THE DESERT SONG (1929)

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silentfilm
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THE DESERT SONG (1929)

Unread post by silentfilm » Wed Jan 14, 2009 2:57 pm

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This early talkie, probably the first feature-length musical, was just announced for Cinefest. Coincidentally, I just found a 20-page program for the film, which I have posted on my website at http://www.silentfilmstillarchive.com/desert_song.htm .

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Some postings on alt.movies.silent say that an opening scene and a musical number were in two-strip technicolor, but there is no mention of any color scenes in the program. All that survives is the black and white version and the color scenes may have been lost when this title was converted to sound-on-film in the 1930s.

Incidentally, the consensus on a.m.s was that this is a stinker.

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Unread post by LouieD » Wed Jan 14, 2009 4:04 pm

If it's anything like "The Vagabond King" it will be a total snoozefest.

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Re: THE DESERT SONG (1929)

Unread post by Harlett O'Dowd » Wed Jan 14, 2009 4:40 pm

silentfilm wrote:
This early talkie, probably the first feature-length musical, was just announced for Cinefest.
No "probably." It was planned as a part talkie in 1928 but after Lights of New York, (according to Barrios,) it was the first full-length musical to go before the cameras (October-November 1928) but it was, inexplicably, held back until April 8, 1929 - more than two months after MGM had stolen everybody's thunder with The Broadway Melody.

(Note - principal photography for the BM also took place during October-November 1928 - but retakes continued into January 1929)
silentfilm wrote:
Incidentally, the consensus on a.m.s was that this is a stinker.
As early musicals go it's fine. With a score that includes "One Alone" and "The Riff Song" it's pretty hard to screw up.

And it's probably the most faithful (extant, anyway) stage-to-screen transfer until the James Whale's Show Boat in 1936 - although, obviously, not made with the same level of skill.

Still, if you go in expecting a filmed play instead of a movie and a play that's essentially a send-up of The Sheik hysteria and the Valentino myth, you'll have a good time.

And with Myrna Loy in her ethnic-spitfire period and Johnny Arthur in full flame mode, what's not to like?

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Unread post by silentfilm » Wed Jan 14, 2009 4:45 pm

Here's the silent version of the trailer from YouTube
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeoRHa9S ... re=related, which obviously does not feature any of the songs.

Supposedly the film had a problem when re-issued after the production code because Johnny Arthur's characters was obviously gay.

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Unread post by Harlett O'Dowd » Wed Jan 14, 2009 4:59 pm

LouieD wrote:If it's anything like "The Vagabond King" it will be a total snoozefest.
Have you seen the two-strip restoration on a big screen? It plays 1000% better than the b/w dupes I've seen on TV.

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Unread post by LouieD » Wed Jan 14, 2009 6:37 pm

Harlett O'Dowd wrote:
LouieD wrote:If it's anything like "The Vagabond King" it will be a total snoozefest.
Have you seen the two-strip restoration on a big screen? It plays 1000% better than the b/w dupes I've seen on TV.
Yup, last year at Capitolfest. Terrible movie.

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Unread post by Harlett O'Dowd » Wed Jan 14, 2009 6:46 pm

LouieD wrote:
Harlett O'Dowd wrote:
LouieD wrote:If it's anything like "The Vagabond King" it will be a total snoozefest.
Have you seen the two-strip restoration on a big screen? It plays 1000% better than the b/w dupes I've seen on TV.
Yup, last year at Capitolfest. Terrible movie.
have you ever seen an operetta on stage that you liked?

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Unread post by Harold Aherne » Wed Jan 14, 2009 6:59 pm

I haven't seen the early talkie version of either, but The Desert Song and The Vagabond King probably do require some love of and familiarity with the musical theatre of the time, particularly operetta--a genre now often represented as stuffy but which more often than not was done with a wink, and those who catch it can be rewarded. I love Jeanette and Nelson, and Naughty Marietta and Rose Marie are nowhere near the stodge-fests that they're often assumed to be.

