Monday, September 22, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Desert Song (1943) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Wow, where has THE DESERT SONG (1943) been all my life?!

Tied up by rights issues, that's where. Thankfully the Warner Archive has cleared up the legal problems and set it free, releasing it on a dazzling restored DVD. Watching THE DESERT SONG was pure joy.

I consider myself very knowledgeable when it comes to musicals, yet I previously had zero familiarity with Sigmund Romberg's THE DESERT SONG -- I hadn't even seen the 1953 Kathryn Grayson-Gordon MacRae version. I think approaching this adaptation of the operetta as a blank slate made it that much more special.

The 1943 version of THE DESERT SONG was adapted by Warner Bros. into an anti-Nazi WWII film. I can't compare it to the original, but the story here works wonderfully well.

Dennis Morgan plays Paul Hudson, a cafe pianist and singer in Africa who has a secret life as guerilla leader El Khobar.  El Khobar leads desert tribesmen against the Nazis to free enslaved workers and stop construction of a key railway line.

Irene Manning (YANKEE DOODLE DANDY) plays Margot, the French singer who falls for Paul, and Bruce Cabot is the Vichy officer who loves Margot and tries to discover El Khobar's identity. (Neither Manning or Cabot use French accents, but hey, it's 1940s Hollywood. Go with it!)

THE DESERT SONG is beautifully staged. The scene where El Khobar sings out and his army comes riding over the sand dunes, responding in song, gave me chills. In fact I think my eyes got a little misty because I respond emotionally to beauty, and it was such a thrilling moment.

A dance sequence in an out-of-the-way dive run by Pere FanFan (Gene Lockhart) is also particularly exciting and colorful, with terrific scoring. Best of all are the moments when the musical warning is played to tip the good guys off to the presence of El Khobar or the bad guys.

And the locations -- wow. Fantastic Technicolor shooting in New Mexico and Arizona. There are a few process shots, but much of the movie was filmed on location and it looks spectacular.

Morgan and Manning sing beautifully, and if I have any complaint at all, I would have liked the movie to have even more music!

It was a treat to discover Faye Emerson in the film, in a close to wordless role as a woman loyal to El Khobar. Lynne Overman is comic relief as a newspaperman who rooms with Paul and has no idea of his secret identity. The cast includes many more great faces including Victor Francen, Curt Bois, Jack La Rue, Marcel Dalio, Nestor Paiva, and Gerald Mohr.

THE DESERT SONG was directed by Robert Florey and filmed by Bert Glennon. Choreography was by LeRoy Prinz. It runs 95 minutes.

There are no extras, but this beautiful Technicolor restoration is more than enough. This is a must for those who love musicals and comes highly recommended.

The Warner Archive also just released the 1953 version with Kathryn Grayson and Gordon MacRae, which I hope to review in the next few weeks.

For more background on this release and the complicated rights issues, listen to the Warner Archive podcast.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Looking forward to seeing this.

4:18 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'd love to know your take, Jacqueline. What a treat this was!

Best wishes,

10:48 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

Can't wait to see this one. This has to be one of the happiest surprises on the DVD front in a long time.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Clay Walter said...

Oh, my! I've been trying to figure out the title of this for 1/4 of a century. It was on TV on a sunday (before the magic of the interwebs, DVD, etc., and I'm not sure that I ever knew the name.


Clayton @ Phantom Empires

7:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Kevin, I'd love to know what you think. I was really pleasantly surprised by how good it was.

Clay, so glad I could solve your mystery!

Best wishes,

11:20 AM  

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