Two Arabian Knights (1927-1928): Oscar-Winner

This silent comedy, directed by Lewis Milestone, is one of the least-known Oscar-winning pictures. It won the Best Comedy Direction Award, a category that existed for only one year.

Produced by Howard Hughes and distributed by United Artists, the comedy was written by James T. O’Donohue, Wallace Smith, and George Marion Jr.

During WWI, two entrapped American soldiers expect to die. W. Daingerfield Phelps III (William Boyd) beats up his sergeant of his training camp, Peter O’Gaffney (Louis Wolheim), and while they are brawling, the Germans capture them. In a German prison camp, the two become friends when Phelps takes responsibility for a caricature he drew of a guard, rather than let O’Gaffney take the blame. Later on, they escape by stealing the white robes of Arab prisoners, which enables them to blend in with the snow. However, they are forced to join a group of Arab prisoners sent to Constantinople.

The duo jump off the train, landing in a hay wagon, but they end up, like the hay, in a ship bound for Arabia. The stowaways are discovered, and Phelps pays the skipper (Michael Visaroff) their fare. When a boat founders nearby, Phelps rescues an Arabian woman, Mirza (Mary Astor), and both he and Mirza have to be saved by O’Gaffney. The two soldiers and the skipper vie for the affections of the woman, who is veiled. The skipper wants to be paid for Mirza’s fare but no one has any money.

The skipper refuses to let Mirza debark without paying and so O’Gaffney robs the purser to get the money. Mirza informs Phelps that her father has arranged for her to marry Shevket Ben Ali (Ian Keith). The two men head for the American consul, but leave when they see the skipper there. They decide to seek the assistance of Mirza’s emir-father, who is region’s governor. Outraged, the Emir asks his men to execute them. Phelps reads Mirza’s warning note, and the two escape.

When Phelps sets out to rescue Mirza, O’Gaffney joins him. They are trapped by Shevket and his men, but when Mirza threatens to kill herself, Shevket proposes a duel, in which only one of the pistols is loaded. Phelps fires first–his gun is the unloaded one. Then Shevket then reveals that both guns are empty. He exits, leaving his men to dispose of Phelps. The two men overcome their captors, relieve Shevket of Mirza, and ride away.

You Should Know…

The legendary Boris Karloff plays a small role in this picture, in his pre-“Frankenstein” era.

Mary Astor, cast as an Arab woman, would win the 1941 Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Great Lie,” co-starring Bette Davis.

The film was long-thought lost before it was found in Howard Hughes’ collection and restored by Jeffrey Masino, along with other “lost” Hughes films, The Racket (1928) and The Mating Call (1928)

Oscar Alert

Best Comedy Director: Lewis Milestone

This category was discontinued the following year.

Oscar Context:

Lewis Milestone was nominated for three Director Oscars: Two Arabian Knights, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-1930) and The Front Page (1930-1931). He won for his first two nods.


William Boyd – W. Dangerfield Phelps III
Mary Astor – Mirza
Louis Wolheim – Sgt. Peter O’Gaffney
Ian Keith – Shevket Ben Ali
Michael Vavitch – The Emir
Michael Visaroff – The Skipper (as M. Visaroff)
Boris Karloff – The Purser
DeWitt Jennings – American Consul (as De Witt Jennings)
Nicholas Dunew – Mirza’s Man Servant (as Nicholas Dunaev)
Jean Vachon – Mirza’s Maid Servant
David Cavendish–The Emir’s Advisor (as Denis D’Auburn)