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North Africa in the 1930's. To a small Arab town on the edge of the
Sahara comes a beautiful woman looking for meaning to her life & a
handsome Trappist monk fleeing from his crisis of faith. They will meet
and passions will be stirred, but not even the Sand Diviner knows if
they will find happiness or sorrow, here, in THE GARDEN OF ALLAH.
The plot is pure hokum, but the film is still great fun & beautiful to look at. Marlene Dietrich & Charles Boyer are a superb screen couple. She is, to put it simply, gorgeous, and Boyer gives a most effective, understated performance, letting his sensitive face do much of his acting for him.
The supporting cast is excellent: Basil Rathbone, in a sympathetic role as a Count who loves the desert; Joseph Schildkraut as a friendly, talkative guide (all the "Arabic" he & others speak in the film is pure gibberish); Lucile Watson as a gentle Mother Superior; Alan Marshal as an honorable young French officer; Tilly Losch as a dangerous dancer; Henry Brandon as a comic porter; John Carradine as the mysterious Sand Diviner; and magnificent Sir C. Aubrey Smith as a wise old priest.
Movie mavens will recognize Helen Jerome Eddy as a nun; Marcia Mae Jones & Bonita Granville (peeking over the nun's shoulder) as convent girls; gaunt Nigel De Brulier as a monastery lector; and Ferdinand Gottschalk as a hotel clerk, all uncredited.
Color films of the 1930's are both rare & lovely to look at, and this movie is no exception - the cinematography is as colorful as the desert itself. THE GARDEN OF ALLAH was the first Technicolor film to be shot on location. Yuma, Arizona gave the film makers all the sand dunes they could desire, but contaminated drinking water & 135 degree heat soon had the company in revolt. When the daily rushes showed Boyer's face had burned a bright tomato red, producer David O. Selznick finally gave in. The remainder of the film was shot on a Hollywood sound stage.
This is, I believe, only the second movie to be made in the gloriously
new three-strip Technicolor process, and it must be said that
cinematographer Howard Greene and Selznick's always reliable crew of
art directors turned in a stunning performance. At a time when color
was not well understood by most technicians, these guys pulled off a
virtuoso turn. The thing looks fabulous from end to end; lovely desert
shots under all kinds of lighting conditions, and a generally
underplayed and painterly use of color.
Then there is the music: one of Max Steiner's most magical scores, although unfortunately renters of the video will not quite be able to appreciate it as it deserves to be. Max wrote nearly two hours of music for what turned out to be a 79 minute picture; a good deal of it was lost and Selznick's sound engineers had a tendency to mix it under in such a way that its distinctiveness is much muted. This problem is exacerbated in the usually reliable Anchor Bay's VHS issue; they went overboard with the noise reduction filters and the result in many places is a blurry mush that does scant justice to Steiner's often piquant scoring. (Later: In the DVD this has been largely rectified). Some of the best passages were left on the cutting room floor altogether... All of this visual and audible loveliness has been lavished on a story of truly astonishing triviality, which is a pity, as the Robert Hichens novel had rather more depth. (Count Antioni, for instance, is a converted Muslim in the book; but 1936 Hollywood would not tolerate that. Would they today, I wonder?) Marlene Dietrich has to be the only woman on earth who would wander about the uncharted depths of the Sahara in high heels and a Travis Banton silk confection of a gown; the most horrendous sandstorms fail to displace a single hair of her coiffure. Charles Boyer strives manfully with awful dialogue and almost brings it off. Second tier characters like Joseph Schildkraut and the ever stalwart C. Aubrey Smith fare better, and Basil Rathbone is always good to see. Tilly Losch's hoochie- koochie dance in the Arab dive is positively embarrassing. The whole thing was definitely a miscalculation on Selznick's part, and he lost a bundle. Nevertheless it is well worth a look if you are a student of early color. Film music aficionados will have to take my word for it on the superb qualities of the score; the existing movie barely hints at them. This music cries out for a good new recording, like the many others that are coming out these days of classic picture scores.
Early Technicolor, subdued and with shadows playing over the wide
stretches of sand and silk (Dietrich's wide array of costumes), is the
real star of this desert opus that should fascinate any student of
cinematography interested in exploring David O. Selznick's use of color
a few years before GONE WITH THE WIND.
MARLENE DIETRICH strikes some awesome poses and looks stunning in all of her close-ups and CHARLES BOYER is a suitably romantic figure as he copes with a secret unknown to her--he's a man hiding his past as a monk. She's searching for true love after a girlhood devoted to her sick father and Boyer seems to be the living embodiment of her ideal.
It's all so unreal and yet it's hard to turn away from the gorgeous colors and not be drawn into the story. When things get too dull, there's always Basil Rathbone, Joseph Schildkraut and C. Aubrey Smith in the supporting cast to bring some added color to the tale.
