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Cinema: Desert Song

4 minute read
Jay Cocks



Screenplay by ALAN JAY LERNER

This is a lithe, joyful, poignant musical and not just for kids. The presence of Stanley Donen guarantees that adults will enjoy The Little Prince as well. In fact, they will probably enjoy it more.

Donen is a director of sophistication and invention whose entertainments like Charade and Two for the Road are object lessons in how to craft the kind of movies they are not supposed to be making any more—movies that are smart, funny and piquant. Because Donen’s films are usually so polished, there is a tendency to think of him as a specialist in after-dinner-mint amusements, but that designation does him an injustice. It ignores the abounding vitality and brassiness of On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain and It’s Always Fair Weather —all co-directed with Gene Kelly, and each among the greatest of film musicals. The Little Prince is the work of a master of the musical form.

The movie is an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s visionary fairy tale about a pilot, crash-landed in the Sahara, who confronts his own innocence in the form of a very young man of royalty from a distant planet. The score is by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe—their first collaboration since Camelot in 1960. The music misses the simple, rhapsodic melancholy Saint-Exupéry achieved in his prose, but it excels at capturing the pilot’s wistfulness, the Little Prince’s spirit and their joy in finding each other.

Donen has animated the songs with great skill, and knows exactly how and when to play a number big, and at just what point simplicity will best carry it. There is at least one show-stopper—a song and dance by a snake which, quite appropriately, is inclined toward sibilance—and a sequence of unadorned magic, when the pilot folds a piece of paper into a megaphone and croons a wistful ballad, ’20s style.

Richard Kiley plays the pilot nicely, but with perhaps a shade too much theatrical!ty Steven Warner, as the Little Prince, is one of those faultless English child actors who seem incapable of a disingenuous moment. The rest of the small cast is made up of worthies the Little Prince meets on his trip past the lesser galactic bodies toward earth—Victor Spinetti as a historian, Clive Revill as a businessman who claims he owns all the stars, Graham Crowden as a general without a single soldier in his army Once on earth, the Little Prince meets a shy, friendly fox (Gene Wilder) and the aforementioned snake, played by Bob Fosse, who choreographed his own number He dances it with such undulating grace and molten charm that the show, for the moment, is stolen.

Difficult Challenge. The story’s rather inconsistent mysticism stumbles into sentimentality once or twice, but Donen makes even that seductive. He has made no attempt to mimic Saint-Exupéry’s eloquent line drawings. Instead, he has some of them reproduced when the pilot does sketches on a note pad for the Little Prince. It is an act of friendly homage that devotees of the book will like as much as Donen’s fidelity to the fragile spirit of the original. He has in fact pulled off a rather difficult challenge. The visual style of the film is lush (parts were photographed in the southern Tunisian desert), but there are no big production numbers, since there are never more than two characters on-screen at once. The Little Prince is thus something in the way of a gentle coup, a musical of both ebullience and intimacy “

Jay Cocks

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