Last night on Turner Classic Movies I watched The Desert Song (the 1953 version). My father had a history with that movie. With the advent of talkies in the late 1920s, Hollywood was looking for people with good voices. In 1935, Warner Brothers wanted James Melton to star in The Desert Song. He had been hoping for this plum. The Desert Song, an extremely popular Sigmund Romberg operetta, would have been the perfect screen vehicle for my father, who had recently been signed to a 108-week contract by Palmolive to star their weekly operetta series on radio. He was quoted in the New York Sun saying, “They tell me that operetta [The Desert Song] has made a star of every tenor who's sung it. My wife has started to call me Red now—the hero is the Red Shadow.” Movies would broaden his audience considerably. Most of his fans were radio listeners, and they would soon see what their idol looked like. They were not disappointed; even if he wasn’t much of an actor, he did have matinee-idol good looks.
Contrary to Warner Brothers' original plan for him, after weeks of idling in Hollywood (albeit on salary) it turned out that my father was not going to make The Desert Song—at least not right away. The studio thought for his first film he should get some camera experience in a less dramatic role—in Stars Over Broadway. (More about which in a later post.) . The Desert Song eventually got made, but without my father. Eight years later, in 1943, Warner Brothers finally filmed it with Dennis Morgan starring in the tenor role. And then it was re-made in 1953 with Gordon MacRae and Kathryn Grayson.