Sunday, October 19, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Desert Song (1953) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

In 1953 Warner Bros. remade the Sigmund Romberg musical THE DESERT SONG, which it had previously filmed in 1943. Both versions were very recently released on DVD by the Warner Archive; I reviewed the 1943 version last month and caught up with the remake this evening.

This version of THE DESERT SONG stars Gordon MacRae, Kathryn Grayson, and Steve Cochran in the roles played a decade earlier by Dennis Morgan, Irene Manning, and Bruce Cabot.

The story in the '40s version had been modified -- quite effectively, I thought -- so that Paul, a cafe pianist also known as the mysterious El Khobar, led desert tribesmen against the Nazis.

This time around Paul and the tribe he leads are battling evil tribesmen led by Raymond Massey and William Conrad. Paul, who has a different last name in this version, is a professor studying native tribes; his studies give him a plausible reason to disappear into the desert for periods of time. One of the strengths of the '53 version is how the movie effectively plays up a "Clark Kent" angle, with Paul as a mild-mannered, almost bumbling intellectual who removes his glasses and turns into the dashing desert chieftain.

MacRae and Grayson's singing is quite wonderful and reason enough for musical fans to own this DVD. The melodies are beautiful, and I expect I will be putting this DVD in at times just to enjoy the songs again.

Adorably handsome Steve Cochran is another plus for the later version; his role is really that of a secondary good guy and romantic competition for El Khobar, rather than the more ambiguous Vichy officer played by Bruce Cabot.

The production values for the 1953 version, on the other hand, are a definite negative. Whereas the 1943 version featured excellent location shooting in New Mexico and Arizona, keeping process photography to a minimum, the '53 production looks cheap; indeed, it must be admitted the first appearance of Gordon MacRae singing in the desert is downright cheesy, with blatant back projections. There is some location photography but the areas where filming took place, other than sand dunes, are not particularly striking.

The DVD seems to be in perfect condition, but the photography in '53 also cannot compare with the gorgeous Technicolor of the Morgan version, stunningly restored by the Warner Archive. The color is part of what made the '43 version a magical desert fantasy; here the photography by Robert Burks is pedestrian.

I also wasn't particularly wild about Dick Wesson and Allyn Ann McLerie in supporting roles; although Faye Emerson didn't dance, I found her much more believable as El Khobar's spy than the heavily made up McLerie. McLerie and Wesson, incidentally, appeared in another Warner Bros. musical in 1953 which is a favorite of mine, CALAMITY JANE with Doris Day and Howard Keel.

THE DESERT SONG (1953) was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone. The supporting cast includes Paul Picerni and Frank DeKova.

In a nutshell, musical fans should own both the 1943 and '53 versions of THE DESERT SONG, but it was Dennis Morgan's 1943 version which really spoke to my heart.

The DVD of the 1953 edition does not contain any extras.

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.


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