One of the first full Technicolor features is a romantic fantasy about an innocent beauty’s encounter with an equally innocent fugitive monk … all surrounded by sensuous, confected Hollywood exotica, courtesy of producer David O. Selznick. Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer steam up the screen, but dancer Tilly Losch steals the show with just one scene.
The Garden of Allah
KL Studio Classics
1936 / Color / 1:37 flat Academy / 79 min. / Street Date January 9, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, Basil Rathbone, C. Aubrey Smith,
Tilly Losch, Joseph Schildkraut, John Carradine.
Cinematography: W. Howard Greene
Film Editor: Hal C. Kern
Art Directors: Edward G. Boyle, Sturges Carne, Lansing C. Holden, Lyle R. Wheeler
Original Music: Max Steiner
Written by W.P. Lipscomb, Lynn Riggs, from the novel by Robert Hichens
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by Richard Boleslawski
David O. Selznick’s personally produced movies combine canny commercial judgment with a personal taste that favors the sentimental excesses of silent melodrama. Right into the late forties he was stuffing poetic text inter-titles and overwritten purple prose into his pictures. He had a high-toned sensibility that served him well . . . along with a True Belief in his own genius.
But he was definitely a world class producer. 1936’s The Garden of Allah is a very early Technicolor feature with intense art direction and ‘atmospheric’ direction to create a mood of Arab exoticism and romantic tension. Of course, it’s all highly artificial, from the sets to the costumes to the casting of the extras. For her first film in color, Marlene Dietrich is showcased in drop-dead beautiful Technicolor close-ups, each of which must have required hours of fussing with careful lighting and makeup.
Selznick’s detractors haven’t much use for his overly sensitive, fussy approach to filmmaking. He expected his most talented collaborators to forget their own taste and judgment and abide by his reams of creative memoranda. Yet nobody ever over-produced kitschy Hollywood fare as well as did Selznick. The Garden of Allah is a fascinating movie, the kind of bubble-headed Hollywood romance that was only made in the 1930s.
A convent. Virginal Domini Enfilden (Marlene Dietrich, in +/- 40 costume changes) has come to see her teachers for advice. She’s spent her adult life caring for her sickly father, and now that he’s gone, she’s a lost soul seeking guidance. The nuns naturally advise a long trip in the Tunisian Sahara. Arriving by train in a colorful, harmless North Africa of Arabian horses, impeccably attired Arabs and exotic night spots, Domini falls for the sullen, neurotic Boris Androvsky (Charles Boyer, looking and behaving amazingly like Johnny Depp). He’s a Trappist monk of the sworn-to-silence and penury type, escaped from a local monastery on a desperate quest to find passion in his life.
They meet in a nightclub to watch the erotic dance of Irena (Tilly Losch), soon marry and depart for an illogical honeymoon in the desert wastes, all courtesy of suave Arab (?) potentate Count Anteoni (Basil Rathbone, just looking lost). All is smoldering romance (in tents, not intense) until a French legionnaire (Alan Marshal) spills the beans about Boris’ broken vows. Not only has Boris double-crossed God, his Monastery is failing because only Boris knows the recipe for their famous liqueur: in his absence the monks are out of business. How will Domini and Boris resolve this impasse of faith and love?
The Garden of Allah is quite a treat. Every shot is a beauty, and a ravishing new close-up of Ms. Dietrich is never more than twenty seconds away. This feature was released just before Dietrich’s dark period when she was branded as box office poison. Audiences rejected her artistic Von Sternberg vehicles for more down-to-Earth populist fare, the kind Frank Capra was making. Away from Sternberg and under the guidance of Richard Boleslawski and producer Selznick, Dietrich here matches the glamour and artificiality of her previous pix, if not their artfulness. The Garden of Allah is too silly even to pretend to pretension. But it has other graces.
In the confected spirit of bad women’s literature, everyone around Domini is enthralled by her and dedicated to her problems. The church appears to maintain a special budget to worry for Domini’s soul, and every man she meets becomes an instant acolyte. The social setup is strictly fairy tale. All we know about Domini is that her two suitcases contain more beautiful designer clothing than the average issue of Vogue. Her impeccable outfits never show as much as a wrinkle. One improbable dress is a silvery metallic number fit for the wife of the alien Klaatu. North Africa is a place to meet charming people like the sexless but witty Batouch (Joseph Schildkraut, the best actor in the film) and exotic places such as the crowded, sex-charged nightclub, that looks like a place where a cockfight might be held. Money is never an issue, as the fantastic safari-honeymoon into the dunes seems to be provided by the Count as normal courtesy.