It's Technicolor heaven for Dietrich's fans and to top it all there's a nice Max Steiner score in the background. None of it can be taken seriously but it has its compensations from a visual standpoint.
I give this movie an A+ for the sheer camp of it! As Dietrich's
daughter Maria Riva wrote in the book on her mother, "If one sees The
Garden of Allah in the context of high camp, it can be very amusing."
And how! I laughed with delight at the overwrought score and the
astoundingly, ridiculously, fantastically melodramatic dialogue.
Viewers who've read the accounts of Boyer's toupee (it kept coming
unstuck in the heat) will snicker every time it makes an appearance.
Dietrich and Boyer rarely look at each other when giving their lines -- instead they gaze dreamily off into the distance, presumably so their faces can be photographed at the best angle and with the most advantageous light (if you're starring in a turkey might as well look good!). Dietrich's costumes are out of this world. As Riva notes in her book, Dietrich managed to steal Paramount's Travis Banton and have him design some of the most divine gowns, such as the chiffon beige dress & cape.
I heartily agree with the other reviewers who rave about the Technicolor. It really is hard to believe the film was done in 1936 -- the color is fantastic.
In short, if you watch The Garden of Allah with a lenient attitude and embrace its silliness, you can't help but enjoy it.
Much abuse has been heaped upon this film in users' comments here
("tripe," "hokum," etc.) and, yes, in later years even Marlene herself
called it "twash," (along with most of the rest of her movies). But
it's gweat twash and, in all fairness, much-loved weepies like "An
Affair To Remember" have got nothing on this picture. The fabulousness
(that's definitions 1 & 2 in Webster's) of the plot, the emphatic
performances, the overblown dialogue and the sheer absurd audacity of
full silver service and "dressing for dinner" in a tent in the middle
of the Sahara; these are the very things for which you watch such a
film. After all, if life was never like this anywhere, at any time, it
sure should have been.
The user who suggested the "right mood" is necessary is absolutely correct, and it helps to remember the perspective of audiences of the time who, while the Depression dragged on, desired escapism that bore no resemblance to their real lives. We certainly have our escapist fare today and, believe me, "Spiderman," "The Matrix" and "The Fast and the Furious" are going to look at least as ridiculous - if not more so - after a half-century (if not before). So, please, let's not have any more carping about implausibility.
The aspects that have garnered the most criticism are some of the very elements that make it so much fun, but you must abandon your jaded cynicism and surrender yourself to the experience. I'd never recommend this film to everyone I know, but of those to whom I have done - people I knew could appreciate it - not one has gotten all the way through it without choking back a tear or two (if not outright bawling like a baby).
One thing everyone does seem to agree on is the ravishingly beautiful look of this picture, and they're oh-so-right about that. The DVD from Anchor Bay is particularly stunning - there are scenes that look like they were shot yesterday - so, if you decide to see the film, try to get your hands on a copy of that release.
Incidentally, this was not the first Technicolor picture in the three-strip process (as opposed to the two-strip, which goes back to 1922) shot on location, as one comment said. That honor most likely belongs to "Trail Of the Lonesome Pine," which was shot and released a few months earlier.
Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer give solid performances in this
beautiful but empty film. The irony is that Dietrich plays a woman with
a beautiful but empty life. Truly gorgeous cinematography and sets, and
yes Dietrich's bottomless trunk of clothes are also fabulous. She look
great; Boyer looks young and trim.
Story of a woman seeking meaning and an ex-priest seeking life seems pretty stale, but set against such unreal sets and skies it somehow works, given the two stars, the terrific score by Max Steiner, and a good supporting cast. The film runs like 76 minutes and seems badly edited, plus certain characters just appear or disappear.
Joseph Schildkraut is funny as the Arab guide, C. Aubrey Smith is the old priest, Lucile Watson the mother superior, Tilly Losch the dancer, John Carradine the diviner, and Basil Rathbone plays.... well I'm not sure. He just rides in from the desert and spoils everything! As others have noted, John Gilbert was slated to star with Dietrich. I can't help but think he would have been wonderful. The role of world-weary Boris would have suited the great Gilbert quite well. And after the success of Queen Christina (with Garbo), his career might have gotten back on track.
I can't think of any other 30s film Dietrich did in color. She looks great and wears some terrific clothes. My favorite is the Valentino as The Shiek-like outfit she wears by the pool.
Certainly worth a look for the lush sets and color and the two great stars.
In terms of visual beauty this movie is outstanding! I had no idea that Technicolor came out so early. Although I didn't like the ending, the entire movie is fantastic and makes me wish that I was in North Africa. The cast is excellent and Marlene Dietrich is a big plus and of course she is so alluring and I just loved her in this flick. Basil Rathbone is also perfect in this movie. I couldn't get over the scenery and the sets... The hotel, the palm trees, the desert, it's all there... the legionnaires also bring a "Beau Geste" feeling to the film. They certainly don't make movies like these anymore. Don't fail to watch this classic!
