The Garden of Allah (1936)

Genres - Romance  |   Sub-Genres - Melodrama, Romantic Drama  |   Release Date - Oct 15, 1936 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 79 min.  |   Countries - USA  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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The Garden of Allah, based on Robert Hichens' 1904 romantic adventure story, had been filmed twice (most notably in 1927, in a critically acclaimed version at the very end of the silent era by Irish-born director Rex Ingram) before producer David O. Selznick purchased the screen rights from MGM. In 1935, Selznick had just founded Selznick International Pictures; this was to be his second production, and also serve as a showcase for a new three-strip Technicolor process, which promised results more spectacular than any previous color filming technique. He'd long wanted to remake The Garden of Allah as a talkie, but now he could do it in a way that would show off his abilities as a producer to make uniquely bold and impressive movies. For the key role of Domini Enfilden, he was able to get Marlene Dietrich, who had suddenly became available as a result of a dispute at Paramount Pictures. The mix of Dietrich's hauntingly mysterious beauty and three-strip Technicolor made the movie irresistible on a visual level; Ernest Dryden's costumes augmented her naturally mysterious good looks for the creation of a compelling screen presence. The last piece of the puzzle came with the casting of Charles Boyer as Brother Antoine/Boris Androvsky, the Trappist monk fleeing from his own past. In a star-making performance -- the first in a series of complex, highly cerebral yet dramatically demanding roles (which he would gently burlesque a decade later in Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown) -- Boyer brought a convincing level of depth to the character without ever falling into the trap of excessive melodramatics. He was also the perfect visual match for Dietrich, his dark good looks and gently, cerebral manner making him alluring to women and an instant box-office sensation.

Equally important to the movie's success were the photography by Howard Greene and Harold Rosson (both of whom won Special Academy Awards for their work on this movie), which utilized the more subdued and subtle side of Technicolor's capabilities rather than its larger-than-life (and, more important, brighter-than-life) elements; the production design by Hal Kern; and the art direction chores shared by Edward Boyle, Sturges Carne, and Lyle Wheeler, which emphasized the exoticism of the setting without ever falling into garishness. The use of Arizona desert locations proved a more than adequate substitute for the Sahara and a lot more affordable, although the prevailing high temperatures during the springtime shoot made it impossible for director Richard Boleslawski, the crew, or the cast to work past noon. Despite those difficulties, this could well have been the prettiest desert movie this side of Lawrence of Arabia, and was shot 10,000 miles closer to home.

The overall movie is one of the more hauntingly beautiful and thoughtful dramas of the 1930s (and, at 85 minutes long, not even overly imposing) and perhaps the most subtle and sophisticated of Selznick's output. If the movie isn't as well known as it should be, it's only because it was eclipsed by bigger and more accessible productions by Selznick going into the end of the 1940s. And if it hasn't aged well, then it's solely because of the original story, which dates from the opening years of the 20th century and relates the kind quest for spiritual enlightenment (somewhat akin to that of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge) that lost its relevance and its audience in the wake of World War II. But even if the Androvsky character now seems impossible to identify with, The Garden of Allah is still worth seeing as one of the most extraordinary-looking movies of its era and a unique vehicle for Dietrich.