MAY IS EARLY 3-STRIP TECHNICOLOR MONTH
Just as so many moviegoers were curious as to how their favorite stars sounded during the talkie revolution, many cinema fans were equally piqued about how their glam gods and goddesses looked in color. This fact did not escape David O. Selznick, who cast Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer in his 1936 opus THE GARDEN OF ALLAH (the producer’s first foray into three-strip), now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics.
The movie, based on the controversial (albeit absurd) novel by Richard Hichens (and scripted by W.P. Lipscomb and Lynn Riggs, with uncredited assist from associate producer Willis Goldbeck) concerns Domini Enfilden, a convent-reared beauty, who, upon her’s father’s death (a widower she cared for dearly), retreats to the vastness of the Sahara…to find peace. Once there, she meets Boris Androvsky; little does the religiously-guided lass know that this strange dude who is getting her juices flowing is a guilt-ridden disgraced Trappist monk, who has eschewed his vows, and retreated to the desert…and found one helluva piece!
Add some Arabian treachery and nearly 80 minutes of awesome three-strip vistas (with Yuma, AZ and Buttercup Dunes, CA subbing for the Sahara), and you got the makings of a high-priced budgeted freak show extraordinaire.
To backtrack a bit, Selznick, upon seeing the tests for perfected Technicolor, went totally ga-ga over three-strip, even decreeing that all his future productions would be shot in the process; it would be a notoriously bad decision, costing him a number of important projects – most notably John Ford’s Stagecoach. Still, color prevailed long enough for him to envision what a book like Gone with the Wind might look like if the grays could properly be contrasted with the blues. Already, a key GWTW cornerstone Selznick crew was in place for ALLAH, including set designer Lyle Wheeler, composer Max Steiner, plus a barrage of color consultants who, collectively, put style over content, creating a spectacular IB feature-length test reel that virtually demanded that viewers disregard the prejudicial, right-wing religious bosh of the lip-biting scenario.
Another GWTW run-through was the search for the leads. No less than Joan Crawford and Merle Oberon were considered/tested for Domini before Dietrich was signed. And Robert Taylor, Fredric March, George Brent, Laurence Olivier, Robert Donat, Ivor Novello, Gilbert Roland, and Jean Gabin did likewise for Boris before Boyer got the news. George Cukor was, at one point, listed as director, but these chores eventually went to Richard Bowleslawski, a strange choice as he was generally known for comedies, intentional and unintentional (Theodora Goes Wild, Hollywood Party, Rasputin and the Empress, The Painted Veil).
The remaining cast of (literally) colorful characters include C. Aubrey Smith, Alan Marshall, Lucile Watson, Pedro de Cordoba, Nigel De Brulier, Helen Jerome Eddy, Robert Frazer, Frederick Gottschalk, Leonid Kinskey, Mary MacLaren, Michael Mark, and Frank Puglia. Young convent girls rhapsodizing over Domini’s breathtaking looks comprise Ann Gillis, Bonita Granville, Marcia Mae Jones, and prominently Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva (their squealing line “Isn’t she beautiful?” was likely suggested by Marlene).
The lusty, animalistic dancer Tilly Losch makes her debut in an early, memorable sequence, writhing amok in an extremely sensual display; she would repeat that in spades for Selznick super Technicolor western Duel in the Sun, in 1946. And if one oily personification of smarmy villainy wasn’t enough, Selznick gave this show more dastardly mountebanks than you can shake a Technicolor stick at, aka, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Joseph Schildkraut, and Henry Brandon.
For Boyer, this was an early plum role (indeed, he seems to be the only one turning in a performance); for Dietrich (essentially portraying a human mannequin for Ernest Dryden’s sensational frocks), it was a career move she almost immediately regretted – not that she had a choice. After two Josef von Sternberg mega-flops at Paramount (The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman), Marlene was treading deep water. Sternberg already got his walking papers, and was kicked out of the elegant studio – his next stop being Columbia! Dietrich hung on by a thread called Desire, a Frank Borzage comedy, produced by Lubitsch, which proved to be a sizable hit. Yet, post-Code, her charms were certainly compromised (imagine what this plot could have been like three years earlier!).
The striking use of locations didn’t help. Practically before she set one over-priced tootsie upon the Salton basin, Dietrich was bitching about the heat. And she wasn’t necessarily wrong. Without the array of her approximately 9000 costume changes, the temps, occasionally rising to 112 degrees, would be unbearable. Add the generator-driven hot movie lights – made worse by Technicolor cameras requiring even more illumination, and it was purgatory.
But it didn’t stop there. Marlene disliked horses, remarking on their smell, their attracting armies of flies, and the fact that they could kill you. Her erotic riding scenes were shortened, and those mostly achieved by stunt doubles.
The worst target of Marlene’s malice was costar Boyer – by no fault of his own. Dietrich spared him nothing, mouthing off to anyone who would listen about his “tewibble toupee”! Apparently, the intense heat caused the already-balding actor’s hairpiece to open front end, with warm “towents” of sweat cascading over La Dietrich’s punim.
Sternberg-deprived, she would often bemoan out loud “Where’s my Joe?” to deaf ears and pissed off smelly, fly-friendly equines.
Like it’s recent predecessors, ALLAH‘s celebrated faces took a backseat to the glories of Technicolor, as rendered by three masters of photography: W. Howard Greene, Harold Rosson, and (uncredited) Virgil Miller (the former two winning a special Oscar for their endeavors). The visuals far outweigh the narrative (including such immortal dialog as “You come a land of fire, and, I think, you ARE fire!”), and are, as we often fondly state, drop dead gorgeous. With every new production, three-strip was becoming more advanced; the difference between ALLAH and Dancing Pirate (released the same year) is like night and day.
The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of THE GARDEN OF ALLAH is a knockout, faithfully rendering a hues-and-tones facsimile of what the 1936 excitement was all about, certainly the most expensive IB pic for the then-new process to-date. Herbert Kalmus’s Technicolor company fared best for all the production’s grueling toils…as evidenced by the reception. Long story short, Technicolor got the lion’s share of the reviews, and while ALLAH, at least initially, did a fairly brisk business, it could come nowhere near to recouping the pic’s massive costs. Dietrich would continue to plummet in popularity polls until 1939’s Destry Rides Again permanently resurrected her from the Box-Office Poison list. Her last word on Technicolor, ALLAH, and the company that released it (United Artists) would come several months later. UA invited the star to attend the premiere of the Disney’s Snow White, the first animated feature in three-strip. Besieged by the press upon exiting the theater, her response was classic Marlene: “Big deal,” she shrugged, “it’s a cartoon!”
Selznick was undaunted, however, and eagerly planned more Technicolor vehicles for his upcoming release schedule. But that’s for another time (like next week).
THE GARDEN OF ALLAH. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics. CAT# K22826. SRP: $29.95.