The Desert Song (1929 film)

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The Desert Song
theatrical release poster
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay by Harvey Gates
Story by Otto A. Harbach
Oscar Hammerstein II
Frank Mandel
Based on The Desert Song
1926 play/book
by Oscar Hammerstein II
Otto A. Harbach
Frank Mandel
Laurence Schwab
Sigmund Romberg
Book & Lyrics:
Otto A. Harbach
Oscar Hammerstein II
Frank Mandel [1]
Starring John Boles
Carlotta King
Louise Fazenda
Myrna Loy
Cinematography Barney McGill
Edited by Ralph Dawson
Furusawa [2]
Music by Irving Berlin
Sigmund Romberg
Oscar Hammerstein II
Otto Harbach
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • April 8, 1929 (1929-04-08)(New York City) [2]
Running time
125 minutes [2]
CountryUnited States
Budget$354,000 [3]
Box office$3,022,000 [3]

The Desert Song is a 1929 American Pre-Code operetta film directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring John Boles, Carlotta King, Louise Fazenda, and Myrna Loy. It was photographed partly in two-color Technicolor, the first film released by Warner Bros. to include footage in color. The film included a 10-minute intermission during which music was played.


It was based on the hit musical play with music by Sigmund Romberg and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Otto Harbach, and Frank Mandel, which opened at the Casino Theatre on Broadway on November 30, 1926, and ran for a very successful 465 performances. [4] [1] Although some of the songs from the show have been omitted, the film is otherwise virtually a duplicate of the stage production and extremely faithful to it.

On the basis of the success of The Desert Song, Warner Bros. quickly cast John Boles in an all-color musical feature called Song of the West , which was completed by June 1929 but had its release delayed until March 1930.


French General Birabeau has been sent to Morocco to root out and destroy the Riffs, a band of Arab rebels, who threaten the safety of the French outpost in the Moroccan desert. Their dashing, daredevil leader is the mysterious "Red Shadow". Margot Bonvalet, a lovely, sassy French girl, is soon to be married at the fort to Birabeau's right-hand man, Captain Fontaine. Birabeau's son Pierre, in reality the Red Shadow, loves Margot, but pretends to be a milksop to preserve his secret identity. Margot tells Pierre that she secretly yearns to be swept into the arms of some bold, dashing sheik, perhaps even the Red Shadow himself. Pierre, as the Red Shadow, kidnaps Margot and declares his love for her.

To her surprise, Margot's mysterious abductor treats her with every Western consideration. When the Red Shadow comes face to face with General Birabeau, the old man challenges the rebel leader to a duel. Of course Pierre will not kill his own father, so he refuses to fight, losing the respect of the Riffs. Azuri, the sinuous and secretive native dancing girl, might be persuaded to answer some of these riddles if only she can be persuaded by Captain Fontaine. Meanwhile, two other characters, Benny (a reporter) and Susan provide comic relief. Eventually, the Red Shadow's identity is discovered, a deal is struck with the Riffs, and Pierre and Margot live happily ever after.

Pre-Code Sequences

After 1935, the original 1929 version became impossible to exhibit in the United States due to its pre-Production Code era content, which included sexual innuendo, lewd suggestive humor, and open discussion of themes such as homosexuality (e.g. Johnny Arthur plays a character who is obviously gay).[ citation needed ] Consequently, a cleaned-up remake was released in 1943, with a third version following in 1953.[ citation needed ]



According to Warner Bros records the film earned $1,549,000 domestically and $1,473,000 foreign. [3]

Film critic Violet LeVoit observes on

“If Warner Brothers had not sat on the completed reels of this two-strip Technicolor musical for five inexplicable months, it would have beat MGM's Broadway Melody (1929) into theaters and enjoyed the distinction of being the first all-talkie (all-singie?) musical. But while the considerably stiff and stodgy Broadway Melody won Best Picture in 1929, modern audiences find more to love in this Moroccan desert operetta... not only because of the Oscar Hammerstein lyrics but the snappy direction of Roy Del Ruth, the shadowy, sensuous cinematography by Barney McGill, and how stars John Boles and Carlotta King can (belt) out the bold music with more power than other wispy singers in the early days of amplified sound.“


Preservation status

The film exists only in a black and white copy. The film elements are missing from a small portion of one of the musical numbers but the complete soundtrack survives intact on Vitaphone disks. [5]

See also

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  1. 1 2 The Desert Song on Internet Broadway Database
  2. 1 2 3 4 The Desert Song at the American Film Institute Catalog
  3. 1 2 3 Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 7 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
  4. Musical Theatre Guide
  5. American Film Institute (1978) Catalog of Holdings The American Film Institute Collection and The United Artists Collection at The Library of Congress p.42