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The criticism on David O. Selznick has it that his films are too 'feminine', overproduced, and over-hyped. The majority of them are overly sensitive, delicate, fussy, 'precious', if you will. Yet nobody ever over-produced kitschy Hollywood fare as well as Selznick did. The Garden of Allah is a fascinating movie and a beautiful DVD, the kind of bubble-headed Hollywood romance that was only made in the 1930s.
A convent. Virginal Domini Enfilden (Marlene Dietrich, in +/- 40 costume changes) has come to see her teachers for advice. She's spent her adult life caring for her sickly father, and now that he's gone, she's a lost soul seeking guidance. The nuns naturally advise a long trip in the Sahara. Arriving by train in a colorful, harmless North Africa of Arabian horses, impeccably attired Arabs and exotic night spots, Domini falls for the sullen, neurotic Boris Androvsky (Charles Boyer, looking and behaving amazingly like Johnny Depp). He's a Trappist monk of the sworn-to-silence and penury type, escaped from a local monastery on a desperate quest to find passion in his life.
They meet in a nightclub to watch the erotic dance of Irena (Tilly Losch, of Duel in the Sun), soon marry and depart for an illogical honeymoon in the desert wastes, all courtesy of suave Arab(?) potentate Count Anteoni (Basil Rathbone, just looking lost). All is smoldering romance (in tents, not intense) until a French legionnaire (Alan Marshal) spills the beans about Boris' broken vows. Not only has Boris double-crossed God, but his Monastery is failing because in his absence they cannot brew their famous liqueur, of which only Boris knows the recipe. How will Domini and Boris resolve this impasse of faith and love?
The Garden of Allah is quite a treat. Every shot is a beauty, and a ravishing new closeup of Ms. Dietrich is never more than 20 seconds away. This was just before Dietrich's dark period when she was branded as boxoffice poison. Her artistic Von Sternberg vehicles were rejected for more down-to-Earth, populist fare, the kind Frank Capra was making. Away from Sternberg and under the guidance of Richard Boleslawski and producer Selznick, Dietrich here matches the glamour and artificiality of her previous pix, but not their artfulness. The Garden of Allah is too silly even to pretend to pretension. But it has other graces.
Like bad women's literature, everyone around Domini is enthralled by her and dedicated to her problems. The church seems to have a special budget to worry for her soul, and every man she meets is an instant acolyte. The social setup is strictly fairy tale. All we know about Domini is that her two suitcases contain more beautiful clothing than the average issue of Vogue, which always looks impeccable and doesn't need ironing. One improbable outfit is a silvery metallic dress fit for the wife of alien Klaatu. North Africa is a place to meet charming people like the sexless but witty Batouch (Joseph Schildkraut, the best actor in the film) and exotic places such as the crowded, sex-charged nightclub where the equally incredible Tilly Losch dances. Money is never an issue, as the fantastic safari-honeymoon into the dunes seems to be provided by the Count as normal courtesy.
The Garden of Allah is a chestnut of a story made at least twice before. Selznick had a weakness for literary adaptations; one wonders if this property was suggested by his story editor Val Lewton. The Boyer character is not only Russian, but melancholy and self-absorbed in a typically Lewtonesque way.
The strength here is the strong performances. Although his moral dilemma is a trivial gimmick, Charles Boyer is never less than compelling, and his 'big impassioned speech' scene is an extended closeup that shows undeniable skill and definite star power. Dietrich rarely relaxes long enough to resemble a human, but is fascinating to watch. In able support, the above-mentioned Schildkraut manages the comic relief without being a racially slandered buffoon, of the kind that crop up in many Selznick films. Horror fans will enjoy the controlled, able John Carradine as 'The Sand Diviner', a seer who foretells Domini's unhappiness by plunging his fingers into a dish of good ol' Sahara grit.
Anchor Bay's DVD is an amazingly beautiful presentation. The Garden of Allah was a very early 3-strip Technicolor feature and it appears to be in perfect shape. The colors leap off the screen; the art directors were apparently advised to chuck realism out the nearest minaret and make this Arab fantasyland the most colorful place on Earth. If you rent this title and it doesn't appeal, Savant recommends skipping down to the cantina dance scene - it's a self-contained perfect sequence, one of the sexiest dances on film.
Original Music Bernard Herrmann, Dimitri Tiomkin, and themes by Claude Debussy Writing credits Leonardo Bercovici, Peter Berneis, Paul Osborn (Credited), Ben Hecht, David O. Selznick (uncredited) from the novel by Robert Nathan Produced by David O. Selznick Directed by William Dieterle
The Garden of Allah wasn't a success. Neither was this superior fantasy from 1948, one of Selznick's productions designed around his wife, Jennifer Jones. Duel in the Sun was an attempt to overcome Jennifer's association with the religious-themed Song of Bernadette; here she plays a film-blanc inflected romantic lamia from out of time itself. Predating Somewhere in Time and Slaughterhouse-Five, and perhaps inspired by The Enchanted Cottage, Portrait of Jennie is a favorite romantic fantasy.
