TCM, ‘The Desert Song’ and me

John Boles mesmerizes Carlotta King in the 1929 movie version of “The Desert Song.”

For all the complaints I hear about Turner Classic Movies, I think it’s still a pretty great channel. Maybe it shows too many post-1970 movies, although this is much less of a problem for me than for the Golden Age purists who grumble about it on the Internet. And there are too many promotions for in-house merch; fewer TCM Wine Club ads in heavy rotation would be nice.

But TCM is the best thing on television we, as lovers of old-old flickers, have. We should appreciate it for as long as we can (or have we not learned the lesson provided by what used to be called American Movie Classics?). Why, even as I type this, TCM is airing Roberta, the Astaire-Rogers musical in which Irene Dunne screen-intros “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Heck, I’m old enough to remember when you couldn’t even see Roberta because of rights issues.

TCM is emerging from a long transitory period created by the chasm left by the loss of Robert Osborne as the primary host. Osborne, who died a year and half ago, represented the perfect balance between film buff and TV presenter: He had a great love for the channel’s fare and the industry’s history but didn’t come off as a know-it-all. An actor by training, he had a great rapport with the classic stars he interviewed over the years. (From here, Osborne’s greatest “credential” was that he was a very interesting interview subject himself, as I found out 15 or so years ago during my past life as a newspaper entertainment writer. A real gentleman, he was.)

I have come to like and respect Ben Mankiewicz as Osborne’s main replacement. Some folks think he’s a wee snarky, but he is young enough to connect with the emerging millennials-for-oldies audience that TCM strongly desires to remain relevant – and what the classic-film audience needs at large. It’s nice that Turner Classic Movies has its loyalists, even if they chafe at the modified rebranding of TCM as a lifestyle channel. But as the option of a la carte cable channel selection looms, TCM will need to build viewership, not just placate those of us who have watched from the jump.

Among the other hosts, Dave Karger is a junior version of Osborne but lower on the warmth factor; I think he’ll grow on people, but the jury’s still out. Eddie Muller provides terrific in-depth intros for the “Noir Alley” titles, and he’s good enough sport to grin and bear his assignments to wine promos. As for Alicia Malone, I am still trying to cope with her accent.

But this wouldn’t be a blog about Turner Classic Movies without a programming complaint, so here’s one: Why, TCM, do you torture us with your schedule?

This is a rhetorical question, as I know the answer: Exhibition legalities, the availability of air-worthy material, and other time-fluid factors complicate the airings of many hundreds of vintage films, and these are beyond TCM’s control. But I am prompted to ask anyway because of the appearance, followed by the disappearance, of the 1929 version of The Desert Song from the online slate for August 2.

I’ve seen The Desert Song – which is one of the very first all-talking musicals – multiple times (and if you are so inclined, you can go to a website with a name rhyming with “Moo Rube”), so I’m not missing much by not seeing it on broadcast TV. Still, it’s a historically important movie – filmed as a full talkie (with Technicolor sequences!) in the fall of 1928, just as Warner Bros.’ part-talking Al Jolson vehicle The Singing Fool was setting box-office records with sound-hungry audiences. Desert Song was supposed to be a key follow-up in the Warners lineup, as WB had bought the rights to the Broadway musical for a lofty $65,000 in May 1928 – two months before the debut of that studio’s landmark all-talkie Lights of New York.

But Warners allowed a legal dispute, mounted by the owner of the West Coast territorial rights to the stage play, to keep The Desert Song on the shelf for a key period of months.  Although the dispute was settled in WB’s favor in federal court in February 1929, it wasn’t until April that the studio debuted the film – and by then, other studios had caught up with their own first full-length talkers. Even at that, Desert Song grossed $1.5 million in the U.S. and $3 million worldwide, impressive numbers for the day.

Advertised as “The World’s Most Famous Musical Romance” – which the stage original may well have been – the inaugural cinematic Desert Song trims some of the Otto Harbach-Oscar Hammerstein-Sigmund Romberg stage score, per the customary necessity of shoehorning three-hour footlight parades into an hour or two of celluloid. But right down to the 10-minute mid-section intermission, it’s by far the most loyal to the Broadway operetta than either of the two later, full-color movie incarnations (1943, in which Dennis Morgan battles the Nazis, and 1953, with Gordon McCrae and not-one-of-my-faves Kathryn Grayson).

And it would be nice to see and hear 1929 performers John Boles (as the heroic “Red Shadow,” a white Frenchman masquerading as a Moroccan freedom fighter), Carlotta King (in her only feature), Myrna Loy, Louise Fazenda and even little Johnny Arthur in something other than the faded black-and-white images and muffled tones of the currently circulating unauthored print.

Warners, which liberated the ’43 and ’53 Desert Songs to DVD releases in 2014, has indicated that work is being done on a preservation of the ’29 Desert Song, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to pop up again on the TCM schedule … and stay there until the first note is played.

Anyway, I don’t think anyone is really that upset over no Desert Song this week. If early-sound enthusiasts can survive the appearance/withdrawal of Seven Footprints to Satan on/from the TCM schedule, which happened in 2008, we can endure this. (For the uninitiated, Seven Footprints is a part-talking 1929 First National horror comedy that is archivally held in Europe but is supposedly lacking sound elements. I remember thinking I might need heart medicine when I first read the words “Seven Footprints to Satan” on the TCM “Coming Soon” slate.)

Even without Seven Footprints to Satan, added to the loss of Osborne’s genial presence, and a dwindling audience of folks who remember watching movies in first-run theaters before 1970, TCM continues to impress. Just this week (July 31), it’s offering a terrific daylong lineup of pre-Code pictures. Among them are Downstairs (John Gilbert’s best talkie), Faithless (Tallulah Bankhead at MGM), Safe in Hell (a surprisingly lurid melodrama with the criminally underrated Dorothy Mackaill), and Three on a Match (with Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Blondell and the less-known but wonderful Ann Dvorak).

So … I promise not to be so hard on the best channel ever invented for the small screen because I’m tempted to be too much of a film geek. To paraphrase George Costanza – but in my case, really meaning it, and with no intent of a breakup: It’s not you, TCM … it’s me.

 

SOURCES:

“Vitaphone Unworried on Desert Song Warning,” The Film Daily, June 1, 1928.

“Talker Version Is Not Stage Play Infringement,” Variety, February 13, 1929.

TCM.com

 

Author: bradleyedwinm

My name is Edwin M. Bradley … but please call me Ed. I am an editor of a university historical journal and film curator at an art museum in Michigan. I was a daily newspaper movie reviewer for 20 years. I have authored three books about early film history, with emphases on pre-1940 musicals and the transition to sound. (A fourth tome is coming soon.) My "Unsung Hollywood Musicals of the Golden Era, 1929-39" was named by Huffington Post and Classic Images magazine as among 2016's best new movie-related books.

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