Captain Donald King of the British Army goes to India just as World War I breaks out, convincing his comrades that he is a coward. In reality, he is on a secret mission to rescue British ... See full summary »
Shiek Yousseff, poses as a friend of the French while secretly plotting to overthrow them. Apposing Yousseff are the Riffs, whose secret leader, The Red Shadow, is Paul Bonnard, a professor... See full summary »
H. Bruce Humberstone
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The activities of Nubi (Myrna Loy), a minx-like, Hungarian gypsy girl who, while on the run from her abusive husband, takes shelter in a farmhouse, where she seduces and holds in thrall all the male members of the family.
LIVING, THROBBING, MELODY, POURING FROM THE SCREEN WITH BOUNDLESS MAGNIFICENCE-THE SUPREME ACHIEVEMENT OF MODERN MOTION PICTURE ART! (Print ad-The Evening Independent,((St. Petersburg, Fla.)) 18 May 1929) See more »
It could have been a headliner in the history of film's transition to sound...
... instead it is barely a footnote. That is mainly because Warner Brothers failed to recognize that this era in film history - 1928-1929 - was a special time and required them to dispense with their rigid film release schedule. The Desert Song was complete and ready for release in November 1928 - one of the if not the first Technicolor all sound musicals, a true innovation and marvel of the time. But instead it sat in its can until May 1929, its scheduled release date. By that time it was a museum piece as MGM's Broadway Melody, released in February 1929, won all of the accolades and the Best Picture Oscar.
And now for the production itself, adapted from the musical, and the truest adaptation of all of the filmed versions. The film begins with The Riffs, Arab soldiers, charging across the desert, and camping in a small canyon. And I mean very small considering the breadth of the desert. That is because once the Riffs dismount their horses they break into the rousing "Riff Song", and the limitations of early sound cinematography do not allow for wide shots. The leader, "The Red Shadow" (John Boles), is actually the French Pierre Bierbeau . He tells his story to two of the Riffs -and it is the longest narrative in the film - because still in the age of the title card, the alternative would be dozens of title cards!
Pierre speaks of how his love for Margot caused him to join the French army years before, sending him to Morocco. He was ordered by the cruel general in charge there to attack and destroy an Arab village. He saw the savagery of such an act and refused. The general, Margot's father, accused him of treason, slapped him so hard he fell, and demanded he resign. Pierre fled into the desert, asked the Riffs to follow him as the Red Shadow - his face always disguised so they would not know he was French - and then he returned to town acting as though his disgrace in the army turned him into a flower picking simpleton. This allows him to wander in and out of the French settlement, learn of the Army's plans, and then warn and lead the Riffs as a sort of Robin Hood, always unsuspected by his fellow Frenchmen. Complications have arisen as now Pierre's father is the general charged with the capture of the Red Shadow, dead or alive.
Carlotta King plays Margot. WB's wardrobe people are a curious lot. They either have her dressed as a seductress and singing to the troops in a cabaret, or dressed in a riding habit which makes her look quite frumpy. Margot is engaged to the slimy soldier Fontaine (John Miljan). Apparently Fontaine is planning to marry Margot for at least partially political reasons, because he is carrying on with the "half caste" Azuri (Myrna Loy). The title card tells you she is "half caste" (part European), because not even in the precode era would a romance between a European and an Arab be allowed in an American film. Azuri learns the true identity of the Red Shadow, but she is biding her time as to what she does with the information. Poor Myrna Loy. Being forced by WB into roles where she is always the vindictive vamp who cannot speak in complete sentences. No wonder she fled from there as soon as her contract allowed.
Humor is injected into the plot by Benny Kid (John Arthur), a timid reporter with rather effeminate qualities. He is being vigorously pursued by the rather ditzy blonde flirt Susan (Louise Fazenda). Louise Fazenda spent 1929 playing the voluptuous giggly flirty type, but then in 1930 she suddenly is portraying portly prudish matrons from that point forward! I don't know what happened here, particularly since she was married to Warner Brothers producer Hal Wallis.
How wil this all work out? I'll let you watch and find out, but good luck finding a copy. Until recently all I could find was the blurry copy that has been around for years, the only copy in existence, the black and white print found in Jack Warner's vault. It appears this film has been recently restored. Of all of the players here - three had notable film careers that made it past the early sound era. Of course there is Myrna Loy who had a great career over at MGM, there is Louise Fazenda who played comic supporting roles until she retired in 1939, and finally there is John Boles whose rich tenor voice made him a natural in the early musicals and whose film career was robust until the beginning of WWII. Boles was unusual in that he was married to the same woman for 52 years until his death in 1969.
Forgive this long review, but these early sound films and their eccentricities are one of my guilty pleasures.
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