There are few things more disappointing to movie lovers than the belief that some films are lost and gone forever. Every now and then, however, the impossible occurs and a long-lost film miraculously turns up; most recently, the original director’s cut of Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS which had not been seen since its Berlin premiere in 1927.
Nonetheless, there are too many important films that remain missing. One of the most sought-after lost films albeit for the wrong reason is the 1930 MGM musical THE ROGUE SONG.
THE ROGUE SONG was the only sound-era production included on the American Film Institute’s 1980 list of the ten most wanted lost films. This inadvertently gave the wrong impression that few sound-era films were lost. Actually, a large number of productions from the post-silent cinema have vanished, even from as late as the 1970s! The inclusion of THE ROGUE SONG on the list was based on the presence of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the cast, which gives yet another incorrect impression about the film.
THE ROGUE SONG was not a Laurel and Hardy comedy. It was a big screen adaptation of the Franz Lehar operetta GYPSY LOVE. Metropolitan Opera baritone Lawrence Tibbett was brought to Hollywood for the starring role as the swaggering bandit who kidnaps a beautiful princess (played by Catherine Dale Owen). MGM gave the film an extravagant budget that enabled the use of the expensive two-color Technicolor process.
While the film was in progress, however, the studio felt that it was in need of comedy relief. MGM contacted the Hal Roach studio to borrow Laurel and Hardy for a number of comic bits that could be inserted throughout the film. Roach reportedly directed the duo’s scenes (actor/director Lionel Barrymore directed the rest of the film).Â The comics did not receive any special billing in the credits, although the studio played up their presence in the marketing campaign.
THE ROGUE SONG turned out to be a box office flop, although Tibbett earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. There were no screenings of the film after its 1932 release in France, and THE ROGUE SONG faded into obscurity afterwards.
Actually, it faded away completely. The unstable nature of the two-color Technicolor prints hastened a speedy deterioration. THE ROGUE SONG turned out to be one of many late 1920s/early 1930s films shot in this color process that decomposed rapidly.
William K. Everson, in his 1967 book The Films of Laurel &a Hardy, stated no footage of THE ROGUE SONG was known to exist. That was actually not correct, Tibbett’s estate possessed a print, but it decomposed before it was discovered in the early 1970s. MGM, which initially stated that it had no copies of the film, actually possessed reel four of the cellulose nitrate picture negative as late as 1974. But, again, its discovery came only after the footage had deteriorated beyond saving.
Over the years, bits and pieces of THE ROGUE SONG emerged. A fragment of a storm sequence featuring Laurel and Hardy taking shelter in a bear-occupied cave turned up via a private collector in Maine. One reel featuring a ballet sequence also emerged, along with footage of Tibbett singing the aria White Dove. The film’s trailer has also been found, which includes a Laurel and Hardy bit involving the swallowing of a bee. And the film’s full soundtrack was preserved (not very well) on disks.
Viewing what exists, it appears that THE ROGUE SONG was not a very good film. Tibbett, despite his Oscar nomination, comes across as a wooden screen presence, while Owen was equally dismal as a leading lady. Laurel and Hardy are amusing, of course, but their shenanigans are rather mild. It is impossible to determine the film’s production values, since the surviving fragments are badly faded, though the existing glimpses of the storm sequence confirms that the film’s big budget was extravagantly employed.
There are vague hopes that THE ROGUE SONG may eventually turn up. Unconfirmed rumors still swirl that the film was broadcast on Russian television in the 1960s, though there is no evidence of an extant print in the Russian film archives.
If THE ROGUE SONG turns up, it will probably excite and disappoint film scholars. Or, perhaps, the full-length offering might actually surprise everyone by being far superior than the surviving fragments may suggest. In any event, its absence makes us wish that the film industry was more prescient when it came to preserving its golden age productions.