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Candidates for the National Film Registry: The Desert Song

Introduction by Brian Taves

The original stage operetta of THE DESERT SONG had a strong score and an intriguing premise with only a very shallow plot, and was filmed faithfully in 1929, and in 1953, the version widely shown on television today. The 1929 version had been hampered by early sound technology and was shot entirely in the studio in black and white, and during the next decade Warners had tried unsuccessfully to come up with a way to remake it while eliminating the creaky, cliche-ridden plot elements. Script after script was rejected until early in 1942, when director Robert Florey and producer Robert Buckner proposed a serious and realistic treatment centering around current events in Morocco. The Vichy regime was overseeing construction of a trans-Saharan railway, built with forced Arab labor and financed by the Third Reich. Transferring Nazi manipulation of French colonial rule to the years just prior to World War II effectively modernized the operetta's setting, and gave political significance to its depiction of a native revolt.

In emphasizing the adventurous aspects of the plot, rather than leaving it as a backdrop, important changes were made to the score, with Buckner and Florey eliminating those aspects that did not assist plot development. Music highlights the action, for instance as a lone rider summons the rebel forces for the initial attack on the French railroad to free the Riff prisoners. Events progress during the musical numbers: desert shots depict the heroine's subjective imagination, while one of the French official's moral instincts surface during a patriotic dance.

Buckner and Florey converted the female lead into a professional singer instead of the love-struck girl of the operetta. The humor was overhauled by adding an American reporter whose "scoops" are constantly censored by an effeminate French government official--a sly dig at the Hays office but also an unintentional foreshadowing of the film's fate at the hands of censors. Despite the collaboration on the new screenplay, the final release credits made no mention at all of the scriptwriters.

The star of the new version of THE DESERT SONG had actually been selected several years earlier, after two screen tests in early 1939. The first had been under his real name, Stanley Morner, and the second under his new screen name, Dennis Morgan. No other actors were tested for the lead, and Dennis Morgan would become Warner's leading star of the 1940s.

To add to the authenticity of the topical story, the North African desert locale was reproduced with the utmost possible realism; director Florey was familiar with the region from a 1923 trip. After surveying Palm Springs, Lone Pine, Death Valley, Victorville, Las Vegas, Utah, and Arizona, a location near Gallup, New Mexico was selected. Increasing wartime constraints convinced Warners to begin photography as soon as possible in 1942, even though this meant filming in the sweltering heat of the desert in June and July.

THE DESERT SONG is a movie that demonstrates the importance of landscape in creating the setting of a fictional movie, with its use of the outdoors enhancing the mood and themes; such famous songs as "The Riff Song" and "You and I" achieve a new richness when set against actual desert vistas. Eventually nearly 200 individuals were sent to New Mexico for 24 days. Warners needed every old car, taxi, and bus that could commandeer, because every morning the cast and crew had to travel 30 to 110 miles, an hour by car or bus, plus another hour on horseback into the hills and canyons. The temperature seldom dipped below 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and wind and sand storms were frequent, damaging the sensitive three-strip Technicolor cameras, and requiring the cast and crew to wear gas masks as protection for throat and eyes. Indians were paid $5 per day as extras for themselves plus their horse to create spectacular, large-scale battles. For panoramic scenes, there were only two good hours for shooting each day, and in the morning the Navajos would play the Arabs, while in the afternoon they would impersonate the French cavalry.

The location shooting alone cost $107,000, nearly twice the amount budgeted, and was the last elaborate location jaunt before wartime restrictions went into effect. The stunning New Mexico scenes, photographed in bright, vivid Technicolor hues, were complemented back in the studio with sets and photography using such visual motifs as narrow city streets, framing shots through Moorish gates and windows, and composition in depth. Florey decorated the sets with many items from his own collection, such as his Toulouse-Lautrec posters on the café walls. French refugees from fascism were prominently employed on the film, including Victor Francen, who plays the Arab collaborating with the Nazis, and technical director Eugene Lourie, who had just arrived in the United States from France via Casablanca. Production lasted a total of 72 days (eight over schedule), from June to September 1942.

Warner Bros. planned to have THE DESERT SONG in release by the beginning of 1943, but by then it had become enmeshed in wartime censorship. The script had been written and production was underway before all the various wartime guidelines had been fully codified. In December 1942, an analysis by the Office of War Information's Bureau of Motion Pictures condemned THE DESERT SONG for an unsympathetic depiction of the French, recommending either a complete revision or shelving for the duration of the war. Real events came to resemble the movie: November 1942 saw the Allied invasion of North Africa, and idealists were outraged by the Roosevelt administration's pragmatic decision to accept surrender from a Vichy leader. A film which so forcefully denounced the Vichy French could only fuel the controversy.

Warner Bros. decided to wait more than a year, until December 1943, before premiering THE DESERT SONG. Even then the movie ran into political trouble as the Free French pressed Warners to eliminate certain scenes Florey had inserted that related to colonialism, such as the line "why doesn't France export some of its love of freedom." Not until August 1944 was THE DESERT SONG granted a general export license, and only with a provision precluding sale to countries with substantial Moslem or Arab populations, presumably because of the glorification of a native revolt.

After all the difficulties, the effort put into THE DESERT SONG proved worthwhile. Going into general domestic release early in 1944, fifteen months after its completion, it was a box-office champion, and critical reaction was generally favorable as well. Nonetheless, general audiences have not seen it in over fifty years. A rights problem in one added song has precluded television or video release of this version of THE DESERT SONG. This is unfortunate, since despite its timely theme, this version of THE DESERT SONG hardly dates and stands the passage of years remarkably well.

M/B/RS staff member Brian Taves earned his Ph.D. in cinema-television from the University of Southern California and is the author of The Romance of Adventure: The Genre of Historical Adventure Films (University Press of Mississippi, 1993) and other books.

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( July 19, 2011 )
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