The Garden Of Allah

The Garden Of Allah (1936)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Basil Rathbone, Charles Boyer, Marlene Dietrich

"A man who refuses to acknowledge his God is unwise to set foot in the desert. The Arabs have a saying, Madam, that the desert is the garden of Allah." Just what Count Antioni (Basil Rathbone) means by this is fuzzy, but it is not the first or last time that Domini Enfilden (Marlene Dietrich) is given pause. She too has remarked upon the peculiarly antisocial behavior of Boris Androvsky (Charles Boyer), the man in whom she increasingly finds her soul mate.

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."

To appreciate "The Garden of Allah," you certainly had to be open to its immersive brand of kitsch. It plays like a subplot flashback deleted from "The Sound of Music." Film romanticist Rex Ingram ("The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse") had already taken his stab at the tale less than a decade earlier at MGM during the silent era’s dying days. It might have been hard to fathom the story’s appeal for a David O. Selznick who, following a solid apprenticeship, was just now beginning to feel his oats as an independent producer.

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.

Marlene Dietrich became available following her career divorce from mentor, Joseph Von Sternberg, but there was one problem. Dietrich herself had already long since switched to Kodacolor for her own accomplished 16mm home movies. However, the color documenting her private and work life was one thing; she could not see herself in the garish examples of Technicolor she’d witnessed so far. But private tests she commissioned allayed her fears and soon Dietrich was relishing the prospect of added gut appeal for the audience that a color pallet wisely used can exert.

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.

"The Garden of Allah" was an anachronistic throwback to the silent era, but with voice as well as scoring married to the action, it would find new life. After all, would we be richer for having to just imagine the voice of Dietrich? In an odd way, the conviction of her performance is in her voice. Dietrich can whisper submission, but her face cannot hide her inner strength. When Dietrich later dismissed "The Garden of Allah" as an abortion, she blamed the film’s philosophical musings, as processed by the Hollywood glamour mill. "No one but God knows what is in my heart," she is made to say at one point. (She soon has a key to her heart cut for Boyer as well.) The very idea of having to utter these words infuriated Dietrich, in whom a rich vein of sentiment coursed through her cultured atheism. "The conceit of it!" she remarked of borrowing God for a prop, "I tell you, I very nearly died!" (The film’s candied Catholicism also embarrassed the hell out of author Graham Greene, who always took a proprietary interest in his adoptive religion.)

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.

Still, Selznick knew that the wilting nature of his leads would call for exceptional support. He must have healed the rift with MGM sufficiently to augment his production with the likes of Joseph Schildkraut, Lucile Watson and C. Aubrey Smith. One and all ring in quintessential performances. For authenticity, Selznick looked to ethnic character faces in his extras that were startlingly un-Hollywood. Even Father Roubier’s dog performs so efficiently that it could have made a successful bid for Supporting Actor if only animal wranglers had had a union. Or maybe Rin Tin Tin’s agent.

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.

Technicolor imposed its own technicians who often had a tactless approach to a production staff. As a perfectionist, Dietrich always questioned received notions. When informed, for example, that she could not wear white as it would ‘bloom’ in Technicolor, she countered, "The white in my eye photographs white, why shouldn’t I wear a white dress in a color film?" It is not known just exactly how well this went down with Technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus, who was known to bend her own share of noses out of joint, but thanks to whoever blinked first the end result is notably to be witnessed in the wedding scene.

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.