The Desert Song did in fact have colour scenes during its first release. Our friend Mordaunt, in the NYT of 2 May 1929: "The initial scenes promise a good deal, for some of the flashes are in Technicolor. [...] The prismatic effects during the Technicolor stretches are beautiful and Roy Del Ruth, the director, has photographed some of these scenes so that the long shadows enhance the sight of Arab figures riding on the wind-swept sands".

Was this one included in the 1956 WB syndication package? If so, the colour might have been copied to B&W at that time. I don't recall it ever playing on TCM.

-Harold

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Unread post by LouieD » Wed Jan 14, 2009 8:34 pm

Harlett O'Dowd wrote:
LouieD wrote:
Harlett O'Dowd wrote: Have you seen the two-strip restoration on a big screen? It plays 1000% better than the b/w dupes I've seen on TV.
Yup, last year at Capitolfest. Terrible movie.
have you ever seen an operetta on stage that you liked?
I don't know, does it matter? The film should stand up on its own and "The Vagabond King" sucked ass.

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Unread post by Harlett O'Dowd » Thu Jan 15, 2009 10:15 am

LouieD wrote:
I don't know, does it matter? The film should stand up on its own and "The Vagabond King" sucked ass.
As Mr. Aherne pointed out, many people are operetta-challenged, so if you don't have an affinity for the form it can be tough sledding.

Add to that, these are the earliest of talkies where, in the strictest of technical terms, virtually every talkie before, say, All Quiet on the Western Front sucked ass.

That said, the performances in TDS are quite lively and the singing is well done. There's more winking than in the more stately and self-serious Vagabond King but you can count the times the camera moves on on one hand.

So - if early talkies and operettas aren't your cup of tea, it may be a very tough slog for you indeed.

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Unread post by silentfilm » Thu Jan 15, 2009 10:34 am

The only operetta that I've seen is The Bohemian Girl (1936), and I tolerate the operetta scenes just to get to the Laurel & Hardy scenes!

Another that I would love to see is The Rogue Song (1930), but of course that is lost except for the trailer and a few ballet scenes. I've got two pieces of sheet music from this film, and neither one mentions Laurel & Hardy!

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I guess the only film that I've seen pull of slapstick comedy and opera well is the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera (1935).

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Unread post by Harlett O'Dowd » Thu Jan 15, 2009 11:27 am

silentfilm wrote:The only operetta that I've seen is The Bohemian Girl (1936), and I tolerate the operetta scenes just to get to the Laurel & Hardy scenes!
What? You haven't experienced the life-altering experience that is Golden Dawn?????

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Unread post by Richard P. May » Thu Jan 15, 2009 1:24 pm

Since this thread started, I've been trying to do some research on DESERT SONG. It is part of the Turner library (not TCM necessarily, but the pre-1950 WB movies). I once borrowed a 16mm print, I think from Library of Congress, and had the opportunity to see it. Yes, it is very creaky, but one has to allow for the early sound period.
I can't find anything authentic referring to a color sequence. I have a list of Technicolor productions up to 1936, which includes every live action item, whether feature, short, insert, etc. and DESERT SONG isn't listed. It could have been shot in MultiColor, or some alternative 2-color process.
One of the earlier postings refers to having seen this picture at the Capitolfest last year, restored with the color sequence. I can't find reference to this showing on the Capitolfest's website, either. Could this have referred to some other operetta of the same period, such as VAGABOND KING, which was preserved by UCLA several years ago?
I don't know of any preservation of DESERT SONG. We certainly didn't do it at Turner.
I had asked the legal department to let me know why the first two versions were not available for distribution (this, and the 1943 production with Dennis Morgan and Irene Manning). I got back a three-page memo with details about very complicated ownership of the music and drama rights. It seems that WB cleared these for the 1953 version (Gordon MacRae, Kathryn Grayson), but the earlier ones were more complicated than it was worth to clear. This was over 15 years ago, and this correspondence is no longer available, so I can't give more than my memory of it.
If it did run at Capitolfest, I'd find it interesting to know the source of the print, especially one with color sections.
Dick May

