funny that way
by Douglas Messerli
Harvey Gates (screenplay, based on the musical by Otto A. Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein II, nad Frank Mandel with music by Sigmund Romberg), Roy Del Ruth (director) The Desert Song / 1929
The film version of successful Broadway musical The Desert Song, with a book by Otto A. Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II, and music by Sigmund Romberg might have been the first talkie musical if the Warner Brothers executives hadn’t sat on the finished film for five months, allowing MGM’s Broadway Melody that distinction and helping it to win the Best Picture Oscar of 1929.
I can’t believe, however, that this crazy concoction of a Moroccan landscape in which the Riffs are at war with the French and the choruses of Muslim soldiers back up the highly romantic ballads such as “Love’s Dear Yearning,” “The Desert Song,” and “Let Love Go” might have won any such award despite its great popularity at the time.
The singing by John Boles playing the hero The Red Shadow and Carlotta King as Margot is more of the turn-of-the-century than the Harlem jazz and other new musical crazes of the 1920s. If the “IT” girl is referenced, she hasn’t yet found her way into this work. Although Myrna Loy is a sketch as the evil Arab native Azuri and Johnny Arthur is often funny as the whining news reporter Benny Kidd, most of the secondary figures clearly haven’t apparently yet visited an acting class. And the whole story, despite the pedigree of its authors, is a mess of genres and literary cliches.
Imagine an early version of Lawrence of Arabia stolen from the newspaper headlines of a decade earlier, and then throw in the horror genre favorite of the dual personality like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only this time the two figures in one man are a bit more like Superman and Clark Kent or the 1919 version of Zorro who was secretly, Don Diego Vega, the son Don Alejandro de la Vega, the richest landowner in California. If Kent is a kind of stumbling nerd and Don Diego a cowardly fop, then you’ll have no problem recognizing General Bierbeau’s son Pierre who is a sleepy, stumbling innocent who by day, puts on a mask and red cloak and roams the desert laying waste with Riff followers to the French who treat natives like they were slaves.
But, of course, it is Pierre who truly is in love with Margot, and it was her disregard for him that led him to join the French military contingent in Morocco. But when he realized how badly the native Arabs were being treated, he dared to argue with the former General and was beaten and hounded out of the military. His only solution was to create his own alternative army and to work against the very force that he once represented. Now his father has been sent to Morocco to destroy the man who he cannot imagine is his own son.
Margot likes the awkward and dreamy Pierre, but sees him as more like a “sister” she declares, someone to whom she can tell all her secrets, instead of a potential lover. Besides she has already convinced herself that she’d better off with the Arab villain than her own kind.
In a sense, accordingly the play has already established the one face of the film’s hero as a “sissie,” and we soon discover that his other half, although far more forceful and capable of expressing heterosexual love, is equally a romantic, interested more in romancing a woman than in the modern methods of expressing love. As he sings of himself:
All my love is gentle
My appeal is mental.
Since we know from the first two marching songs “Riff Song” and French Marching Song” that these two will eventually march into one another’s arms and sing out their love until the final frame flickers black, the only element of intrigue is how Clark Kent will be able to reveal that he’s really Zorro without destroying his father’s career and bringing down the French military’s wrath. It just doesn’t look good if the General’s son turns out to be the warrior bandit that you’ve been trotted to out kill. But otherwise, the romance between Margot Bonvalet and The Red Shadow (a.k,a. Pierre and Marge) is basically a yawn-inspiring series of events.
Send in the clowns, this time the secondary cast consisting of Benny Kidd the newspaper reporter who insists he came to the desert for his health but has actually been sent into this silly musical to save the day along with his secretary, Susan (Louise Fazenda), Benny’s protector and would-be lover— if she can convert from being what critic Richard Barrios describes him as: “Small of frame and beady eye [Benny], Arthur often [seems] less of a person than a prissy rabbit nearing a breakdown.” In short, Arthur plays his character as an out-and-out Hollywood pansy, with a voice, Barrios observes, “so whiny that it probably caused early speaker systems to hum and buzz incessantly.”
Since he is a major character, instead of simply a type who appears for no reason other than to establish that such sissies exist, by film’s end the writers and director have marry off Benny as well, even if his final surrender to Susan makes absolutely no sense. By 1935, when the Hays Code began to be strictly enforced the 1929 cut was no longer able to shown due to Arthur’s character and other sexual innuendos. A “cleaned-up” version was finally re-released in 1943, and another version was issued a decade later, but I can’t imagine how uninteresting those two films must have been.
