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Despite ravishing color photography and a sterling cast, David O.
Selznick's production of "The Garden of Allah" is badly dated. A
Trappist monk abandons his vows and leaves the monastery with the
recipe for a unique liquor, only to fall for a convent-bred beauty with
deep religious convictions who is seeking the meaning of life in the
desert. When monasteries attract the likes of young Charles Boyer and
convents produce women with porcelain complexions like Marlene
Dietrich, religion may experience renewed popularity.
Set in North Africa as conceived by Selznick's fanciful art directors, Dietrich shimmers in flowing gowns and floats through a postcard-perfect desert. Her elegant silhouette is outlined against deep crimson sunsets that presage the indelible image of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind." If the preposterous story were half as captivating as the visuals, the film would be riveting. Unfortunately, modern viewers may giggle at the melodrama and hokey motivations. Both Dietrich and Boyer have done better and seem to be in a trance throughout. Staring fixedly into space stands in for spiritual conflict, and only the dependable Basil Rathbone cuts through the nonsense. Although the film runs less than 80 minutes, it seems at times to be tedious and interminable. Perhaps Dietrich's best director, Josef von Sternberg, could have conjured a classic from this cast and crew, but Richard Boleslawski's resume is thin and undistinguished. Possibly Boleslawski fell in love with his stars, because the camera lingers on the perfectly lit faces of both Boyer and Dietrich. Maybe the director knew that the plot and dialog were weak and hoped that the lush photography and the charisma of his leads would carry the film.
Despite the visual feast, "The Garden of Allah" will appeal to few beyond die-hard Dietrich and Boyer fans. Others may squirm, smirk, and make smart asides to the screen. If "Mystery Science Theater 3000" broke beyond the science-fiction genre, Tom Servo and the bots could really work this one over.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Garden of Allah" is a prime example of "popular women's
literature", turn of the XXth century style, combining all the power of
unbridled erotic and exotic reveries with the stimulating glamour of
fake mysticism and the sado-masochistic bite of Catholic guilt. Just as
Jane Eyre couldn't really be happy until her castle burned down around
her and her lover was permanently maimed for his sins, or the heroine
of "Rebecca" couldn't find true fulfillment in her marriage until her
lordly husband was put on trial for the murder of his first wife (and
her castle burned down around her), or poor Psyche couldn't leave well
enough alone and had to extract Cupid's secret at all costs, Domini,
the devout Catholic heroine of this piece of tripe, can only find true
sexual realization by inadvertently marrying a man who has renounced
his sacred religious vows. Like all such narratives aiming to stimulate
the female reader and induce the vapours, this one relies on the oldest
tricks in the book: basic misunderstandings and the inability to
express one's true feelings at the right place and at the right time
until it is too late. The logic is that any ultimate sexual ecstasy can
be indulged in as long as one is willing to eventually pay a high
enough price for it in atonement in the last act. It is Paul Claudel
reduced to beauty salon magazine standards. Oh well... It could have
been much worse and it often was...
Without the religious overtones, the film's plot is that of your basic porn flick: Oversexed monk driven mad by abstinence escapes to the desert where he has a few rolls in the dunes with a romantic, shapely but naive Catholic heiress before reintegrating his monastery, all passion spent, leaving her to clean up his mess. And I really resent another commentator's comparison with Anatole France's "Thais", a sophisticated novel whose intention was to make fun of the whole concept of Catholic sexual repression, some of which transpired in Massenet's opera of the same name, thankfully.
But what makes this picture unique in the annals of commercial female eroticism, of course, is the enormous constellation of talents gathered under one banner to make this cinematic wet dream come to shimmering, vibrant life. Imperishable Technicolor photography that will outlive us all, a truckload of worthy character actors (including one cute dog), a music score by Max Steiner that seems determined to accomplish the "composed film" that Michael Powell (who, ironically, had a bit part in the 1927 silent version) always dreamed about, tittering at times on the brink of dissonance but always coming through in splendid symphonic, operatic exoticism, a dream-like atmosphere where material considerations are no object, characters travel as if by magic from one spot to the next, dialog is sparse, vague and suggestive, the art direction is close to celestial, flower arrangements appear in the humblest hut or tent, the heroine's wardrobe is inexhaustible and all the male characters are either aristocrats, saints, doomed but horny sinners, mystics or poets.
