Desert Song, The (DVD Review)6 Oct, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Dennis Morgan, Irene Manning, Bruce Cabot, Lynne Overman.
The oft-televised ’53 version of the Sigmund Romberg-Oscar Hammerstein II-Otto Harbach operetta, also just out from Warner Archive, has its own oddities, in that Hollywood didn’t make too many exotic musicals that featured Steve Cochran. But, lo and behold, this version shoehorns Nazis into its North African setting (think: a 1943 double feature with Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo), and that’s not even the headline here.
As with Warner’s reasonably recent home release (with tandem TCM showings) of The Constant Nymph, here’s a ’43 movie that has avoided TV airings for seven decades (I was no more than 10 when Casablanca aired on my local TV station for the first time). This exhibition rarity has to do with the usual quagmire over music rights, which means a lot of Romberg fans went to their graves without getting a fresh or even first-time look. But the real loss here is visual: Warner shot Song in screaming Technicolor, and if the studio made any other color movies during World War II beyond this, This Is the Army and Shine on Harvest Moon, I’d be grateful if someone could remind me. (James Cagney’s Captains of the Clouds came out in early 1942, which means its production came well before the Pearl Harbor attack.)
With The Constant Nymph, the modern-day payoff coincided with what old-timers remembered it to be: one of the better-to-best Hollywood movies of its year. With this one, I wasn’t expecting much because its director Robert Florey was predominantly a ‘B’ dweller whose most celebrated movie was probably his early co-directed 1928 short subject The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra — one of those textbook classics budding film students used to read about in class if they had an on-the-ball instructor. But after that, we’re probably talking Peter Lorre in The Beast With Five Fingers, which is only a classic of schlock (albeit amusing schlock). I’m not sure how Florey got the assignment for such a big undertaking, though the fact that he was born and raised in Paris must have had something to do with it. And make no mistake: this is a big production, bigger than I imagined.
This isn’t a movie that emboldens one to go to the mat even in a fixed wrestling match, but it is a great deal more entertaining than anyone expects from an operetta with Nazis. For one thing, Dennis Morgan — who actually did end his career in Westerns — is the movie’s action hero, which seems a little wilder in the original 1943 context when he was about to become the studio’s key resident tenor. For most of the story here, he just hangs around his downtown Morocco-based and practices scales in the bathtub, as loosey-goosey as, say, Gene Kelly in An American in Paris when he’s hanging out with Oscar Levant.
But we know in our hearts that something more has to be going on, given that the Moroccan heavy of the piece (Victor Francen) is forcing more or less slave labor to build a Nazi-backed private railroad to Dakar, only to have the activity rudely interrupted by attacks from native “Riffs” (a term that comes up a lot). Even before we learn that American Morgan isn’t just a nightclub pianist, he tries to convince the joint’s chanteuse (Irene Manning) that the Riffs aren’t the unwashed savages that nearly everyone here characterizes them as being. Well-groomed soprano Manning, whose screen career was limited, had recently co-starred in the last Bogart ‘B’-pic before he became a full-fledged superstar (The Big Shot, which was not exactly soprano-bait). The tabloid scandalmonger in me has always been intrigued by actresses who got married in real life the same year they got divorced from someone else. Manning did it twice and just missed by a year doing it a third time (thank you, IMDb.com), which has a way of making her look sexier. Somehow, King Kong’s Bruce Cabot fits into all this as a French colonel, but let’s not give away the store, here.
From a production design point of view, the movie is a dazzler, and a couple of the numbers have bounce — with the kind of pageantry associated with the Brothers Warner’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, only this time in three-strip color. Song’s setting obviously didn’t hurt given the release of Casablanca earlier in the year, and the screenplay works in at least one reference to the city, which probably isn’t coincidental. Cast as an Ohio-bred journalist who battles censors (a funny subplot I didn’t anticipate) is Lynne Overman — his last released movie though perhaps not the last he filmed before his death, given Song’s long production schedule and delayed release (over, ironically, censors who objected to the movie’s portrayal of certain segments of Allied France). Overman, who’d given an enjoyable performance the previous year in Cecil B. DeMille’s octopus spectacle Reap the Wild Wind, has a funny riff here about Central-Western Ohio — making me wonder if someone involved in the script spent some formative years in what was Jonathan Winters’ territory). For his part, Morgan was bred in Wisconsin, so everyone here was a long way from home — though all on a Warner back-lot where no expense was spared.