Meanwhile, Arthur’s Benny provides the major reason to watch this relic. In his very first scene, after falling off his horse into the bottom of a giant sand dune where the Riff’s capture him, Red Shadow’s lieutenants debate what to do with their discovery. The scuzziest of the two argues that he’s a spy and they should kill him, the other strapping Arab simply trying to get him to speak up and identify himself. Benny’s answer as he dusts himself off: “How’s everything, big boy?”
First Riff: He’s a spy—let’s kill him!
Benny: Stop! Don’t do that! Do you want everybody to hate you?
Don’t be so effeminate! Where do you think you are,
in Chicago? .........
Second Riff: What are you doing in Morocco?
Benny: Nothing. Make me an offer.
Second Riff: Search him.
(The first Riff moves his hand into Benny’s back pocket. Benny
flinches and jumps.)
Benny: Ohhhhh, don’t do that—I’m funny that way!
Before long he’s got them both involved in a long telling of his life story, playing off the better- looking one against the other by declaiming, every time he makes an illusion to an attractive man or woman or a sexual pun, of the first “You wouldn’t know what I mean,” before turning to the other and hinting, “You would” or “You might.” Of Pierre, for example, he notes to the first, “You wouldn’t like him,” and to the second, “You might,” and again turning to the first Riff, “No, you wouldn’t.” A rather ironic series of comedic lines, since as The Red Shadow’s trusted friends, they both very much love him, and know his secret. The Red Shadow himself finally intervenes, eventually returning to the French fortress with Benny in tow.
Despite the fact that Benny, having now actually seen The Red Shadow, has something to report, he soon determines to leave Morocco having evidently received a bill he cannot pay.
Too bad the story writers keep having to wheel in the two Pierres, Margot, and Fontaine, who the General wants her to wed. Fortunately, when Billy is offstage, director Roy Del Ruth interrupts the regular goings on with the real spy of his film Azuri, who discovering The Red Shadow’s identity, gradually arranges to punish both Captain Fontaine for rejecting her over Margot and the General for trying to throw her out of the French quarters by arranging for The Red Shadow/Pierre to be rejected by the French for having kidnapped Margot and the Arabs for involving them in the kidnapping of a Western woman. Meanwhile, she and her native girlfriends perform a kind of conventionalized version of a belly dance and Loy lights up the screen with her sultry anger whenever the script gives her an opportunity.
When Azuri finally leads the General to The Red Shadow at Sid El Kar’s palace, he challenges the young dashing hero to a duel in which obviously the son cannot engage. No matter which of them wins the battle, a father or his son will die. The refusal, however, to enter into such a challenge in the Riff world represents a cowardice so unforgiveable that he who refuses is sentenced to be sent off into the desert without food or water, with only a broken sword to fight for survival.
The ruthless and cruel control of the region by the French, moreover, is revealed when the General sends Captain Fontaine to go in search for him and kill him, despite the fact that The Red Shadow is now defenseless. Margot begs with him to change his mind, but he refuses. Fortunately, the vain Fontaine doesn’t kill him but drags his prize back to the Fortress in order to hang him.
There The Red Shadow finally reveals, in a private moment, his identity to his father. Utterly unbelievably, General Bierbeau, to save face, claims that he’s not sure that he could really have been his son and since no one else knows he will pretend ignorance, while recognizing that he might be able to use a man like The Red Shadow to help mend fences with his Arab subjects.
Margot, finally admitting that she is in love with The Red Shadow joins the infidel in a song fest that assures us that the couple will soon be married; just how the “Shadow” intends on living with a wife pretending he is not the incompetent Pierre is something the movie doesn’t even try to explain. But in gay cinema several transgender men have hidden their sexuality to their Western husbands, so perhaps if he keeps on makeup and mask on for the rest of his life, he will be able to convince Margot of his legendary existence, for revealing the truth would mean the end of his father’s life as he knows it.
Benny, who in the meantime has been sentenced to death for daring to enter Sid Al Kar’s harem, decides to wear Susan’s clothes in order to escape, she joining him on another desert adventure, where our sissy inexplicably gets the urge to kiss his secretary. And that’s all Susan needs, not even the kiss, to hear before she has them heading down the altar. Even in 1929, before the Hays Code had been developed and enforced, no sane director could allow a queer who played a central role in his film, to survive untouched. Even if absolutely no one believes it, the pansy, by film’s end has to go by another name, like a rose. Evidently the film studios felt that US viewers simply could not survive the shock of a queer comedic hero, demanding its audiences leap across a chasm of total incredulity to believe Johnny Arthur was a heterosexual at heart. It’s what’s called a “willing suspension of disbelief.”
Los Angeles, October 5, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).