05 September 2017
Sigmund Romberg Strikes Back: The Desert Song, 1943
Warner Brothers' anti-Nazi version of The Desert Song was a brilliant, audacious idea. I think it shows that the studio, especially Jack Warner, had come to view everything through the lens of anti-Nazi activity.
The studio had been ahead of all the others in seeing the threat from Germany and forthrightly saying so, while others had let the fact that some profits would be lost if their films happened to be banned in Germany scare them into silence.
But from about 1937 on, Warners had found anti-Fascist themes in films of every genre, from is great biographies, like The Life of Emile Zola, to gangster films, comedies and musicals. Villains began to quite identifiably show totalitarian tendencies, and and the clearest signs of villainy were ethnic and social discrimination. As the years went on and the threat of war came closer, these themes became clearer and clearer. In 1938's King of the Underworld, for example, which is a re-make of Dr.Socrates from just a few years before, the brutal gangster defeated by the wily doctor has taken on proto-Fascist characteristics. These themes are beautifully demonstrated in one of the key scenes in The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938, where Errol Flynn, as Robin, explains to Olivia de Haviland, as Marian, why he, a noble, risks his life defending the poor and defenseless.
The turning point in Hollywood studios' even daring to mention the looming threat was Warner's own Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939. This was a hugely controversial production, based on investigative reporting, corroborated by the FBI, into the activities ,of an organization called the German-American Bund, which was in fact a front for secret activities directed from Germany aimed at undermining anti-Nazi sentiment and preparedness for conflict. The Bund threatened to sue the studio. Warner Brothers had a great stable of lawyers, who rather gleefully remarked that they couldn't wait to depose some of the organization's members under oath. Suddenly the lawsuit faded away. The film was made, and many of the actors were refugees from the Third Reich, many of them using pseudonyms to protect their families in Europe.
After this the gates opened, and anti-Nazi films began to appear in every studio's line-up. Hollywood finally had a great subject, and they generally did a great job with it; many of the finest films ever made were produced in this era. But Warner Brothers was still the most committed, and had the most experience. They also, it must be said, had the most experience re-using scripts, re-working them and changing just a few details to make a whole new movie. The aforementioned Dr. Socrates/King of the Underworld is one example; there are about five versions of Kid Galahad, set in other milieus, including The Wagons Roll at Night, just two years later, where the basic story is shifted from the boxing ring to a circus.
America entered World War 2 in December, 1941. As the war went on, the conflict moved to North Africa. And somebody somewhere at Warners saw an opportunity for one of their young male stars, Dennis Morgan, who had a beautiful singing voice. The Desert Song is a wildly successful musical/operetta by the great popular composer Sigmund Romberg. The rather odd story took place in North Africa, part of which was controlled by France; the hero was an American whose secret identity was El Khobar*, the mysterious leader of the tribes seeking liberation from foreign rule called the Riffs. The exotic setting, daring heroics, and gorgeous tunes had kept this musical going through generations of audiences.
It's not clear who wrote the script for this version (it was rumored to be director Robert Florey), but with a few tweaks the story was turned into a fight against Nazi agents manipulating the French, not French colonialism. There's even a scene where El Khobar explains the needs of the people that's almost exactly like Robin Hood's scene with Maid Marian. The plot is actually less silly in this version than the original plot of the original stage musical; the music is absolutely beautiful, and beautifully sung by Dennis Morgan and Irene Manning. Manning is sort of stiff as an actress, but her singing voice is lovely. The supporting cast included Lynne Overman, Faye Emerson, and Gene Lockhart (having a whale of a time as a mysterious and eccentric bar owner). Exteriors were filmed in Arizona, and viewers might recognize some the street exteriors shot in the studio -- they were re-used for a far more famous North Africa adventure, Casablanca.
The Desert Song is well worth seeing not just as a fun adventure with music, but as a sterling example of Warner Brothers' unwavering fight against Fascism -- using every weapon they had.
* Some of us remember the Hanna- Barbera cartoon character Quick Draw McGraw, a horse who acted as a sheriff in the old west, He had a secret identity, too -- El Kabong. Coincidence? I don't think so.