Starving painter Eben Adams is freezing through a depression-era New York Winter when an elderly art dealer, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) buys one of his uninspired drawings. Inspiration comes soon thereafter when Eben meets the adolescent Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones), a kid playing alone in central park. She dresses and talks like a tot from 1910 and she sings a ghostly tune from the beyond. He sketches her from memory and makes a substantial sale; but when he bumps into Jennie only a few days later, she appears to be several years older. Appearing and disappearing mysteriously, Jennie returns repeatedly, each time maturing by leaps, fulfilling a promise that the ten-year-old had made to 'hurry and grow up so they can be together always'. Suspecting he's crazy and that Jennie is a phantom, Eben confides only in Miss Spinney. When the adult Jennie disappears, Eben puts together clues from her stories and from Jennie's teacher (Lillian Gish) that launch him in a race against a fated death: he rushes to Cape Cod to keep a rendezvous with his ghostly lover on the rocks below a storm-tossed lighthouse.
When Savant was younger he thought Jennie was perfect, which it isn't. It is one of the more impressive romantic fantasies, and the perfect Jennifer Jones-Joseph Cotten combo. Dieterle's direction is excellent, never becoming too precious and bringing out moments that really do approach the 'timeless, ageless' beauty Selznick surely was striving for. The producer's team of creative talent invested it with a terrific look; it's one of Savant's favorite B&W films and would look all wrong in color. Since the ephemeral Jennie is the subjective romantic imagination of charcoal & oils artist Eben Adams, the excessive pictorial emphasis given her seems entirely correct.
Jennifer Jones is something of a marvel. She successfully convinces us she's growing from pigtails to womanhood; her coquettishness and immaturity are engaging and her adult incarnation embodies romance like a goddess fallen to Earth. Cotten already seems a bit old, but is totally charming; this is one of his best films. Good support is given from Cecil Kellaway and David Wayne, along with Albert 'Darby O'Gill' Sharpe. Lillian Gish has nothing to do but spout a few quasi-reverent lines, unfortunately. Ethel Barrymore, on the other hand, has a solid role and handles it perfectly.
Savant likes to analyze what's actually going on in fantasy films. The phantom Jennie, as other writers have thought before, may be a romantic projection of Barrymore's Miss Spinney (read: Spinster) character. Spinney is clearly in love with Eben. As in Somewhere in Time, Jennie indulges the hopeful notion that there is someone out there ideally suited for all of us, and only the lucky find their ideal mate in their own place and time. Spinney is too old for Adams, as Jennie is too young for him, yet Time does not matter, only Love.1
Realist painter Eben is a surrealist hero. He finds something totally irrational in his life, and instead of denying it, accepts and worships it for what it is. Thus he lives in a New York of his own creation; a (literally) canvas-textured world. When it is mysterious, Central Park can look like a Mario Bava forest from Black Sunday. When the mood is romance, a seedy artist's garret becomes a sacred, glowing place. Reality and fantasy are no more delineated than Jennie's various impossible 'versions'. Eben finally finds himself on a rocky spit of land in an impossibly violent storm, making love to a woman who doesn't exist while a tidal wave (of reality?) crashes down to vanquish his fantasy forever. This is the closest thing the movies have come to the delirious surrealism of Henry Hathaway's Peter Ibbetson.
It's a tough thing to criticize Portrait of Jennie, but the flaws are there, and they are easily pinned on producer Selznick. The movie starts far too slowly, with reams of poetry text to read on screen, and pretentious and rather condescending narration to suffer through. Selznick has little feeling for nuance or subtlety. Every plot point is made literal and obvious. The only evidence of Jennie's existence is a scarf, which is treated as far too special an object by all who come in contact with it. Likewise, everyone who describes Jennie immediately refers to her ghostlike quality, as if they were reading heavenly publicity handouts. The retired costumer provides Eben with Jennie's background far too conveniently, and one rolls one's eyes in the scene where Lillian Gish practically hands Cotten a celestial roadmap with a red "X" for Land's End light. When the lovers meet, they trade ridiculous verbal nuggets of romantic wisdom as tons of water smash them against the rocks. These appear to be last-minute looped additions.
After terrible reviews, Selznick yanked his film from theater chains and recut and revised it, spending on even more spectacular effects for the ending. When it failed again, he re-released it a third time in 1950 as Tidal Wave in a vain attempt to pass it off as an action spectacle. Unlike Eben, Selznick couldn't accept the magic of his movie unless the public accepted it as well.
But most of the dialogue is fine. The Debussy music is extremely good, and the comic relief in the Irish bar is welcome. The movie is a visual marvel, and Jones and Cotten are a sublimely attractive couple, making Portrait of Jennie a prime date movie. It will work much better than Deep Red, take it from Savant.
Anchor Bay's DVD presentation is terrific. In the 1980s a laserdisc was announced and abruptly cancelled, for a lack of decent source materials. Savant's VHS from the old Z Channel indeed had an annoying soundtrack buzz through an entire three reels. In the spirit of its original presentation, Anchor Bay has retained the tinting of the final reel, which plays in a ghostly green, and a breathtaking ending color view of the eponymous portrait in a museum being admired by a pre-teen Anne Francis (now there's a bit of romance out-of-time to ponder). What nobody can replicate is the wonder of Magnavision, a special 'process' for the film's premiere. Selznick prepared a giant masked screen, and the movie showed normally until the lightning bolt that initiates the green-tinted storm. Then the screen masking receded and a zoom lens on the projector enlarged the screen just for the special effects finale. Coming five years before CinemaScope, this William Castle-like idea wasn't very practical for ordinary distribution.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Garden of Allah, Portrait of Jennie rate:
1. Jennie sidesteps the idea that Eben Adams is some kind of child molester. Everyone has seen children who are already attractive to adults, and if anyone really behaved as does Adams they'd be convicted as a sex offender, sensitive artist or not. Some things in Jennie have dated but not this; audiences never snicker at it.Return