‘The Desert Song’ Is Pretty and Dull

This trip through the sands of Technicolor is more pretty than it is anything else.

Sigmung Romberg’s operetta The Desert Song has been filmed thrice. This 1943 version is the middle one, updated to 1939 on the eve of WWII. After being in limbo over rights issues, it’s now available in beautifully restored Technicolor from Warner Archives. Like its romantic couple, it’s both pretty and dull.

In the French colony of Morocco, some tribes are revolting. They’re willing to declare their loyalty to France for justice, but they’re being exploited by a local bigwig (Victor Francen) who’s forcing their labor to build a railroad in a secret deal with the Nazis. It’s not clear how their labor issues will be resolved after the French government takes over the railroad project (maybe they’ll be paid), but the movie ends before that. Meanwhile, the leader of one tribe, who calls himself El Khobar (Dennis Morgan), has a secret identity as an American piano player in a nightclub. A visiting French songstress (Irene Manning) falls for the way he sets her politics straight.

This premise would be more ridiculous if El Khobar weren’t obviously inspired by the real-life Lawrence of Arabia, and if he weren’t allowed to make a few surprisingly pungent remarks. He’s also careful to say that he’s not their leader, only of this one small group out of 60,000 tribesmen. When the romantic couple finally meet 30 minutes into the movie, she takes offense at his observations and says, “The French have as great a love for freedom as anyone.” He replies, “Sure, but you ought to export some of it to Morocco.” Later, he says, “You called the Riffs savages once before and I corrected you. I know they’re dirty and ignorant. The only cultural benefit they’ve had from our civilization is a kick in the face, a hundred years of slaughter and slavery.”

According to the American Film Institute, the material was sensitive enough to cause the film’s delay at the intervention of the Office of War Information. All this seditious talk comes closer to pertinent observations about Morocco than Casablanca (which recycled at least one backlot street), but that doesn’t make it a classic. As in Casablanca, it turns out the French cop (Bruce Cabot) ain’t so bad as we thought.

The movie comes alive during the visit to the Casbah. Suddenly, director Robert Florey allows his expressionist blood to simmer with exotic fever, and Bert Glennon’s photography begins weaving and ducking amid shadows and belly-dancers and smoke-curling hookahs and all manner of design bric-a-brac until you’d almost mistake it for a scene from Josef von Sternberg. Art director Charles Novi and set decorator Jack McConaghey were nominated for Oscars for their work here.

Aside from all of this, there’s lots of talk while the music bustles and the Technicolor sparkles. Among those present are Lynne Overman as an exasperated journalist, Gene Lockhart as a Frenchman gone native with fez, Faye Emerson as a dusky beauty narrowing her gaze amid cockatoos, Curt Bois (the pickpocket in Casablanca) as the little French censor, and Marcel Dalio (the croupier in Casablanca) as a stereotyped slippery Arab. A couple of action-packed scenes consist of sand and horses and gunfire on location in Arizona and New Mexico, which then turns the picture into a western! Now and then, our leads pause to polish their pipes in operetta mode, already outdated but sounding good, and that’s a wrap.

RATING 4 / 10