Buddy comedies do not come better. During the Great War, two squabbling soldiers are captured by the Germans. They escape, rescuing an Arabian princess in the process. Cute film with a strong cast and a lively pace. One of the early silents produced by Howard Hughes.
Lost and Found.
The discovery of a film that had been presumed lost is always a joyful experience for fans of classic cinema. Too many wonderful movies have fallen victim to neglect, decay and, unfortunately, outright vandalism.
Two Arabian Knights was one of the fortunate rediscoveries and its reappearance was hailed for several reasons. First, it is among the earliest surviving Howard Hughes-produced film. Second, it is the film that won director Lewis Milestone the first and only Oscar for best direction of a comedic film.
And then there is the cast. William Boyd and Mary Astor star with a then-unknown Boris Karloff in a bit part. Hopalong Cassidy romancing Brigid O’Shaughnessy with Frankenstein supporting? Plus the always wonderful Louis Wolheim? Who do I have to kill?
Fortunately, Two Arabian Knights debuted on TCM so there was no need to kill anyone after all.
The tale concerns the adventures of a WWI soldier and his sergeant. W. Dangerfield Phelps (William Boyd) is an old money smart aleck who is constantly harassed by the thuggish Sgt. Peter O’Gaffney (Louis Wolheim). The pair carry their squabbling onto the battlefield and even keep it up when they are captured by the Germans and sent to a POW camp. In the face of a common problem, O’Gaffney and Phelps bury the hatchet (though not too deeply) and plot a jailbreak. They finally succeed by donning burnooses and posing as Arabs. From there, the unlikely allies catch a Russian ship bound for Arabia.
En route, O’Gaffney and Phelps rescue a shipwrecked princess who is returning home to Arabia. All bets are off. O’Gaffney and Phelps bicker about who gets to flirt with the young lady.
Princess Mirza (Mary Astor) is engaged to Shevket Ben Ali (Ian Keith) but she finds Phelps much, much nicer. However, she is obedient to her father and will go through with her marriage. Two problems present themselves. First, Phelps is not a guy who gives up easily. Second, Mirza’s servants have seen her canoodling with Phelps and have reported the unseemly goings-on to her father and her fiancé.
The Emir orders the Americans killed for daring to despoil his daughter. Shevket, who hated Phelps at first sight, is ready and willing to carry out the order personally. So Phelps and O’Gaffney are alone in Arabia with prices on their heads. What do they do? If you guessed “squabble”, you are absolutely correct! Two Arabian Knights is a darling comedy with nary a false step. The plot is sheer nuttiness, the acting is pitch perfect and there is just enough slapstick to keep things interesting.
Louis Wolheim is particularly fun as the endearingly crude Sgt. O’Gaffney. With his smashed nose (courtesy of football injuries) and burly build, he is the classic movie tough but he exudes a winning charm that makes him almost cuddly. He and William Boyd have great comedic chemistry as a pair of frenemies in the What Price Glory mode. (Wolheim had starred in the stage version.)
Mary Astor, who could be a powerhouse when given the chance, is pretty much there for window dressing. She’s a lovely, if not exactly authentic, Arabian Nights princess complete with veil. Oh and Boris Karloff? He is in the film for about 12 seconds as the purser of the Russian ship. Keep your eyes peeled, blink and you miss him. The exotic locales are pretty much by the book and fodder for gags with no real character to them. No matter, because cast and audience are having a ball.
Two Arabian Knights was one of several films that launched the Hollywood career of Howard Hughes. Classics like Hell’s Angels and Scarface would follow. The wild ride would come to a sorry end with The Conqueror (John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Enough said.) some thirty years later. But it was fun while it lasted. Two Arabian Knights is one of the cuter action comedies of the later silent period, the sort of thing Douglas Fairbanks produced so well in the ‘teens. See it if you get the opportunity.
Bad news here: Copyright issues are holding this film back from home video release. It does air occasionally on TCM so set your recorders.