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Film / Desert Nights

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Desert Nights is a 1929 film directed by William Nigh, starring John Gilbert.

Hugh Rand (Gilbert) is the manager of a diamond mine somewhere in South Africa. He receives word via telegram that an English aristocrat, Lord Stonehill, and his daughter Diana are visiting as part of a safari expedition that will also include a big game hunt. Hugh guesses that Diana will be a stony-faced old maid but is pleased when she turns out to be a ravishing blonde (played by Mary Nolan). Hugh is charmed and starts putting the moves on her right away.

Hugh is in the middle of showing his guests the vault with the uncut diamonds when he receives word that Lord Stonehill has been delayed. It turns out that "Lord Stonehill" is an impostor named Steve, and he and Mary are jewel thieves. Steve, Diana, and their fellow accomplices in the fake safari expedition pull out some heavy weaponry and make their way out of the diamond camp, kidnapping Steve in the process. However, their escape through the Kalahari (here spelled "Calahari") Desert proves unexpectedly difficult, and the power dynamics in the trio start to shift as Steve, Diana, and Hugh battle for their lives.

Desert Nights is a silent film, one of the last silent films made by MGM, which had been reluctant to make the switch to talkies and was still producing silents in 1929 over a year after every other studio had made the change. It was the last silent film for John Gilbert, now remembered as one of the most tragic victims of the talkie revolution. His career swiftly collapsed and never recovered.


  • Brick Joke: When he is informed that Lord Stonehill and his daughter will be visiting, Hugh sarcastically remarks to a coworker that Lady Stonehill will probably be a sour-faced old maid. Sure enough, when the real Lady Stonehill arrives at the end, she is a sour-faced old maid.
  • Circling Vultures: Hugh makes sure that Steve and Diana notice the vultures circling overhead, waiting to feast on their bodies.
  • Easily Forgiven: Diana has committed kidnapping and armed robbery. She is released into Hugh's custody.
  • Fake Aristocrat: In this instance it's a temporary ruse in order to gain access to a diamond mine and the vault within.
  • Going in Circles: Steve leaves Hugh and Diana behind at the oasis, and follows the stream that trickles out of the oasis. He follows it until he finds people, and he's shocked to find he's back at the diamond mine. It turns out that Hugh deliberately led them in a circle in order to leave them dehydrated and desperate before they returned to the mine.
  • Great White Hunter: Steve pretends to be this when in Lord Stonehill disguise and tells a story about hunting tigers.
  • High-Class Glass: Steve sports one of these when impersonating Lord Stonehill. Amusingly, he continues to wear it after being revealed as a jewel thief, although he puts it to some non-high class uses, like using it to focus the sun in order to burn a tied-up Hugh.
  • Hypocritical Humor: When Steve finds out that Hugh tricked them and led them on a circuitous route back to the diamond mine, he says "You dirty crook!"
  • Jump Cut: Possibly caused by deterioration of the negative? In any case, there's a shot of Diana suggesting to Steve that they turn themselves in. Then there's a jump cut to Steve, holding a gun on Diana and Hugh. Then there's a jump cut to Steve leaving, with a sack of diamonds.
  • Love Overrides the Law: For basically no other reason than the fact that she and Steve fell in love, Diana is released into Steve's custody at the end, rather than go to jail.
  • Love Redeems: Diana started out manipulating Steve, but eventually develops real feelings for him. When the trio finally finds an oasis, she suggests they give themselves up. Steve scornfully refuses and leaves with all the diamonds.
  • No Honor Among Thieves: Steve and Diana's three accomplices decide to try their luck heading back rather than crossing the Kalahari, and ask for their share of the diamonds. After they leave, Steve reveals to Diana that he gave them fake glass diamonds.
  • Sexy Backless Outfit: Diana wears one when in her Lady Stonehill disguise in order to romance Hugh.
  • Sex for Services: Diana makes a very frank offer to Steve, saying "Take me" as she desperately begs him for water.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Diana is the only woman in the cast, unless one counts the brief appearance by the real Lady Stonehill at the end. The folks at the diamond mine are very interested when they hear that a real live white woman will be visiting.
  • Thirsty Desert: The bulk of the plot. Steve and Diana start getting pretty desperate when their fellow crooks turn back and their porters desert them, leaving them and Hugh marooned in the desert with little water.
  • Toplessness from the Back: Censors weren't as powerful in 1929 as they would be just a few years later, which is why we see a long, lingering shot of Diana from behind as she bathes in the oasis.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: Diana says Hugh can have all the diamonds as long as he gets her to some water.