BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE GARDEN OF ALLAH

By • Oct 19th, 2004 •

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(Anchor Bay) 1936, Technicolor, 79 mins, full-frame.

PASSABLE

Marlene Dietrich, who can’t pronounce the name ‘Boris’ to save herself (her translation: ‘Bo-wiss’), is framed, lit and costumed so exquisitely that the experience becomes one of waiting longingly between each spectacular close-up. The film was a box-office dud when it was released, and time hasn’t given it a break. The pacing is leaden, the conflict and dialogue absurd. Charles Boyer, as a monk-in-training who makes a break for freedom and immediately regrets it, plays the part as a sniveling fool, which just doesn’t make us warm up to his plight. And the direction…I know Boleslawski had a big rep – ooh, very artistic, and all that – but he doesn’t find the dramatic core of this piece, and lavishes grave emotional depths on his performers that only serve to point up the shallowness of the material. It’s odd to consider that the book was such a popular success that it had actually been filmed twice before Selznick got his hands on it. And there are no extra materials, no commentary track, no outtakes, no trailer. Sounds like there’s nothing here to recommend…

…and yet – and there often is an ‘and yet’ – this is a near-pristine restoration by Scott McQueen, who deserves our deep gratitude each time one of those gorgeously posed close-ups appears. It approximates Technicolor about as well as we’ll ever see it on today’s home media, and it reminds me that back then, in the 30’s and 40’s, audiences used to applaud the color. In The Adventures of Robin Hood, when someone would enter the castle in a brilliantly hued wardrobe, or Errol Flynn would appear decked in vibrant, electric greens, there would be spontaneous applause. It was almost as important as the actors and story. The Garden of Allah was a pivotal film in the advancement of Technicolor, since Natalie Kalmus, the official representative of the company, had strict standards about how the process was to be used, and Selznick and Merian C. Cooper fought her and finally triumphed, instituting new changes which would have reverberations from that point on. Even with its commercial failure, the film was widely considered a success by virtue of the uses of Technicolor alone. And as presented here, The Garden of Allah definitely recaptures much of that wonderment. So I’m calling it ‘passable’. Weak on almost every level, but stunning visually. You may want it just as a demonstration disc.

And then there’s the exotic Tilly Losch, playing the belly dancer. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recall that she was Selznick’s main squeeze prior to Jennifer Jones, and I can see a resemblance. If anyone knows about Tilly, please let us know. (Bruce Eder couldn’t satisfy me on this account, so I wonder if anyone out there actually can. Feel free to pick up the gauntlet.) She was a Viennese performer, and Selznick used her again, in a near-identical scene, in Duel in the Sun, and for that film Ms. Losch taught Jennifer Jones to do a sexual dance with a tree (no joke) which the Breen administration frowned on, so it was removed. Duel in the Sun has also been released, twice, on DVD by Anchor Bay, and it’s a great camp romp with lots of beautiful Technicolor, but each disc has different problems visually. Neither gets it quite right.

I’m having a hell of a time trying to come up with a double-bill for Garden of Allah. I think maybe you should make it a David O’Selznick/Tilly Losch/Technicolor evening and show Duel in the Sun after dessert. Both nutty, both campy, both fun. Duel in the Sun is the more satisfying. Save that for last.


Credits:
Produced by David O. Selznick.
Directed by Richard Boleslawski.

Cast:
Marlene Dietrich,
Charles Boyer,
Basil Rathbone,
C.Aubrey Smith,
Tilly Losch,
Joseph Schildkraut

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