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Unread post by Harlett O'Dowd » Thu Jan 15, 2009 1:53 pm

Richard P. May wrote:Since this thread started, I've been trying to do some research on DESERT SONG. It is part of the Turner library (not TCM necessarily, but the pre-1950 WB movies). I once borrowed a 16mm print, I think from Library of Congress, and had the opportunity to see it. Yes, it is very creaky, but one has to allow for the early sound period.
I can't find anything authentic referring to a color sequence. I have a list of Technicolor productions up to 1936, which includes every live action item, whether feature, short, insert, etc. and DESERT SONG isn't listed. It could have been shot in MultiColor, or some alternative 2-color process.
One of the earlier postings refers to having seen this picture at the Capitolfest last year, restored with the color sequence. I can't find reference to this showing on the Capitolfest's website, either. Could this have referred to some other operetta of the same period, such as VAGABOND KING, which was preserved by UCLA several years ago?
I don't know of any preservation of DESERT SONG. We certainly didn't do it at Turner.
I had asked the legal department to let me know why the first two versions were not available for distribution (this, and the 1943 production with Dennis Morgan and Irene Manning). I got back a three-page memo with details about very complicated ownership of the music and drama rights. It seems that WB cleared these for the 1953 version (Gordon MacRae, Kathryn Grayson), but the earlier ones were more complicated than it was worth to clear. This was over 15 years ago, and this correspondence is no longer available, so I can't give more than my memory of it.
If it did run at Capitolfest, I'd find it interesting to know the source of the print, especially one with color sections.

Richard, the Capitolfest screening was the restored two-strip Vagabond King.

Barrios goes into Desert Song in some detail and according to him, yes, it did originally contain two-strip sequences, presumably limited to the outdoor desert shots.

Due to the multiple remakes (there's also a two-reel cutdown from the early 40s that TCM airs from time to time as filler) Barrios suggests that it may not even have been saved to b/w for TV but that a b/w print was found in Jack Warner's fault and that is how it survives.

Barrios also notes that the initial release earned 3M at the BO - making it Waners' highest grossing film (after The Singing Fool) in company history up to that time.

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Unread post by silentfilm » Thu Jan 15, 2009 2:03 pm

The Desert Song has not been on any announced schedules for Capitalfest. The Vagabond King did show at Capitalfest in 2008.

According to Jeff Cohen's Vitaphone Blog it was shown at a long-ago Cinefest. It was not commented on in any Cinefest comments on alt.movies.silent since about 1997 or so. Jeff's blog also mentions that there was a road-show version and a standard version. The road-show version included overture music. Jeff has more information and some contemporary reviews in his blog.

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Unread post by LouieD » Thu Jan 15, 2009 2:48 pm

"The Desert Song" is going to be at Cinefest, not Capitolfest, and will be the same print shown there about 20 years ago.

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Unread post by Richard P. May » Thu Jan 15, 2009 5:04 pm

Since there is so much comment about two-color sequences, I thought a bit of technical information is appropriate.
There was never any "two-strip" Technicolor. Two-color, yes, but it was photographed on one strip of film.
The phrase "two-strip" has been incorrectly used since time immemorial, undoubtedly an offshoot of the correct "three-strip".
Rather than try to expain it, I refer anyone interested to www.widescreenmuseum.com, then go to "Early Color Processes". You'll get lots of excellent, accurate information, along with photos and diagrams.
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Unread post by Jack Theakston » Thu Jan 15, 2009 5:44 pm

The confusion also lies in other bi-pack color processes, which were indeed two-strip.

Why Technicolor continued to use a wonky camera and even wonkier film process (the double-cemented prints, which may also be the source of the "two-strip" moniker) and survived we can only chalk up to a good business model, but a technically lousy early system.
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Unread post by radiotelefonia » Thu Jan 15, 2009 7:48 pm

silentfilm wrote:The only operetta that I've seen is The Bohemian Girl (1936), and I tolerate the operetta scenes just to get to the Laurel & Hardy scenes!

