powered by AFI
Warner Bros. took viewers on a trip to Morocco, or rather the Morocco of Western dreams, in the 1953 musical The Desert Song. Despite strong singing from Kathryn Grayson and Gordon MacRae in the leads, the studio's third version of the story of a North African Zorro was derided as one trip to the well too many by contemporary critics. Today the film has a small cult of devoted fans, particularly for the eight numbers remaining from Sigmund Romberg's score, but its depiction of colonial politics seems a throwback to an earlier era.
MacRae stars as a man with two lives, a mild-mannered anthropology student who doubles as a masked warrior leading the revolt against a tyrannical sheik (Raymond Massey). In his heroic guise, he wins the love of French general Ray Collins' temperamental daughter (Grayson), which creates complications. The film gave the leads a chance to do what they did best, which was more than just singing. MacRae had the build for swashbuckling roles and in The Desert Song he's presented as a kind of warbling Errol Flynn. And Grayson, whom Warner Bros. was wise to borrow from MGM, was always best in roles that allowed her to start haughty and then melt as she saw appealing aspects in her leading man. Always a better actress than most would credit, she knew how to act her songs and use them dramatically, even though MGM frequently hid her talents in overblown production numbers.
The original operetta was inspired by the 1925 uprising against French colonial rule in Morocco and T.E. Lawrence's World War I exploits, though politics took a back seat to one of Romberg's lushest scores, featuring such memorable numbers as "The Riff Song," "Romance" and "One Alone," with the latter becoming a popular choice for classical and jazz vocalists. It premiered in 1926 and played for over a year. Warner Bros. picked up the rights and filmed the story three times. In 1929, it was the first operetta filmed with sound, with Carlotta King and John Boles in the leading roles and Myrna Loy as an Arab dancing girl. That version also featured two-strip Technicolor scenes now only available in black and white. The 1943 version was re-crafted so that leading man Dennis Morgan could fight Nazis in support of the war effort. Irene Manning took over the female lead, with Faye Emerson as the dancing girl, all of it shot in glorious Technicolor.
By 1953, some things had changed and some things hadn't. Originally, the leading man's outlaw alter ego was named "The Red Shadow." That was changed in the second version to "El Khobar," and the change remained in the '50s because of the association of "red" with "Communist." But there were still few real Arabs in the cast, with the dancing girl now played by Allyn Ann McLerie, a Canadian-born singer and dancer who had come to the studio a year earlier to re-create her leading role opposite Ray Bolger in Where's Charley? (1952). The gay reporter who provides comic relief in the stage version was played straight in the film and allowed actor Dick Wesson to flirt with McLerie this time out. The biggest change, however, was in the leading man's motivation. On Broadway, The Red Shadow was leading the Riffs against the French colonial power and only backed off when a treaty was signed that met some of the Arabs' demands. By 1953, however, the Riffs were fighting against an evil sheik and eventually wound up defending colonial interests.
Warner Bros. entrusted the production to Rudi Fehr, a respected editor taking his only stab at production. He would return to editing afterwards, eventually winning his sole Oscar® nomination for John Huston's Prizzi's Honor (1985). The script was written by Roland Kibbee, who had just helped create a swashbuckling hit for Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate (1952). Providing the production's high point for many was the work of Robert Burks, a cinematographer whose long association with Alfred Hitchcock would bring him an Oscar® for To Catch a Thief (1955). His Technicolor shots of the film's Yuma, Arizona, locations were consistently praised by critics. But after two versions of the operetta with strong direction (first by Roy Del Ruth; then by Robert Florey), the studio inexplicably entrusted the third to H. Bruce Humberstone. Although he had been working in Hollywood since the silent days, his strongest credits were as an assistant to such legends as King Vidor and Allan Dwan. His most notable accomplishment as a director on his own was discovering that the best way to get a performance out of Warner Oland in his Charlie Chan films at 20th Century-Fox during the 1930s was to keep the actor slightly drunk. Humberstone had only just arrived at Warner's, and his ability to get the Virginia Mayo-Ronald Reagan musical She's Working Her Way Through College (1952) completed efficiently and effectively may have been his chief recommendation for the job.
Most critics thought Warner's should have passed on a third version of The Desert Song. The New York Times praised the singing and the Technicolor location shooting, but had problems with the production as a whole, claiming it "batters the old war horse with such a wealth of dull, slipshod absurdities that, songs notwithstanding, the wonder now is how it ever got by in the first place." The film eventually was sold to television, but has rarely aired outside of the wee hours of the morning. The Desert Song itself has lived on. A version aired on live television in 1955 with Nelson Eddy in the lead. MacRae recorded the score twice, in a set of 78s in 1953 and later as a full recording for RCA with Dorothy Kirsten in 1963. For the 1987 centennial of Romberg's birth, the New York City Opera revived the operetta, with critics again extolling the score while lamenting the dated script.
Producer: Rudi Fehr
Director: H. Bruce Humberstone
Screenplay: Roland Kibbee
Based on an operetta by Sigmund Romberg, Laurence Schwab, Oscar Hammerstein II, Frank Mandel and Otto A. Harbach
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Art Director: Stanley Fleischer
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Kathryn Grayson (Margot), Gordon MacRae (Paul Bonnard/El Khobar), Steve Cochran (Capt. Fontaine), Raymond Massey (Yousseff), Dick Wesson (Benjy Kidd), Allyn Ann McLerie (Azuri), Ray Collins (Gen. Birabeau), Paul Picerni (Hassan), Frank DeKova (Mindar), William Conrad (Lachmed).
by Frank Miller