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In early 1927, at a party at the Ambassador Hotel in Charleston, S.C., Howard Hughes met and "became fascinated by, the pin-cheeked, plump young Russian-American director Lewis Milestone," according to biographer Charles Higham. Milestone, who had served in the aerial-camera division of the U.S. Army Air Corps, was able to offer Hughes -- then a successful 21-year-old industrialist and aviation enthusiast -- tips on an aviation story he was interested in producing as a film. It was a fortuitous meeting for Milestone, one that led him to an Oscar®.
The aviation film would evolve as Hell's Angels (1930), which Hughes would also direct. In the meantime Milestone had a film idea of his own to pitch to the neophyte producer: Two Arabian Knights (1927). Hughes liked the slapdash comedy of the World War I story, which was cast in the lusty, rugged mold of director Raoul Walsh's recent hit What Price Glory (1926). (The two films share a common writer, James T. O'Donohoe, and, in each, the two male leads enjoy the same bickering relationship.) According to Higham, Hughes not only agreed to produce the picture but eventually put $500,000 of his own money into it. He cast Louis Wolheim, William Boyd (later to play Hopalong Cassidy) and Mary Astor in the leads and made a deal with Jesse L. Lasky to release the film.
Two Arabian Knights relates the adventures of a sergeant (Wolheim) and a private (Boyd) who are captured by the Germans and escape by disguising themselves as Arabs. Dispatched to the Middle East, both doughboys fall for a beautiful Arabian princess (Astor), but must deal with a gang of cut-throats led by her father.
Milestone later recalled that it was Hughes who inserted some off-color gags into the film, including a bit in which Boyd kisses a veiled figure in the sultan's harem, only to discover that it's a eunuch. In a title, Wolheim exclaims, "This sultan guy sure is strange. Not all the girls in this harem are girls!"
Hughes also insisted on strict realism in certain scenes, including one in which the princess is fished out of the sea after surviving a shipwreck. Instead of having the sequence shot in a studio tank, Hughes dictated that the three stars be dunked into the cold, murky, oily waters of San Pedro harbor, where his yacht, the Ranger, could be used as a floating studio.
In her autobiography A Life on Film, Astor recalled that she was "about to drown, literally, "because she wore a costume made of heavy gold-metal cloth, with a gold lace-trimmed veil over her nose and chin." "We had to do the whole thing in bits or I would have sunk," she wrote, "and after each shot we had to be hauled aboard and warmed up and given a shot of brandy... We were all half-drunk, half-frozen and half-nauseated by the taste and smell of oil and salt-water."
Despite the earthy humor and boisterous action, Milestone delivered a grade-A production with intelligent performances from his cast, which included Boris Karloff in a small role as a character called "Purser." At the 1927-28 ceremonies, Milestone won the only Academy Award ever presented for "Best Comedy Direction." (In subsequent years, direction of all genres was melded into a single award.) Milestone's fellow nominees were Charles Chaplin for The Circus (1928) and Ted Wilde for the Harold Lloyd vehicle Speedy (1928).
Producers: Howard Hughes, John W. Considine, Jr.
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: James T. O'Donohoe, Wallace Smith, George Marion, Jr. (titles), from story by Donald McGibney
Cinematography: Joseph August, Antonio Guadio
Art Direction: William Cameron Menzies
Cast: William Boyd (Pvt. W. Dangerfield Phelps), Louis Wolheim (Sgt. Peter McGaffney), Mary Astor (Anis bin Adham/Mirza), Michael Vavitch (Emir of Jaffa), Ian Keith (Shevket).
by Roger Fristoe