Another that I would love to see is The Rogue Song (1930), but of course that is lost except for the trailer and a few ballet scenes. I've got two pieces of sheet music from this film, and neither one mentions Laurel & Hardy!

Image Image

I guess the only film that I've seen pull of slapstick comedy and opera well is the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera (1935).
I left behind in Argentina not one but two sheet music editions featuring exctly the very same design of the second cover but with all the text replaced with Spanish translations.

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Unread post by dr.giraud » Thu Jan 15, 2009 7:50 pm

Richard P. May wrote:Since this thread started, I've been trying to do some research on DESERT SONG. It is part of the Turner library (not TCM necessarily, but the pre-1950 WB movies). I once borrowed a 16mm print, I think from Library of Congress, and had the opportunity to see it. Yes, it is very creaky, but one has to allow for the early sound period.
I can't find anything authentic referring to a color sequence. I have a list of Technicolor productions up to 1936, which includes every live action item, whether feature, short, insert, etc. and DESERT SONG isn't listed. It could have been shot in MultiColor, or some alternative 2-color process.
One of the earlier postings refers to having seen this picture at the Capitolfest last year, restored with the color sequence. I can't find reference to this showing on the Capitolfest's website, either. Could this have referred to some other operetta of the same period, such as VAGABOND KING, which was preserved by UCLA several years ago?
I don't know of any preservation of DESERT SONG. We certainly didn't do it at Turner.
I had asked the legal department to let me know why the first two versions were not available for distribution (this, and the 1943 production with Dennis Morgan and Irene Manning). I got back a three-page memo with details about very complicated ownership of the music and drama rights. It seems that WB cleared these for the 1953 version (Gordon MacRae, Kathryn Grayson), but the earlier ones were more complicated than it was worth to clear. This was over 15 years ago, and this correspondence is no longer available, so I can't give more than my memory of it.
If it did run at Capitolfest, I'd find it interesting to know the source of the print, especially one with color sections.
When Warners opened the Madison Theater in here in Albany, NY, the opening film was THE DESERT SONG and Al Jolson came up from NYC for opening night. One of my colleagues did some research on this a few years ago; he's not with the paper I work for anymore but I can ask him what he dug up. Oddly enough, the only two neighborhood cinemas left in Albany (though both have been greatly remodeled) were Warner theaters: the Delaware, now the Spectrum, opened with MEET JOHN DOE.
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Unread post by silentfilm » Fri Jan 16, 2009 9:43 am

Here's the New York Times review by Mordaunt Hall, and he definitely refers to color scenes. Notice how he has a problem with characters breaking out in song during a dramatic scene...

May 2, 1929
THE SCREEN; A Vitaphone Operetta.
By MORDAUNT HALL.
Published: May 2, 1929
With colorful settings, impressive scenes of Riffs ahorse on the undulating sands and some well-recorded singing, the first audible film operatta came to the screen of Warners Theatre last night under the auspices of the Warner Brothers and through the medium of the Vitaphone. It is an interesting experiment but one wherein the story even allowing for the peculiar license necessary for such offerings, lays itself open to chuckles rather than sympathy or concern regarding the events.

The initial scenes promise a good deal, for some of the flashes are in Technicolor. The characters, however, seem to seize upon song at inopportune moments, which fact might be all very well on the stage but it is a weakness in a picture, for it causes sudden fluctuations of moods, of the persons involved, that are conducive to merriment. The characters in this tale of the French and the Riffians are so easily hoodwinked by the individual known as the Red Shadow that it becomes ludicrous, and added to this there are lines of dialogue that cannot be listened to with a straight face.

The comedy offered by a society reported of the Paris newspaper is really of too low an order to fit in with this type of musical offering, even though it did create laughter.