Of course, the entire story is a fantasy from a different time, where class (and race) distinctions all work for the benefit of our anointed (white) stars. Teeming masses of storybook Arabs mill about, acting totally illogically. Domini can enter an Arabian men’s nightclub, and not be bothered. The word ‘exotic’ has in recent decades taken on a negative connotation, for good reasons: by ‘exoticising’ cultural differences, writers and filmmakers remade the Third World into a sensual Disneyland existing for the amusement of bored Westerners. Wherever the Anglos go in Garden of Allah, they seem to be accompanied by clutches of Arab women — dancers, beggars, courtesans — that exist only to be sexually available, for a few coins.
The film’s high point is the fantasy Arab ‘nightclub’ where the famous dancer Tilly Losch gyrates and smiles, driving ‘a thousand turbaned men wild.’ A Broadway star, Losch was a favorite of Selznick, who would later showcase her in the gigantic dance number that opens his western epic Duel in the Sun. Director Boleslawski’ angles for the suggestive dance are well chosen, especially one close-up of Losch’s upside-down face, with her hands twisting in the air.
David O. Selznick places his credit last, after the director’s. He controlled everything, using his clout to cajole the actors into performing the script’s flowery dialogue. Selznick’s memos include one in which he goes ballistic over Dietrich’s over-attention to her hair — even he thought that Domini’s absurdly coiffed, always perfect appearance was just too much. The movie is like an extended photo shoot of Dietrich in to-die-for poses. No wonder audiences lost patience with her movies.
Domini’s fashion-plate plunge into Tunisia sells the fairy tale that says that one can absorb mystical truth just by being in a special place. Domini is too artificial to be believed, a saintly innocent whether praying to a statue of Mary, or waxing romantic with the heavy-breathing Boris. She emerges from isolation caring for her father, looking and acting like the most fashionable, glamorous woman on Earth.
Since before The Sheik Hollywood promoted the sex fantasy of white women mingling with so-called primitive cultures with a condescending lack of finesse. The real spectrum of relationships has always been far too extreme for general entertainment, but a few commercial films tried to confront reality. Gavin Lambert’s Another Sky is a salient exception. Rejecting the limits of her western life, a white woman in Morocco is compelled to give herself unconditionally to an Arab man. There’s nothing glamorous about it.
The Garden of Allah is a chestnut of a story made at least twice before. Selznick had a weakness for literary adaptations; one wonders if this property was suggested by his story editor Val Lewton. The Boyer character Boris is not only Russian, but melancholy and self-absorbed in a Lewtonesque way. Boris is as absurd as Domini, a tormented man divided between spiritual purity and the call of the flesh. He seems incapable of enjoying either. His salvation boils down to owning up to the responsibility for his Abbey’s famous booze, which got a big laugh in the screening I saw — we all imagined Boris’ fellow monks wailing because the Abbey has gone dry. Who needs to talk, when they can drink all day?
As an overblown Hollywood fantasy, the show is extremely well done, and its stars fully committed to the faux-profound storyline. Although his moral dilemma is a trivial gimmick, Charles Boyer is never less than compelling, and his ‘big impassioned speech’ scene is an extended close-up that shows undeniable skill and definite star power. Dietrich rarely relaxes long enough to resemble a human but is fascinating just the same — Domini can communicate an imperious, mysterious manner with her lackey Batch, while simultaneously trembling with (erotic?) tension. In able support, the above-mentioned Schildkraut manages the comic relief without being a racially slandered buffoon of the kind that crop up in many Selznick films. Horror fans will enjoy the controlled, able John Carradine as ‘The Sand Diviner,’ a seer that foretells Domini’s unhappiness by plunging his fingers into a dish of good ol’ Sahara grit.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Garden of Allah is an impressive transfer of (I presume) an Eastmancolor composite negative put together long ago from Technicolor separations. The colors glow with the early, warm Technicolor hues. To expose the relatively insensitive film of the time (split into three with a prism) they had to blast light onto the set. Watching the film’s terrific close-ups, one can only imagine Ms. Dietrich’s discomfort — and the effect of all those klieg lights on her eyes.
I only noticed a shot or two in which the alignment of the three colors was a bit off, producing some color fringing. That and an occasional color pulse that makes the hues change once or twice. This show was one of the very first full features in 3-Strip Technicolor, and it must have taken considerable trial and error and expense to get such beautiful results. The art direction really pops, and Jack Cosgrove’s frequent matte paintings are smoothly integrated. An occasional miniature looks like a toy, especially one shot of a train.
Selznick did good things for many great film talents. One major creative person was composer Max Steiner, who modernized the scoring of movies at RKO with Bird of Paradise and King Kong. Steiner’s music here maintains the Arab Fairyland feel; when Domini goes out under the (special effect) stars, the Tunisian desert is like a picture postcard from Ali Baba Land.
Kino’s one extra is a stack of trailers for the label’s other Marlene Dietrich movies.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Garden of Allah
Video: Very Good / Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 20, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson