THE GARDEN OF ALLAH is something to behold, with rapturously beautiful Technicolor cinematography so rich it practically melts in your eyes, its legendary leading lady so enticing, her mysterious leading man so persuasively passionate that you are beguiled enough by their make-believe to forgive that the story, plot and dialogue are so quaint they make Mary Had A Little Lamb seem hard-boiled, about as close to reality in settings and behaviors as one of those short-feature businesses that employed The Three Stooges.
An heiress, with the step-back-and-consider name of ‘Domini Enfolden’ (Marlene Dietrich) heads into the North African desert to find Truth in Solitude (leaving flies, scorpions and resident infidel torturers to another movie). She meets A Strange Man (Charles Boyer). Despite characteristics like being haunted, touchy and prone to suddenly leaving conversations and bolting down alleys, he’s handsome, doesn’t spit food and somehow has nearly as many changes of clothes as the rich lady—she sports knockout duds in quantities that would hobble a camel—they fall in Love. This takes just a few scenes, as the 79 minute morality fable is made up of relationships that progress from ‘Good afternoon’ to ‘Remember all we have shared’ within a couple of sequences–the purity of the sand dunes having that effect (infer that the reassuring presence of the French Foreign Legion counts for something). Could this ‘Boris Androvski’ be the Trappist Monk who ran off not just from his Sacred Vows, but with the only recipe for a famed liqueur? (famed across… North Africa?)
From a 1904 novel,* filmed twice as a silent, this 1936 version plays like it belongs in an earlier time, with its Orientalism-steeped look and Victorian attitudes. The creaky foolishness of the script is forgiven in light of the flat-out stunning cinematography, basking in the dunes and sunsets of the Arizona desert locations and revealing the startlingly expressive eyes of the luminous stars.
The lurking merriment and imminent naughtiness in Marlene Dietrich’s eyes in this silly story finally made me a convert: after always being puzzled by her allure, I succumbed: no wonder everybody wanted to sleep with her. Charles Boyer is likewise so attractive in the camera here it’s easy to see why he was called “the Latin Lover”: he has a big dramatic speech that is a remarkable example of what a great voice and quicksilver facility for facial expression of deep emotion can do with even the most trivial material.
Also on hand, doing their best with the purple screenplay, Basil Rathbone (rather dashing this time instead of sneering), Joseph Schildkraut (camping it up like he found the hash stash), C. Aubrey Smith, Alan Marshal (pretty bad), John Carradine (looking wild as a fortune diviner, one of 14 credits that year), Henry Brandon and famous ballerina/gadfly Tilly Losch, 33, who does a helluva hooch-koochie dance.
Directed by Richard Boleslawski (once a lancer in the Tsar’s Polish cavalry), it was produced by David O. Selznick—whose perfectionism could drive underlings to enlist in the cavalry— and he had a vexing time with the whirling diva demands of an unhappy Marlene. Her pouts—she famously declared the script ’twash’—emboldened other cast members to similarly argue. Hassles with peevish actors and 120-degree weather, and the technical demands of the new 3-strip Technicolor sent the erstwhile intimate-scaled drama nearly 20% over budget to a whopping cost of $2,200,000. Earnings came in a disappointing 36th for the year. Selznick consoled himself with the cinematography Oscar, nominations for Assistant Director (Eric Stacey) and Music Score (Max Steiner) and with the receipts and plaudits for Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Tale Of Two Cities.
* The book came from the fevered and fertile output of Robert Smythe Hitchens, who created 37 novels, including “An Imaginative Man”, which has its sex-crazed hero go insane in Cairo and bash his head against the Great Sphinx.