The singing, however, is good, and it would be a great deal better if the theatre reproducing device was tuned down a little, for the vocal tones are invariably far louder than the human voice. This is a shortcoming that can be corrected, and some of the interludes of melody are truly effective. John Boles, who plays the Red Shadow, the masked head of a band of daring Riffians, has a voice that is quite pleasing. Carlotta King as Margot, the French girl who seeks adventure, is rather overwhelming during a number of passages in which she is called upon to sing. There are other agreeable voices and an imposing chorus. It is somewhat disquieting, however, when during a dramatic juncture the Ouled Nail dancing girls and the French officers and the Riffs relieve their feelings in an outburst of song.

In one sequence, General Birbeau is supposed to be so engrossed in his conversation that he does not observe that the whole place is overrun with Riffs. One presumes that a shadow in the doorway would have been seen by this white-haired military leader. But there are none so blind as those who must not see and none so deaf as those who must not hear!

The Red Shadow is the General's son, who poses as somewhat weakminded when he is unmasked, but so soon as he goes to a wooden trunk and pulls forth (as he does countless times during this yarn) his Red Shadow costume, he becomes an intrepid leader, a man of unflinching courage, a wit who dares to be in love with the bored Margot. One might imagine that Margot would have suspected the Red Shadow and Pierre Birbeau were one and the same person, but she never for an instant reveals that she thinks so. It is with marvelous case that Pierre pulls the wool over the eyes of all his companions and toward the end he is challenged by his father to a sword duel. Of course, rather than fight with his father, he undergoes temporary disgrace at the hands of his band of Riffs.

The prismatic effects during the Technicolor stretches are beautiful and Roy Del Ruth, the director, has photographed some of these scenes so that the long shadows enhance the sight of Arab figures riding on the wind-swept sands.

Johnny Arthur tries hard to be funny and sometimes succeeds. Louise Fazenda is his mate in the picture and she endeavors to help along the lighter vein. Edward Martindel is none too military in his bearing as the old general. John Miljan is acceptable as a Captain Fontaine, who is as credulous as the rest of the characters.

"The Desert Song" music is by Sigmund Romberg, while the book is by Oscar Hammerstein 2d, Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel. It is an adaptation of the stage offering that was presented at the Casino Theatre in December. 1926.


A Vitaphone Operetta.
THE DESERT SONG, a Vitaphone singing and talking production, with Joan Boles, Carlotta King, Louise Fazenda, Johnny Arthur, Edward Martindel, Jack Pratt, Otto Hoffman, Robert E. Guzmab, Marle Wells, John Miljan, Del Elliott and Myrna Loy, based on the operetra, "The Desert Sons." directed by Roy Del Ruth. At Warners Theatre.

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Unread post by Richard P. May » Tue Jan 20, 2009 10:10 am

Somebody has posted this whole movie on YouTube under the title DESERT 'MELODY' FROM 1929.
It is apparently from a many-generation VHS, which in turn was from a badly warped 16mm print. The image is sort of hard to watch, but the sound is quite good.
The music underscores everything, songs (of course), spoken dialog, and just action sequences.
It is probably a pretty good version of what was seen on stage a few years earlier, without the updates of the 1943 and 1953 remakes.
It's hard to watch, but gives a historical look at an early major sound film.
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Unread post by elalamo » Thu Apr 02, 2009 5:29 pm

There's a short subject version of "Desert Song" called "The Red shadow" (1932). Does anyone know if it survives? I've also ordered a 1955 TV version but am pessimistic about the quality of the video.
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Unread post by Harlett O'Dowd » Fri Apr 03, 2009 7:04 am

elalamo wrote:There's a short subject version of "Desert Song" called "The Red shadow" (1932). Does anyone know if it survives? I've also ordered a 1955 TV version but am pessimistic about the quality of the video.
TCM has run a two-reel version many many times. I seem to remember it being a late 30s/early 40s effort, but these may be one and teh same.

