The Desert Song (1929 film)

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 be in color. The film included a 10 minute intermission during which music was played.

The Desert Song
theatrical release poster
Directed byRoy Del Ruth
Screenplay byHarvey Gates
Story byOtto A. Harbach
Oscar Hammerstein II
Frank Mandel
Based onThe Desert Song (1926 operetta)
Sigmund Romberg
Book & Lyrics:
Otto A. Harbach
Oscar Hammerstein II
Frank Mandel[1]
StarringJohn Boles
Carlotta King
Louise Fazenda
Myrna Loy
Music byIrving Berlin
Sigmund Romberg
Oscar Hammerstein II
Otto Harbach
CinematographyBarney McGill
Edited byRalph Dawson
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • April 8, 1929 (1929-04-08) (NYC)
  • [2] ([2])
Running time
125 minutes[2]
CountryUnited States
Box office$3,022,000[3]

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. 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.

The stage musical opened at the Casino Theatre on Broadway on November 30, 1926 and ran for a very successful 465 performances.[4][1] Based on the success of this film, 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). Consequently, a cleaned-up remake was released in 1943, with a third version following in 1953.


  • John Miljan as Captain Fontaine
  • Marie Wells as Clementina
  • Jack Pratt as Pasha
  • Otto Hoffman as Hasse
  • Roberto E. Guzmán as Sid El Kar
  • Del Elliott as Rebel


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


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]

Warner Brothers color movies in order of release date

Title Year Preservation
The Desert Song 1929 Survives in black and white with missing musical number.
On with the Show 1929 Only survives in black and white.
Song of the West 1929 Lost film. Completed in June 1929. Release delayed until March 1930.
Gold Diggers of Broadway 1929 Lost film. Only two reels survive and full soundtrack on phonographic disc
Paris 1929 Lost film.
The Show of Shows 1929 Photographed almost entirely in Technicolor, but today only survives in black and white television copies. Only one sequence survives in color, the “Chinese Fantasy” with Myrna Loy and Nick Lucas.
Sally 1929 Only survives in black and white except The Wild Rose scene.
General Crack 1930 Survives in a silent copy.
No, No Nanette 1930 Lost film.
Hold Everything 1930 Lost film.

See also


  1. The Desert Song on Internet Broadway Database
  2. The Desert Song at the American Film Institute Catalog
  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
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