MGM // 1936 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // December 14th, 2004
They loved each other with the fierceness of those who have been denied love!
The Garden of Allah brings to life a world that never existed in reality, only in Hollywood fantasy and forgotten novels. An old-fashioned story even when it was filmed in 1936 -- it was based on a 1907 novel -- this is a tale of two troubled people finding love and redemption under the desert sun. It's also one of the earliest directorial efforts of David O. Selznick, who just a few years later would helm Gone with the Wind. Although this is among the first motion pictures made by his fledgling studio, Selznick International, he is already showing how ambitious he is. The final result is a lavish curiosity, an earnest melodrama that demands that we take its excesses seriously and even relish them. For those who can give themselves over to the experience, it's a rewarding film, but for others, it may carry a fatal aura of camp.
Beautiful, devout young Domini Enfilden (Marlene Dietrich, Stage Fright) returns to the convent where she was educated to ask for advice from her old friend and mentor, the Mother Superior. Domini has devoted her life to caring for her sick father, and now that he has died, she sees no purpose in her life. The Mother Superior counsels that she go to the Sahara desert -- called by the Bedouins "the Garden of Allah" -- where she will be able to find spiritual peace and hope for her future.
Once she reaches the Sahara, however, Domini finds even more: the darkly handsome young Boris Androvsky (Charles Boyer, Love Affair), who seems also to be suffering some private grief. Domini is drawn to this unworldly man, despite the fact that she knows nothing about him, and when Boris asks her to marry him, she doesn't hesitate. However, the truth that Boris is struggling to hide will eventually come between them and threaten their love for each other -- because Boris is a Trappist monk who has run away from his monastery and abandoned his calling.
Perhaps the best way I can sum up The Garden of Allah is to describe it as a Garbo film without Garbo. Indeed, Selznick had originally hoped to make the film with Garbo, but he eventually turned to the actress imported to be her successor, Marlene Dietrich. It's easy to imagine Garbo in the role of Domini, since so many of the roles Garbo played were women who embodied the spiritual side of passion and found redemption through sacrifice. It's a bit more difficult to imagine Dietrich, who often projects a sense of ironic amusement, in such a role -- particularly since the film is entirely free of irony and could never support a self-aware performance at its heart. But Dietrich plays it straight here and turns in an effective performance: As Domini, she is convincingly vulnerable and gentle. The distinctive droop of her eyelids, which often signals a wry, knowing quality, actually works just as well to convey Domini's melancholy and spiritual weariness.
Opposite Dietrich, the young Charles Boyer is every bit as charismatic as Dietrich in the role of the tormented Boris. At the time The Garden of Allah was made, Boyer was a relatively fresh face, and this early role is strikingly different from the smooth Continental lovers Boyer would play in later years, such as his suave villain in Gaslight. Here he projects a tormented insecurity and inner turmoil, even without the benefit of a great deal of dialogue, since Boris is a man of few words. Until the monologue in which he confesses his past to Domini, Boyer must rely for most of his performance on facial expression and the posture and movement of his body, and he does an excellent job of drawing us in and involving us. His combination of vulnerability and smoldering emotion makes him a compelling romantic lead, and the screen presence that would make him a star is already in evidence.
The supporting cast includes such distinguished actors as Basil Rathbone (of the Sherlock Holmes film series) and C. Aubrey Smith, as well as a brief appearance by Lucile Watson (The Women) as the Mother Superior whose counsel Domini seeks. Viennese dancer Tilly Losch (Duel in the Sun) makes her Hollywood debut as a seductive dancing girl in a riveting scene that shows Boris's naïveté in matters of the flesh: She singles him out, perhaps for his beauty, perhaps because she can tell that he is susceptible, and transfixes him with a dance that's remarkable for its eroticism in an era when films were bound by the ironclad prudery of the Hays Code.
The actors are placed in a setting of exotic beauty, lovingly costumed and photographed. The production values for the film bespeak Selznick's perfectionism and lavish spending, from Dietrich's endless array of exquisite chiffon gowns and scarves (not practical desert wear, to be sure, but a visual reminder of her character's spiritual nature) to the carefully coordinated color scheme that Merian Cooper designed to evoke paintings by the old masters. The use of warm golds and creamy pale blues is so unified that it's startling when a pure color enters the scene, like a red fez or a cobalt blue night sky. This soft palette accentuates the dreamy, languorous quality of the story and makes this film one of the most visually elegant of early three-strip Technicolor works. In fact, Ronald Haver in David O. Selznick's Hollywood calls the film "one of the visual masterpieces of 1930s picture-making" and notes that it gave prestige to the then-new technology of Technicolor. Even if the story doesn't appeal to you, the film's visual beauty alone makes it worth a rental.
The DVD transfer does a handsome job of presenting the visual splendor of the film. The colors are rich and saturated, just as one expects from three-strip Technicolor, and the image shows remarkably few age defects; it also seems to be very clean, and altogether it looks to have been taken from a high-quality print. The picture is in full frame, in accordance with its original aspect ratio; likewise, the audio mix is in the original mono. Although the audio shows some shortcomings, such as occasional waver and flatness in higher tones, these seem to reflect the limitations of the medium at the time rather than flaws in the transfer, and overall the mono track is quite serviceable.
The lack of extras is a disappointment; even filmographies of the major stars would have been welcome. Also, although it's a minor point, the cover art is of iffy quality: Boyer has been cut out of what was originally a handsome double portrait of him and Dietrich, and Dietrich's face has as a consequence been enlarged to the point of fuzziness and is ill framed with the text.
The lavish production values of the film also extend to the musical score by Max Steiner, perhaps the most popular and acclaimed film composer of the era. Frankly, I am not a fan of Steiner; I often find his music sappy, although to judge by the work of other composers of the 1930s, this was a popular style at the time. Of course, a story of such heightened emotionalism as The Garden of Allah demands a similarly demonstrative musical accompaniment, but I find that Steiner's insistent music makes the mixture a bit too rich at times.
Indeed, the lushly emotional nature of the story will itself alienate many viewers. Ours is an age of irony, and this is a film without a smidgen of irony; it takes its emotional and spiritual dilemmas with complete seriousness, and this earnest tone may strike modern audiences as laughable. I myself found it difficult to take Boris and Domini's predicament as seriously as did the other characters; I didn't think it was unforgivable of Boris to have, essentially, decided on a career change. But the world of the film is one in which Boris's decision actually seems to threaten his soul. To really enjoy this movie, you have to be prepared to check your hip ironic detachment at the door and put yourself in the mood for a good old-fashioned emotional wallow. If you can do that, The Garden of Allah can be a satisfying nostalgic experience.
By this point, I probably don't need to state the obvious: They don't make 'em like this any more. Its dated qualities will turn a lot of viewers off, and I don't recommend a blind purchase, but if you are the kind of moviegoer who loves watching Garbo or Kay Francis or even Susan Hayward suffer, you should check out The Garden of Allah. At only 79 minutes, it's not long enough to get bogged down with its own earnestness, and for fans of Dietrich and Boyer, it's a chance to see both looking ravishing.
Guilt is for absconding monks and brooding heroines, not for gorgeous Technicolor dramas about them. The defendant is free to mount its camel and ride off into the desert.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 1936
MPAA Rating: Not Rated