“Whatever has caused him to take this awful step, only agony and remorse can follow it.”
By 1936, the desert romance “The Garden of Allah” was not exactly fresh material. It had originated as a novel written by Robert Hichens in 1904, then been adapted for the stage, and subsequently was filmed twice, the most recent version having been a 1927 MGM production directed by Rex Ingram. While at MGM in the early 1930s, producer David O. Selznick had intended remaking the film as a talkie with Greta Garbo, but by 1935 he had burnt his bridges at MGM and soon moved to set up his own production company — Selznick International Pictures. One of his early decisions as head of his own company was to buy the rights to “The Garden of Allah” from MGM for $62,000.
Part of the reason for this was the fact that Selznick was also pondering the subject matter for his first Technicolor feature. The agreement that lead to the formation of Selznick International called for Technicolor to be used for some of the company’s films. Selznick’s first choice of material had been a play entitled “Dark Victory” (later filmed by WB in 1939 with Bette Davis), but just about at this time, the first outdoor adventure film using 3-strip Technicolor (Trail of the Lonesome Pine [1936, Paramount]) proved to be a very popular success. Seeing this, Selznick decided that a more expansive production with a somewhat less-dark theme would better cash in on the current interest in Technicolor. Accordingly, he turned to “The Garden of Allah.”
The Garden of Allah was the second film released by Selznick International. Not to my knowledge ever available on LD, it has now been brought to DVD by Anchor Bay in all its Technicolor glory.
A young Trappist monk, Brother Antoine, forsakes his vows and runs away from his monastery. He had been responsible for making the monastery’s unique liqueur and when he left, the knowledge of how to make the liqueur went with him.
Meanwhile, Domini Enfilden — a wealthy, young, religious European woman — goes to the Sahara (which the Bedouins call the Garden of Allah) in search of some form of spiritual serenity, following the death of her father for whom she had cared for many years. There she encounters the young ex-monk, now known as Boris Androvsky, who by this time is tortured with guilt at having run away.
Domini and Boris are drawn to each other and eventually are married, but Boris’ past becomes a barrier between the two’s happiness until he finally realizes that there is but one way to atone.
The Garden of Allah is very much a mood piece. The film very strongly conveys a sense of time suspended while the powers of both love and the ever-changing yet ever-constant desert work their magic on two people trapped by situations almost beyond their control. This is a film of languid glances, long expressive looks, simple dialogue, and carefully composed shots that could have gone very wrong without just exactly the right actors. In this regard, Selznick’s instincts did not desert him.
Initially, Selznick had settled on Merle Oberon to play the part of Domini, but with the decision to make The Garden of Allah a real showcase for Technicolor and with a budget of $1.2M, he began to feel that a player with more mystique was needed. In late March 1936, Marlene Dietrich became available when she walked off the Paramount picture Hotel Imperial in a dispute over the firing of director Ernst Lubitsch. Selznick quickly signed her up. It was a key decision in the film’s success. One can forget everything else going on and just focus on Dietrich. If you don’t like one pose or setting or costume, just wait a few minutes or less, and there’ll be a different one. She is easily as well served in The Garden of Allah as she was in any of her early ’30s films with Josef von Sternberg.
The same situation which had made Dietrich available also freed up Charles Boyer. As has been noted by others, he was just exotic and romantic enough for the part of the troubled ex-monk, yet new enough to Hollywood to allow him to be believable in the role. In fact, it was very difficult role, for Boyer had to convey an incredible range of emotions using only his face. In less accomplished hands, it could have been a disaster, but Boyer manages to convince us of the reality of the terrible battle that is being fought in his mind as he confronts his recent past and weighs it against the happiness he has found with Domini. It’s a potent performance that I don’t believe has ever been properly acknowledged.
The other main player is the desert. In this case, it’s represented by Buttercup Valley in the Arizona desert, 60 miles outside Yuma. Selznick dispatched director Richard Boleslawski and the rest of the cast and crew there in the spring and a rather difficult shoot ensued due to high temperatures which restricted filming to the morning hours only and the cumbersome Technicolor cameras. Nevertheless, the Arizona desert proved to be a very capable stand-in for the Sahara.
Once shooting ended on July 7, the final assembly of the film began. It was during this stage that the flexibility of the Technicolor process became most important. The beauty of the Technicolor processing method lay in its correction control, so that each scene could be adjusted according to the wishes of the director, the art director, the cameraman, the Technicolor advisors, or even Selznick himself. One can imagine the discussions and arguments that resulted. The results, however, were worth the hassle, for The Garden of Allah turned out to be a visually superb example of Technicolor film making of the Hollywood golden age. It possesses a vibrant colour realism seldom seen in pictures, certainly not in today’s film. It’s not the almost artificial brightness of the later MGM musicals, but more of a piece with Jack Cardiff’s work (The Red Shoes [1948, Britain], Black Narcissus [1947, Britain]). Apparently, the film was not nominated for a Best Picture Academy award because it was felt that “its natural beauty would outpoint the conventional product.” In other words, it looked so great, that attribute alone would have caused it to win out over other contenders. In the event, members of the Academy granted W. Harold Greene (photographer) and Harold Rosson (photography advisor) a special award for colour cinematography.
So how does the DVD look? In a word, stunning! In my opinion, The Garden of Allah should be elevated to benchmark status (along with Singin’ in the Rain) against which other classic DVDs (or any DVDs for that matter) should be rated in terms of image quality. This looks like a brand new film, not a title 64 years old. The colours are out of this world — bright, clear, vibrant, yet realistic, never artificial-looking. There are virtually no speckles and certainly no distracting scratches or other age-related defects — nor are there any alterations in colour mix such as occasionally occur at reel-change points. Anchor Bay obviously had superior source material to work from, but hats off to them, they have done a spectacular job in this respect.
Would that one could extend praise of the DVD’s image to its sound and supplementary components. Max Steiner’s fine score is pleasingly conveyed, but does not stand any great amplification. There is a background hiss to dialogue that also forces one to keep the volume to modest levels.
More troubling is the lack of any supplementary material whatsoever. As I have tried to convey, there is a lot of interesting background to the Technicolor aspects of this production as well as where it fit in Selznick’s developing career, but you’d never know it from Anchor Bay’s disc. When you have a product like this, why not play it up by explaining why it looks so good and where it fits in film history at least?
The Garden of Allah is a short, compelling film that was stunningly filmed in 3-strip Technicolor. It is highly recommended for the acting of its principal performers, its colour cinematography, and musical score. The DVD is a benchmark in terms of image quality. I find Anchor Bay’s attention to conveying the merits and historical importance of the film to be sadly lacking. I really wonder about the company’s priorities and its understanding of film history when it puts out DVDs of more recent schlock films with supplementary features yet can’t even grace a decent older film with a few informative liner notes.