THE GARDEN OF ALLAH: Lovely to Look at, Delightful to (Be)Hold
The Garden of Allah. Oh my God this movie could not be more ridiculous. I’ve seen it four times.
The first time, I was home with the flu. And while I’m not suggesting you goose your temperature a few degrees before you watch, it couldn’t hurt. The whole thing feels like a long, languid, luscious fever-dream: Charles Boyer, Marlene Dietrich and Basil Rathbone at the height of their fabulousness, lovingly shot in color (in 1936!) by the brilliant Harold Rosson, who, along with W. Howard Greene, won an honorary Oscar for his work on the film—only the third ever shot in three-strip Technicolor.
Rosson used the skills and techniques he’d mastered in black and white to soften the tones of the Technicolor process, which required intense lighting that could render a palette harsh and even downright garish. The results are nothing short of hypnotic: you don’t so much watch this film as let it wash over you. It may be the only time in your life you ever cry out, “Good God, look at that beige!”
Rosson unspools such magic it almost distracts you from the storyline. For that, he should have gotten another award.
When we first meet Domini Enfilden (Dietrich), she’s moping around the convent she grew up in, where she’s now returned. As Sister Mary Backstory helpfully explains, Domini gave up many years of her life caring for her father and now that he’s gone, she’s alone and unhappy. Meanwhile in the background, the other nuns are chanting what sounds suspiciously like a Max Steiner score…
“Why not leave the cities you have found so lonely, why not try something different?” suggests Mother Superior (Lucille Watson, shedding her usual battleaxe gear for a wimple). “Perhaps the desert…”
And so off she goes. On her lonely quest for spiritual renewal, Domini swans around North Africa, with no one but David O. Selznick’s entire wardrobe department to keep her company. There she meets Boris Androvsky (Boyer), an escaped Trappist monk—hey, there’s a phrase you don’t hear a lot!—who falls in love with her, and who can blame him: Dietrich plus Rosson equals some sort of exponential gorgeousness you can’t even quantify. I’d marry her just for that blue dress.
Meanwhile, Rathbone, who’s Italian for no apparent reason, lurks off in the corner, having little to do but spout profundities and look insanely dashing in a keffiyeh.”A man who refuses to acknowledge his god is unwise to set foot in the desert,” his Count Anteoni warns Boris.
But do Boris and Domini listen? No, because “the desert calls and its voice is always heard.” (Apparently the only things that grow there are aphorisms.) They marry and set up housekeeping in a little tent or three, where they’re happy for a good ten minutes or so. But then they take in a band of soldiers seeking food and shelter, and, well, no good deed goes unpunished. Boris’s cover is blown when, at dinner one night, someone recognizes the special liqueur he used to make back at the monastery, which he’s now taken to whipping up around the house.
Spoiler alert (in case you didn’t see this one galloping toward you on a camel): Boris then realizes he must go back to the monastery (even though he’s happy as all get-out with Domini and was miserable as a monk). When last we gaze upon them (and thanks to Rosson, after an hour and a half, we are still gazing), Boris is heading inside as Domini wanly waves her silk hanky at him from the front gate. (And as silly as the whole business sounds, be sure to have a hanky or two handy yourself.)
To stand in for the North African desert, director Richard Boleslawski scouted out Buttercup Valley, California and Yuma, Arizona, which were easier to reach but no less stifling. According to Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva (who makes an early cameo as a convent student), during the outdoor love scenes, the heat sometimes melted the glue on Boyer’s toupee and sent it sliding down his face, taking Marlene’s make-up with it. Eventually, before each take, the ever-practical diva would pat her co-star’s head to make sure his requisite hairpiece—which he loathed and never wore off-camera—was still fixed firmly on his head.
Under the lens of Harold Rosson, I’ll bet even the glue would have looked gorgeous. He never won a competitive Oscar, but earned nominations for five films. Ironically, only one was in color, though that was a doozy: The Wizard of Oz. He was also tapped for Boom Town, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Bad Seed as well as The Asphalt Jungle, where his stark and gritty tone proved pivotal to John Huston’s story, which was downbeat even by noir standards. And Oscar completely overlooked his stunning work on Singin’ in the Rain, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the beautiful but deeply absurd Duel in the Sun.
So thank heavens he was recognized for his work on The Garden of Allah, which may have spelled the end of his Oscar run, but was just the beginning of an amazing career.