Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Basil Rathbone, Charles Boyer, Marlene Dietrich
1936 audiences were less yielding to the exotic gush that so brilliantly showcased glamour in the early Thirties. "The Garden of Allah" had been a purple study in guilt and sin as a novel, a stage play and two silent movie incarnations. It was the spiritual cousin of "Kismet," a better-known phenomenon in desert philosophizing, which likewise spawned many incarnations in many media.
The tale itself, of love’s brief blossom in the desert, has little plot. There are only contrived events so schematic as to assume shape. It is popularly held by today’s movie wheeler dealers that a movie pitch should be just two sentences. The most famous in movie history was three. "Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl." This Hollywood haiku perfectly put the period of finality to the plot development. "The Garden of Allah" gyps us of a third line, unless we conclude "Boy gets God."
Selznick had long since shown himself to be conscientious. Now his star was in steep ascent. Just three years hence his "Gone With the Wind" would become the very crown jewel of Hollywood greatness. In hindsight, a game plan emerges. The primary appeal of "The Garden of Allah" for Selznick was a newer, truer Technicolor, calculated to blast the viewer out of his seat. No one, apart from Walt Disney, received the introduction of 3-color Technicolor with more long-term visionary zeal.
Central to Selznick’s objective was Greta Garbo. At the time he optioned the rights, the idea of accessing Garbo made sense given his working relationship with MGM. Unfortunately, a chill relationship he developed with the studio pretty much excluded Garbo from his plans. Selznick briefly considered recycling Merle Oberon, but Oberon could not always be relied upon to fill a vacuum 100 percent. No, to do things right, the role of Domini Enfilden would need a star of the first magnitude to bring it off.
Full Technicolor made the rules all new. Today we accept the stylization of natural Caucasian skin tone on a theater or TV screen. In earlier shots, Dietrich’s complexion most closely approximated a coat of Glidden. But as Dietrich herself remarked in later years, the expressive use of color refined nicely as the film progressed.
Certainly, Domini Enfilden can have had little appeal to Dietrich in and of itself. As Dietrich’s performance unfolds, it appears that not one iota of the writing had been modified from its concept as a Garbo vehicle. The role of Domini limited what Dietrich did best. She’s the reverse of an ironist in this movie. She whines to one and all whose paths she crosses to make her decisions for her. Dietrich drew much the same parallel with Garbo as the public did when it came to her ‘star’ image. There was an undeniable kinship between them as goddesses cosseted by plush make-up and costumes under sensual lights before the adoring eye of a camera. However, Garbo’s passive nature was diametrically opposite to the willful Dietrich’s. Still, comparisons were inevitable, and perhaps ‘trying on Garbo’ was an itch for her that just needed to be scratched.
Best served by all the attitudinizing was Charles Boyer. His tortured Boris Androvsky was at once daring and courageous. By the time he was freaking out Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight" (1944), Boyer had acquired a hard edge that removed susceptibility from his range of expression forever. But here Boyer’s boyish humiliation and guilt so resonate within him that his face is a mask pathetically transparent to the fragile vulnerability behind it. When Boris and Domini fall in love with such intensity, it is a marvel of perverse logic since neither has much flair for commitment. In scenes of highly combatative eyelash show between Dietrich and Boyer, Dietrich only wins by virtue of superior weaponry going into battle. Dietrich is poetry in motion, but it is Boyer we have to thank for effectively stopping up cracks that most compromise the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.
Like all great kitsch, everything about it is in excess. Selznick’s use of real desert locations was inspired. These particular sands happened to be in Utah, but sand here looks like sand there. Imported palms and an army of set decorators completed the illusion. Of course, shooting conditions were appalling. The 3-color Technicolor technology required punishingly hot lights to augment an already scorching sun. Colleagues both in front of and behind the camera complained vociferously. You can feel the heat of the Technicolor desert, but this being Hollywood the only instance of sweat we ever see is on Boyer’s brow, the product of his fevered mind. And each bead of that is clearly painted on.
Dietrich had a certain affinity with drier climates, but she really gets to dig her hands into the sand in this one. As Marlene and Boyer languor in their scant moment of deep dunking in one another’s love, her hands furrow sensually into the sand. They surface and not so much as a grain adheres to her skin. Only a heavy reliance on logistics can deliver this kind of perfection.
Director Richard Boleslawski’s modest credit range included Garbo. He exasperated Selznick by not reining in Dietrich, but what he achieved just by stepping to one side for her was there on celluloid for all the world to see. Dietrich was justifiably proud of how she bore up under the heat and not succumbing to the lure of the Utah desert’s untested drinking water. Unfortunately, Boleslawski did partake. He died.
Picture detail on DVD is resolved to the millimeter in an image of boldest saturation offering to the home theatre a simulation of Technicolor’s extraordinary black level that few commercial cinema screens today can deliver. There are fleeting instances of picture noise and some minor artifacting. The sharp eye will detect the odd near-subliminal tracery of source damage, but it’s only sufficient to impress us how breathtaking has been this restoration.
Technicolor’s film soundtrack was designed distinctively, though it could be read by existing projectors’ variable-density modulation apparatus. While I wouldn’t go so far as to characterize the audio here as stereophonic, it exhibits an extended range of response for its era. It is handsomely presented here in surround.
Extras are so notably absent that we don’t have much of a context in which to view this extraordinary movie. This is a pity since the lucky owner of this disk beholds a piece of history.