Ahh... Hollywood! The MGM DVD presentation of this film is bare bones but impeccable. The bit rate is very high throughout, the colour registration is almost always perfect and the 2.0 mono sound truly does justice to Max Steiner's score and to Boyer's penultimate confession.
A historical note on this sort of "women's subject": The following year (1937), Julien Duvivier, visibly inspired by "The Garden of Allah", directed "Carnet de Bal", where a very similar clothes-horse butter-won't-melt-in-her-mouth heroine (widowed after taking care of an ailing husband in the exotic remoteness of some impossibly romantic Alpine lakeside villa) wants to discover what she has missed by looking up the male dancers in her first dance book. She finds them all in time, only to realize that whatever feeling there was at one point between her beaus and herself were either misunderstood, overestimated or else had lifelong tragic consequences. It was Duvivier's cynical way of telling us to beware of impossibly idealistic notions and that we all need to grow up sooner or later.
The real star of this ridiculous story is glorious technicolor. A visual treat to the eye, the film fails to stimulate the mind and heart. I was intrigued, at first, by the idea of Dietrich and Boyer leaving religion in order to "find" their capacity for love. What follows is a huge disappointment. Boyer is the only real actor in the production and one feels his torment. Dietrich's amazing wardrobe outshines her performance -- at times her face is frightening to look at -- a unfeeling mask. As a monk, Boyer held the formula for the monastery's liquer (which reminds me of the true story of Chartreuse) -- when he leaves his "marriage to god" the reaction by his fellow monks holds the shock and fear that perpetuate organized religion. The viewer feels Boyer was well rid of his past. However, the journey that follows is all too predictable.
The film is actually a hoot, if one is in the right mood. It's campy in the
extreme, and there's no passion between Dietrich and Boyer ... at all (not
surprising, as he's playing a priest who runs away from his monastery to
taste the 'real world', and Dietrich is not the most accesible person at the
best of times!).
Choice dialogue include: "This is a land of fire, and I think you are made of fire!" and "In view of the infinite [desert], your grief will vanish." The Technicolor photography is commendable, as is Max Steiner's score. Dietrich looks more beautiful than ever in colour, and many of her gowns were designed by Travis Banton (uncredited), her designer at Paramount.
What more than this does one need to visit David O' Selznick's never-neverland Sahara?
Domini Enfilren (Marlene Dietrich) has spent most of her life caring
for her father. Now that he has died she is free--but doesn't know what
she wants. Boris Androvsky (Charles Boyer) is a monk who has fled a
monastery to taste more of life. They meet accidentally in Algiers,
fall in love and get married. But he can't leave his past behind and
she can't live without him...
WAY overdone romance full of hysterically bad dialogue and situations. Dietrich and Boyer do their best to give good performances but NOBODY could get away with some of their lines! Still, in a way, it is a classic. It's shot in gorgeous Technicolor (try to see it on DVD) where every frame is breath-takingly beautiful. Dietrich is always dressed to the 9s (even in the middle of the desert) and strikes hysterical poses to show off the clothes and her body. Boyer just walks around looking stricken (no shock there). Still I was never bored. It was wonderful to look at and the non-stop stupid dialogue kept me in stitches. The end almost had me falling out of my chair because I was laughing so hard! Now I love corny romances and give them plenty of space but really---this is unbelievable! It also runs a very short 80 minutes.
As a camp classic I give this an 8. As a serious movie--a 1.
