Friday, January 10, 2014


We're told right off the bat that "it is written in the burning sands of the Sahara: when there is wrong, there will always be an El Khobar the Avenger, riding with the Riffs, to right it." The Riffs are the good guys here, and El Khobar is a legendary Moroccan Robin Hood figure who has shown up to help them in their struggle against the plundering ways of the bad guy, Sheik Youssef (Raymond Massey). El Khobar leads raids on Youssef's men to get back the supplies that they stole from the Riffs. In the middle is the French Foreign Legion, led by General Birabeau and his second-in-command, the handsome Captain Fontaine (Steve Cochran). They mean well but can't see beneath Youssef's charming exterior. The dashing and mysterious El Khobar is actually Prof. Bonnard (Gordon MacRae), an anthropologist whose persona is that of a meek, absent-minded academic. Azuri, a spy who dances in the sheik's palace in order to get information to the Riffs, has eyes for El Khobar but he has eyes for no one—until he meets the General's daughter Margot (Kathryn Grayson) who spends a lot of time singing to herself. She makes eyes at Fontaine, so her father hires Bonnard as a tutor to keep her out of trouble, but she still winds up in the thick of things, getting kidnapped by El Khobar in the hopes that he can get her to see that Youssef is not to be trusted. He, also enjoying singing, gets a little flirting in as well, and in the end, after a huge skirmish at the palace, all is righted and El Khobar reveals his true identity to Margot in song.

This film version of the 1926 operetta (there were two earlier movies which I have not seen) has gorgeous color and some low-grade but still stimulating spectacle on its side. I don't always like MacRae—I've lumped him in with Howard Keel as being too artificial to be likeable—but he gives a lower-key performance here than he did in OKLAHOMA and CAROUSEL and I grew to like him, especially as the professor who wears Clark Kent glasses (pictured above right with Grayson). In fact, the character comes across as a cross between the Scarlet Pimpernel (the disguise) and Indiana Jones (the academic background, the hat, and a bullwhip he puts to good use during one fight). I don't care for Grayson—operatic singing voice, overdone acting—and the songs seem completely secondary; dare I admit that I fast-forwarded through some of the songs? Luckily, the plot is engaging and the visuals are sumptuous. Massey is fine in his over-the-top villain mode and, of course, Cochran (pictured at left) is a plus even though he doesn't get as much screen time as he should. I didn't like Dick Wesson as a brash reporter who rooms with MacRae; he's supposed to be comic relief but he's not the least bit funny. Also with the handsome Mark Dana as a Legionnaire named Duvalle. This Warner Bros. musical is generally at least as much fun as most of the MGM musicals of the era. [TCM]

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