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Unread post by Ray Faiola » Fri Apr 03, 2009 7:09 am

silentfilm wrote:Supposedly the film had a problem when re-issued after the production code because Johnny Arthur's characters was obviously gay.
What is this based on?
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Unread post by FrankFay » Fri Apr 03, 2009 7:37 am

Arthur's character is a bit of a Nance, but I wouldn't say "Obviously Gay".
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Unread post by greta de groat » Fri Apr 03, 2009 12:16 pm

Richard P. May wrote:Somebody has posted this whole movie on YouTube under the title DESERT 'MELODY' FROM 1929.
It is apparently from a many-generation VHS, which in turn was from a badly warped 16mm print. The image is sort of hard to watch, but the sound is quite good.
The music underscores everything, songs (of course), spoken dialog, and just action sequences.
It is probably a pretty good version of what was seen on stage a few years earlier, without the updates of the 1943 and 1953 remakes.
It's hard to watch, but gives a historical look at an early major sound film.
I watched some of these and they are hysterical! Poor Myrna Loy is even worse her than in The Squall. And Carlotta King's song while fondling the sword is a hoot. It might be the recording, but she sounds even worse that Grace Moore. I really like musicals, but this one is approaching Golden Dawn in sheer awfulness.

I'm curious about the Cinefest screening. Did everyone laugh or go to sleep?

TCM has run "The Red Shadow" and i thought it was pretty good.

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Unread post by FrankFay » Fri Apr 03, 2009 3:51 pm

Some people walked in and out of the showing to visit the dealers room (I was one) but I think most people were fairly neutral towards the film. I caught the beginning and everyone was laughing at John Boles' posturing and lines like "You are a Mohammedan- how can you understand Christian love?" and at Johnny Arthur falling off a horse. The whole movie would have been better if the words had been more clearly audible- Johnny Arthur and Louise Fazenda's scenes seemed to go on forever because I couldn't understand most of the jokes. I came back during Myrna Loy's big dance where giggles over her accent merged into hubba-hubbas. There were a lot of unintentionally funny spots like that, but it wasn't a laugh riot. On the other hand it wasn't boring enough to put people to sleep. The best part of The Desert Song is the music, and what ever his flaws (and there are many) Boles was quite a singer and looked dashing in his Riff costume.
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Unread post by FrankFay » Fri Apr 03, 2009 4:57 pm

Here's a clip from "The Red Shadow"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlMeb8v18hY
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Unread post by Bob Birchard » Sat May 23, 2009 12:54 pm

Harlett O'Dowd wrote:
Richard P. May wrote: I don't know of any preservation of DESERT SONG. We certainly didn't do it at Turner.

Due to the multiple remakes (there's also a two-reel cutdown from the early 40s that TCM airs from time to time as filler) Barrios suggests that it may not even have been saved to b/w for TV but that a b/w print was found in Jack Warner's fault and that is how it survives.

Barrios also notes that the initial release earned 3M at the BO - making it Waners' highest grossing film (after The Singing Fool) in company history up to that time.
The Desert Song was preserved by LOC, and it has run at Cinefest before. There is apparently at least one 16mm print in a private collector's hands made from the LOC material. It is a very primitive talkie, and the only saving grace is the great Romberg songs.

The short described as being from the 1940s and being a cut down of the 1929 Desert Song is neither. It is a Warner short from 1932 called The Red Shadow, which is basically a tab version of the longer show, but it is completely re-shot with a different cast--Alexander Gray and Bernice Claire. John Boles and Carlotta King are in the 1929 feature.

That said, the staging of The Red Shadow is equally primitive and when I first saw it I believed it was a cut down, or in some way used parts of the feature. However, such was not the case.

If there are rights complications on the 1929 and 1943, these restrictions ought to apply to The Red Shadow as well, but I doubt that anyone at Warners or among the rights holders has paid much attention to any issues that might be involved with this short

I don't know all the rights complications. I do recall that we were able to clear a screening of the 1943 Desert Song with Turner when we had Irene Manning as a guest at Cinecon in the 1990s. The 1943 version is easily the best of the screen adaptations--though the story is updated to bring in Nazis in North Africa.

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