LEWIS MILESTONE FOR TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS (1927)
The competition (Cliff: 3 for 3!)
Charles Chaplin for The Circus
Ted Wilde for Skippy
Lewis Milestone’s comedy Two Arabian Knights opens with the title card “France—1918” and promptly leaps into the American trenches alongside Louis Wolheim, of all people. I got the movie as a DVD transfer from VHS, after all, and the opening minutes of the film left me thinking I might be watching a scene from All Quiet on the Western Front by mistake. The intensity of the fight continues as Wolheim’s Sgt. O’Gaffney dives into a ditch alongside a private amid heavy enemy fire—we’re still going to Araby at some point, right? The tension finally breaks when William Boyd’s Private Phelps, ascertaining their slim chances for survival, abruptly clocks his sergeant in the jaw as payback for months of rotten treatment. As O’Gaffney collapses against the mud wall, the soldiers’ miserable conditions turn into as much comic dressing. Over the course of the continent-spanning comedy (which at least ends up in Constantinople) Milestone’s commitment to the entire story—the serious business of war as much as the comedic friendship that unfolds—makes Two Arabian Knights stand out as an impressive feat of comedic filmmaking.
The most delightful moments in Two Arabian Knights pop up unannounced. Some of the better moments owe their effectiveness to Milestone’s camera, which is willing to jump overhead to capture a bale of hay tumbling onto the main characters from above. The story is less of a nonstop comedy, though, than a lighthearted exotic adventure in the vein of Tintin, reflecting the boyish fascinations of the film’s producer Howard Hughes. The two characters spend the second half of the film caught up in Arab courtly intrigue after they escape a prison transfer to Constantinople. Much of the humor is reliant on title-card writing, or else comes from Wolheim’s reaction shots and general ignorance of foreign cultures, with Boyd in the romantic role. Mary Astor as the love interest, like Shirley MacLaine in Around the World in Eighty Days, has unfortunately little to do apart from demurring behind her veil. She does gets at least one glorious little laugh in the frivolous gesture with which she reveals she could speak English all along (I mean naturally—this is a Hollywood movie!) The really stunning aspect of the film, though is its Hughes-bankrolled scale of the production: not just the French battlefield that opens the film, but the rescue at sea that’s clearly shot in open water, and the extensive reconstructions of Constantinople courtesy of William Cameron Menzies. It’s clear to see the wow factor at work in this movie, and easy to see how Oscar voters sprang for this movie, even over offerings from the true greats of silent comedy.
The most fascinating thing about watching the film might have been witnessing its survival against the ravages of time. The full feature film survives intact, but in some scenes the celluloid strip, even after commendable restoration work at UNLV, is barely hanging together. Though the digital file I watched was in little danger of disintegrating itself, seeing the nitrate erosion (visible in the image above) spread like glaucoma across entire sections of the film reminded me of the fragility of all moving images. More importantly, though, it affirmed the incredible effort that has kept so much of an inherently fleeting realm of nitrate film intact. The movie exists for us today because a print was retrieved from Howard Hughes’ private collection by UNLV professor Hart Wegner and extensively restored by Jeff Masino of Flicker Alley, with help from the munificent Turner Classic Movies. As one of my upcoming posts will demonstrate, films from this era are not always so available, and I’m grateful to the village of cinephiles whose hard work allowed me a glimpse of this rare moment of grandiose filmmaking that occurred at the dawn of the Academy Awards and the twilight of the silent era.
Milestone is the presiding champion of the one-time-only Best Comedy Direction category, though he seems to be rewarded for his firm handling of the action-adventure than for his light comedic touch. From the opening set piece through the continent-spanning antics that ensue, Milestone seems destined to direct the antiwar epic that would, two years later, make him the first multiple-Oscar winner in history. To be honest, the comedy in Two Arabian Knights is neither that original nor skillfully done—though we’ve been spoiled by the miraculous survival of practically every scrap of film that Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd ever shot. It doesn’t help Milestone that he was nominated against films from two of these legends: Ted Wilde’s vivacious Harold Lloyd comedy Skippy (featuring an absolutely inspired baseball scorekeeping sequence) and the ingenious extravaganza of Charlie Chaplin’s the The Circus—before the latter’s nomination was rescinded in favor of an honorary Oscar. They knew what they were doing, as Chaplin gets my hands-down vote for his oft-overlooked gem in-between the monuments of The Gold Rush and City Lights.