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The Garden of Allah

The Garden of Allah
MGM Home Entertainment
1936 / Color / 1:37 / Street date November 28, 2000 /
Starring Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, Basil Rathbone, C. Aubrey Smith, Tilly Losch, Joseph Schildkraut
Cinematography W. Howard Greene
Art Directors Edward G. Boyle, Sturges Carne, Lansing C. Holden and Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor Hal C. Kern
Original Music Max Steiner
Writing credits W.P. Lipscomb and Lynn Riggs, from the novel by Robert Hichens
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by Richard Boleslawski

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

As part of their ABC distribution deal, MGM has acquired a list of David O. Selznick productions previously released by Anchor Bay. Garden of Allah was one of the better AB Selznicks, and it still looks great in this new MGM release.

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 feature was released 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.

In the spirit of 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. Her outfits always look impeccable and never need ironing. One improbable dress is a silvery metallic number 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 are 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 just the same. 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.

MGM's DVD of The Garden of Allah is a beautiful presentation, and looks almost identical to Anchor Bay's earlier release. A very early 3-strip Technicolor feature, and it appears to be in perfect shape; only a few shots exhibit color haloes indicating a misalignment of Technicolor matrices. 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.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Garden of Allah rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 23, 2004

Savant's original 2000 review of Garden of Allah with Portrait of Jennie.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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