Wednesday, January 20, 2016


"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.

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