As a great admirer of Marlene Dietrich, I had to (finally) watch this very, very dull picture. It is Miss Dietrich's first color film, and the world's most beautiful blond is a redhead! Bad start. The story is a tremendous bore, involving a subject which itself bores bores me stiff: religious guilt. (Who needs it???) Suffice it to say, perhaps, that of all Dietrich's films (and I have seen most, including "Pittsburgh") this is the only one where even her performance is barely worth watching. The color photography is OK (this is a very early Technicolor release), but to no purpose. Ridiculous casting: C. Aubrey Smith, Basil Rathbone (enough said?). The only thing of any interest at all is John Carradine's outlandish caricature of a performance as "The Sand Diviner," who foretells all that will happen. The supposed "happy ending" is one of the most depressing ever conceived. Yet another example of David O. Selznick's highly inflated reputation (did he ever make a really good film? -- other than That One?) And, for one final annoyance, the soundtrack of the MGM DVD is a mess, with volume levels seemingly randomized. Highly unrecommended.
The pioneering Technicolor Cinematography (Winner of Special Technical
Achievement Oscar) is indeed enchanting. Add an endless variety of
glamorous costumes and a romantic cinema dream team like Marlene
Dietrich and Charles Boyer, and you've got a rather pleasant "picture".
Unfortunately the contrived plot as well as the over-blown acting leave much to be desired. Still, there have not been any more breathtaking Technicolor films before this one (1936), and very few since then, that can top this breathtaking visual experience of stunning colors. Cinema fans who have enjoyed the glorious color cinematography in "Robin Hood" (1938), "Jesse James" (1939) and "Gone With The Wind" (1939), will not be disappointed in the fantastic work done here. "The Garden Of Allah" will always be synonymous with brilliant color cinematography.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Boy and girl meet God. Boy and girl lose God. Boy and girl find each
other. Boy and girl find God again. This is not really a formula that
There's some great Technicolor cinematography here. The sets are believable, at least for those of us who have never been to Morocco, and the music is pleasant.
The acting is fine. Marlena and Charles make a lovely couple. Basil is dashing and John Carradine reads fortunes in sand like he preaches in "Grapes of Wrath".
The problem lies with the main characters and the plot. The characters are torn between a saintly life and a normal life. For the vast majority of us, it is not a real problem. It is hard to relate to that kind of dilemma, and that is really the only kind of problem that the two lead characters face.
When it comes right down to it, I don't want to see Marlena Dietrich as Mother Teresa, I want to see her as Lola Lola.
People always talk about the Jewish/communist influence in Hollywood, but it was the Roman Catholic Church that really successfully infiltrated and brought their propaganda to Hollywood (e.g. "Going My Way").
This film is a good example of the type of film that would warm the hearts of any Catholic Legion of Decency member.
First, I rented this film because of Charles Boyer, who mesmerized me on the Late Night Movies when I was a young babysitter. His hypnotic gazes of pain, adoration, some inner darkness, a glowing kindness--wow! I rented this film in spite of Marlena Deitrich, who has the misfortune of 1936 eyebrows and script lines and type. Cast against type here, no matter. John Carradine I didn't even recognize--had to go back to find the actor in the brilliant characterization of the Sand Reader. So. In my life right now I have a dog I love a lot, a big blonde dog who is 13 years old. I'm in a Zen Buddhist residence where no dogs are allowed. Mack the dog has been with my daughter in her small apt. which is also her art studio. Now she needs her time and space. Do I leave my religious residence to live with Mack in civilian housing? Or do I give up the dog I love to remain in the temple? I am Charles Boyer in this case, and Mack is Domini, the character played by Dietrich. I am working on the revised script.
The movie is visually stunning but dated. This was one of the earliest films utilizing breathtaking Technicolor. Marlene Dietrich gives a good performance as a woman in search of herself and Charles Boyer plays the troubled man that she falls in love with. The story is good but the script is hokey. The colors and imagery makes this a film worth seeing for any movie buff. Look for John Carradine in a few brief scenes.
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