Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Desert Song ( 1953 )

"Over the ground there comes a sound; It is the drum, drum, drum of hoofbeats in the sand. Quiver with fear if you are near; it is the thunder of The Shadow and his band!"

The song of the Red Shadow and his band of Riffs echoes throughout the shifting sands of the desert bringing hope to the afflicted nomads who are under the tyrannic rule of the evil Sheik Youssef. Who is the turbaned hero who leads this motley band of men to fight injustice? It is none other than Paul Bonnard, by day a mild-mannered anthropologist, by night The Red Shadow, a gallant desert freedom fighter. Unbeknownst to General Birabeau of the Foreign Legion, this rebel he seeks to apprehend is, in fact, his very own son! Poor papa is in for a big surprise when he finds out Junior leads a double life!

The Desert Song, loosely based upon the real-life exploits of El Hadj Aleman, was originally an operetta written by Laurence Schwab, Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II. The story was first captured on celluloid in 1929 with John Boles portraying the dashing avenger and beautiful Carlotta King as Margot, the French girl he comes to love. Sigmund Romberg's lovely music was not neglected in this early musical, for it was the first all-talking, all-singing operetta to be brought to the screen and was a rousing success for Warner Brothers studios.

In 1946, the studio pulled out The Desert Song from their buried box of scripts, dusted it off and revamped it as a contemporary action film about Nazis in French Morocco. The charming Dennis Morgan crooned Romberg's tunes in his inimitable Irish way, while Irene Manning chirped along in merry operetta fashion. Bruce Cabot, Lynne Overman, Gene Lockhart and Jack La Rue rounded out the cast in this lavish Technicolor production. 

El Khobar aka The Red Shadow donning his Clark Kent disguise

Less than ten years later, a bright someone at the studio suggested that the old warhorse be brought out to race once again before being put out to graze in the pastures of past stories, and so The Desert Song was re-scripted and the Technicolor film cameras rolled once again as they embarked on this third adaptation with Gordon MacRae portraying our heroic Robin Hood of Morocco. 

As the old saying goes, the third time is the charmer....but not so in this case. While Gordon MacRae acts his part with plenty of gusto and romantic verve and Raymond Massey does a splendidly hammy impression of the dastardly Sheik Youseff, Kathryn Grayson's performance is utterly wooden and one has the impression that she had no desire to make the film. Ann Blyth was sorely needed for this part. Dick Wesson attempted some comic relief while Ray Collins, Frank De Cordova, and Allyn McLerie kept their faces and their lines straight. 

Margot is unimpressed with her lover

The musical numbers ( which include "One Alone" and "The Desert Song" ) are lovely and the spirit of adventure is present but the script ( by Roland Kibbee ) fails to inspire and the Technicolor is unusually dark for a Warner Brothers production, but perhaps this fault lies not in the original production but in the Warner Archive transfer to DVD. 

The film reaped only $2,000,000 at the box-office upon release and The Desert Song was never seen or heard again at Warner Brothers. In spite of its inconsistencies the film is an entertaining desert-adventure escapade to watch upon occasion but overall is just a mirage of what it could have been.

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