Simanaitis Says

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FULL DISCLOSURE: This began as an item on U.S. World War I pilots taking part in the 1925 Riff Uprising in Morocco. However, the name Riff rang an old-movie bell. I got diverted to Sigmund Romberg’s 1926 Desert Song and its cinema offspring, one of which got itself banned in the U.S. You never know where research will lead.


Flag of the Republic of the Rif (alternatively spelled Riff in English usage), a confederacy of Berber tribes in northern Morocco, 1921 to 1926.

The Riffs were Berber tribesmen who rebelled against Spanish colonial rule of northern Morocco in the early 1920s. Nor did they think much of the French colonizing other portions of this northwest African country. And who knows if they made any sense out of the Riffan bank notes foisted on them by Captain Charles Alfred Paroy “Percy” Gardiner. Gardiner was an English arms smuggler who, around 1923, fashioned himself Minister Plenipotentiary for the Government of the Riff.


Riffan bank notes, created by Englishman Percy Gardiner.

The Riffs had some early victories over the Spanish until things reached a stalemate. In 1924 the Spanish even tried dropping mustard gas from aircraft, a year before the Geneva Protocol ruled against such chemical horrors left over from WWI.

The French got involved about this time, and by September 1925 there were about 123,000 Spanish and French soldiers and 150 aircraft against 12,000 Riffs. The French Escadrille de la Garde Cherifienne flew a total of 470 missions, logging 653 hours of observation and bombing. Sixteen of its pilots were Americans.

By May 1926, the Republic of the Riff was dissolved, its charismatic leader Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd El-Karim El-Khattabi exiled to the Indian Ocean island of Réunion. True, the Riffs lost the war, but they had the best songs.

Inspired by it all in 1926, Sigmund Romberg composed an operetta, The Desert Song. It was originally titled Lady Fair, and imagine the future confusion had that name stuck.

The Desert Song, 1926.

The Desert Song, 1926.

Briefly, in The Desert Song, the Riffs are led by the Red Shadow. Margot Bonvalet, lovely, sassy et française naturellement, has a thing for this enigmatic rebel, though little does she know that Red is actually Pierre Birabeau, who pretends to be un milquetoast when not in disguise leading the Riffs. It ends happily for all.

There’s nothing particularly novel here. It had been done before in The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1905, and was destined to support a Superman/Clark Kent duality in 1933. No matter, The Desert Song opened on Broadway in November 1926 and ran for a very successful 465 performances.

The Desert Song, 1929.

The Desert Song, 1929.

A lavish movie version followed in 1929, a “talkie” (the concept introduced only two years before) with even some Technicolor sequences (a Warner Bros. first in this regard). Among the movie’s stars was Myrna Loy, later to be William Powell/Nick Charles’s wife Nora in The Thin Man series. Movie goers loved The Desert Song.

And then along came the Motion Picture Production Code, aka the dreaded Hays Code. Will H. Hays had been the 46th U.S. Postmaster General (a job he got after managing Warren G. Harding’s successful presidential campaign). From 1922, Hays headed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.


William Harrison Hays, 1879 – 1954, chairman of the Republican National Committee, Postmaster General, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.

Hays wasn’t actually the moral sourpuss that he’s typically painted. His original aim was to codify the movie industry’s self-censorship, this to quell arbitrary local censoring of films that was not without whiffs of payoffs. He was largely ineffective until a group of Catholic prelates presented him with a Production Code in 1930. It took four years for this industry self-censorship to grow teeth, but once it did, it lasted until 1954.


Pre-Code delights. At left, a scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, 1932. At right, a foxy Dorothy Mackaill in Safe in Hell, 1931.

The Hays Code had a highly detailed list of Don’ts and Be Carefuls. It was prohibited, for example, to show the inside of a woman’s thigh, how to crack a safe or to marry one of another race. In a sense, the Code was a bunch of Catholic priests telling Jewish movie moguls what Protestant movie audiences should see.

By the 1940s, The Desert Song in its 1929 version was illegal in the U.S. because of its pre-Code content of sexual innuendo, open depiction of homosexuality and suggestive humor.

A wartime version of The Desert Song (1943)was Code-cleansed. It had Dennis Morgan (after whom I was named) and Nazis too. Wife Dottie and her BFF Jackie saw another sanitized version in 1953, starring Gordon McRae and Kathryn Grayson. Dottie recalls she and Jackie were unsullied and enthralled at the Crest Theater in El Centro, California. Then they went directly to buy the sheet music.


The Desert Song (1953), starring Gordon McRae and Kathryn Grayson.

I admit all this has a pretty thin relationship with air power in the Riff War. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. Grey McGown
    September 21, 2015

    More great stuff…Thanks Denis

  2. Bill Urban
    September 21, 2015

    Dennis, “delights”full, great reading, again! (It seems I’m drawn to DeMille items – )
    Perhaps Dennis Morgan had an impact on your sports car preferences too?
    If Dottie still has that sheet music it may have appreciated considerably.

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