Audiences back in 1936 must have been stunned at what they were
watching: a full-fledged, beautiful full-length Technicolor film. I
can't say for sure, but this might have been the first one (3-strip).
At any rate, it still looks beautiful over 70 years later on DVD. In
fact, just how good it looks is amazing.
Kudos for that have to go out to Director Richard Boleslowski, Director Of Photography Virgil Miller, Selznick International Pictures and, for the DVD - MGM Home Entertainment. All of them combined to give us one of the best-looking films of the classic-era age.
I thought the story was so-so: excellent in the first half, stagnant in the second. It gave a nice message in the end, even though a lot of people might not have been happy with it. I can't say more without spoiling things.
Marlene Dietrich never looked better, I don't believe, and certainly never played such a soft-hearted character ("Domini Enfilden"). Heart-throb Charles Boyer was the male star and Domini's object of affection, but some of the minor characters were the most interesting to me. People like Joseph Schildkraut as "Batouch;" John Carradine as "The Sand Diviner;" The most memorable, to me at least, was the dancer "Irena," played by Tilly Losch. Wow, there is a face and a dance you won't soon forget! I've never seen anything like it in the thousands of films I've viewed. Just seeing her do her thing was worth the price of the DVD. Looking at her IMDb resume, she was only in four movies, but they were all well-known films.
Basil Rathbone, the actor who really became famous for playing "Sherlock Holmes," also is in here as is C. Aubrey Smith, another famous British actor of his day. Schildkraut, by the way, will be recognized by classic film buffs as the man who played the arrogant sales clerk in the big hit, "The Shop Around The Corner," with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan.
The beautiful direction, photography and color, and Tilly's dance, are the things I'll remember best about this movie which is a lot of good and not-so-good things all rolled into one. Had the last half hour been better - although I admire the ending - I would have rated it even higher. It's definitely one film collectors want to add to their collection.
Gorgeous Techicolor production telling the unusual tale of the romance
between a woman of strong religious faith and a Trappist monk who has
left his monastery, breaking his vows. The film opens at a convent in
Europe, where a former student prays - a lonely beauty in black named
Domini (Marlene Dietrich). She is advised by the Mother Superior to go
to the desert and "find herself", and lose her grief over her father
who has recently died. In the train car on the way into the Sahara she
sits opposite a very, very troubled man (Charles Boyer) - our former
monk. She's soon at a hotel near a palm-treed oasis where she again
sees our mysterious troubled man as he is stumped over what to do when
confronted by a very seductive dancing girl. Domini becomes friends
with him, though knows nothing of his past - romance soon to follow.
This film is sentimental, melodramatic, and different (in a way, almost surreal and even a bit campy) - I found it to be quite fun and entertaining. The photography in this is really interesting - it is full of extreme facial close-ups and beautiful color shots of caravans of horses crossing the desert, silhouetted figures against a sunset sky. Marlene Dietrich gives a nicely done, though restrained, performance here and looks gorgeous. Charles Boyer - not usually one of my favorites - is actually pretty good in this, I think the part sort of suits him and he looks quite young and handsome too. Basil Rathbone is fine here, except given very little to do. Another great orchestral score by Max Steiner helps keep the drama rolling - all in all, a very enjoyable film.
If you did "The Garden of Allah" today, you'd have to play it for camp.
As produced in 1936, it nearly is anyway.
Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, Basil Rathbone, C. Aubrey Smith, and Joseph Schildkraut star in this David O. Selznick Technicolor production. The story concerns a religious woman, Domini, who is in mourning for her father and visits the convent where she lived as a child. The Mother Superior encourages her to go out and live, as she was her father's caretaker and didn't get out into the world.
She meets Boris Androvsky, and he seems even more unfamiliar with the world than she. What she doesn't know is that he was a Trappist monk and has left the order. The two fall in love and marry. However, someone eventually recognizes him, and his secret is revealed.
I have to say, I feel sorry for any ex-Trappist monk running into gorgeous Marlene Dietrich, especially under a desert sky. The atmosphere of this film is very moody, the color beautiful, and the photography sensational. Filmed in California and Arizona, it looks for all the world like an exotic desert setting.
Even with all this, and a young, handsome Charles Boyer, the film comes off as melodramatic and slight. Partly I blame the overly-dramatic music, but let's face it, the script isn't very good.
Marlene Dietrich is very good and underplays her role; Boyer's role is really impossible. He's confused and miserable through most of it. He was an excellent actor and pulls it off, though. Rathbone doesn't have a big role, nor does Schildkraut, but they were two of the best character actors around.
"The Garden of Allah" is definitely worth seeing - it's wonderful to look at, and when you see the Cyndi Lauper video of "Time after Time," this is the film she was watching in the beginning of the song.
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