on conning desk clerk Edgar Kennedy by appealing to his sporting blood and getting him to make sucker bets. That lets them keep their room but they still have to resort to stealing milk bottles from their neighbor (Glenda Farrell) for breakfast. A random encounter with a prosperous-looking old acquaintance (Addison Richards) makes them confident that they can touch him up for a "business loan" and dinner at a swank hotel. The man has his daughter Gloria with him (Jason), whom he's recently brought home from schooling abroad -- hence her British accent. Naturally to butter up the mark Armstrong talks about how much he loves kids and wishes he had one of his own to spoil. The mark believes every word of it. He wants to believe because, as he admits at the last minute, before he's gunned down on the sidewalk by J. Carroll Naish, he's actually penniless and wants Armstrong and Horton to take care of Gloria. Our heroes witness the shooting -- Gloria stayed inside the restaurant -- but Naish intimidates them into keeping quiet. Not wanting to get mixed up in things any further, they head back home, leaving the body and its daughter behind.

Little did they realize that another tenant of their building is a waiter at the hotel who promptly delivers them the bill and Gloria. Naturally, they want to dump her in an orphanage as soon as possible, but she's grown attached to Armstrong and, inevitably, he can't bring himself to abandon her. Farrell takes a motherly interest in the girl that promises dividends for Armstrong, but more importantly Gloria proves her own money-making potential by spontaneously joining some black street entertainers for a song and dance. Our heroes rent space in a penny arcade owned by Jack LaRue for Gloria to perform in while they sell their watches, but LaRue is under pressure from the same gangsters (also including Ward Bond) who killed Gloria's dad and now kick Gloria's dog to death for interfering in a high-stakes pinball game. When LaRue welshes on a dice game intended as a practical joke that backfires on him, Armstrong threatens to kill him. When the rival gangsters do kill LaRue, Armstrong practically frames himself. Add the inevitable kidnapping of Gloria and you can probably write the end of this picture yourself -- but remember that this is the Code Enforcement era, so a happy ending is mandatory.

First of all, Little Big Shot turns Glenda Farrell, perhaps Warners' apex-predator gold-digger, into a goody-good constantly nagging Armstrong to find a real job and settle down. Both Armstrong and Horton turn into soda-jerks under her prodding, and in the happy ending they all run a roadside diner together. Farrell as a goody-good is all wrong; it's like keeping hellfire under a bushel. But the real problem with the picture is Sybil Jason. I hate to sound like a xenophobe, but her accent is immediately off-putting. However unfairly, it makes her seem artificial. Worse, her singing and dancing is feeble compared to Shirley Temple, whose talent and charisma at a like age were simply freakish. Jason tries to prove herself multi-talented by doing impersonations, including an obvious Garbo and what I guess was a Mae West, though I'm not 100% sure. Worst of all is her acting, though part of the problem is how often the story forces her to burst into tears that inspire horror rather than compassion. One dreads imagining what director Michael Curtiz, who does all in his considerable power to energize the picture, did to draw those tears from the poor girl. There's no hint of spontaneity in Jason, just as there's really no hint of originality in the picture. It was one thing to declare Jason Temple's rival, another to invite damning comparisons by imitating a Temple vehicle. Whatever her true potential, Jason paid the price for this miscalculation. Warners only starred her in one more feature, two years later, and otherwise put her in supporting roles before letting her go to finish her career as a supporting player to Shirley Temple herself. Maybe this was a waste of talent, but after seeing Little Big Shot I doubt it was that much of a waste.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

DVR Diary: TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS (1927)


"One flash of that pan and she'll yell for Allah!"
"I've had more broads yell for me than you and this Allah guy put together." 
Q. What World War I movie starring Louis Wolheim won director Lewis Milestone his first Oscar? It wasn't All Quiet on the Western Front. It was this film, long thought lost, that won Milestone the first and only Academy Award for Comedy Direction. It may dismay viewers today that none of the era's slapstick masters, or their directorial collaborators, took this prize -- and that may indeed have been a factor in the category's quick abolition -- but Two Arabian Knights proves to be a fairly funny film. That's mainly because Wolheim and William (Hopalong Cassidy) Boyd have a blast playing unrepentant Ugly Americans -- and Wolheim is literally ugly! -- running amok in wartime Europe and the Middle East. Cynicism about "the war to end all wars" had quickly taken hold around the world, but while All Quiet finds Milestone in despairing mode over the slaughter, Two Arabian Knights rejects all pity or piety. Irreverence reigns right from the start as Boyd and Wolheim, as private and sergeant respectively, face death in a crater in the middle of No Man's Land. If they're going to die, Boyd decides, then by God, he's going to pay the sergeant back for all the time he pushed me around! Before long, German soldiers ring the rim of the crater, like spectators at a pit fight, as our heroes try to beat each other's brains out. Thus begins a picaresque tail that next delivers our warriors to a POW camp. Also imprisoned here are Arab soldiers who fought for the Allies, presumably from one of France's imperial possessions. Apparently these Arabs fought in their traditional white robes, which make great camouflage when you're going to escape into a snowy wilderness -- except it's our imaginative Americans who do the escaping, after first clobbering two fellow prisoners. They barely make it under some electrified wire -- it's actually a clever piece of direction that we can clearly see the tiny twig propping up the wire tottering as the boys squirm across -- before they blunder into another group of Arab prisoners and German guards. Great job!

The German policy apparently was to put Arab prisoners in the hands of their Turkish allies. Thus our heroes end up on a train to Constantinople, where they manage to dodge their captors and stow away aboard a civilian ship (with a Russian crew) bound for the Ottomans' Arab territories. Boris Karloff is the purser on this vessel but doesn't get much to do. Of more interest to the boys is a genuine Arab princess (Mary Astor) returning home from her studies in the imperial capital. She's sort of traditionally dressed -- it's Hollywood's (or producer Howard Hughes's) idea of such dress -- but she has a modern education. Repeatedly, Boyd and Wolheim underestimate Arab learning, making cracks about their plans for the girl -- these include the exchange quoted above -- until they realize that, despite her early dumb show, Mirza knows English all along. The gag is repeated to greater effect when the soldiers have an audience with Mirza's father and his vizier. Wolheim makes an idiot of himself in a parody of the pantomime that was a staple of silent comedy, only to have the vizier ask, again in perfect English, "And exactly what is your business here today?" The Arab characters are still largely stereotypes, but so are the Americans, and in a world of universal caricature there's no reason for anyone to take offense. Eventually the boys will take Mirza away with them, of her own will, to a life in America in a time when no one thought twice about Muslims in the country. But if it is a sort of fantasy of liberating Americanism, it's also a learning experience for our American heroes -- or at least Wolheim learns the meaning of the word eunuch. There's an interesting lesson here in how intertitles could illustrate relative intelligence. Boyd knows what a eunuch is and identifies one to Wolheim, the title card spelling the word correctly. Wolheim is innocent of such things and asks what a "yunick" is. In this film's quaintly ribald way, Boyd whispers the answer to Wolheim -- no intertitle this time -- and Wolheim's face acquires an expression of queasy horror. As they pass the eunuch on their way out of town, on their way to freedom, the film closes with a reprise of Wolheim's sick gaze, as if he's lucky to leave the story intact. It's an odd way to end the show but overall Two Arabian Knights is a welcome reminder that silent cinema didn't depend entirely on pratfalls and special effects to be funny.