Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Garden of Allah, The (1936)

Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer

Honors: Honorary Academy Award (for color cinematography)

In the passionate pursuit of creating only the finest of cinematic quality, therefore focusing on a small number of motion pictures a year the very small Selznick International Pictures releases only the second full-length three-strip Technicolor feature film with The Garden of Allah. With breathe-taking beauty and great detail in imagery, The Garden of Allah whisks audiences away on a story in the beautiful sand dunes of the Sahara desert in a love story between two lost souls. Although Becky Sharp was the first feature film to bring the full range of color to audiences, here the process is used to its fullest potential, displaying images of vibrant color with amazing detail, taking the audience to a completely different land , as well as breaking new ground in motion picture production.

The Garden of Allah is a dramatic, full color feature of a tale about two individuals wondering the deserts of in search of meaning in their lives, and end up finding each other. Feeling the great pressure of being a monk, Boris Androvski (Charles Boyer), flees his monastery in search of a more fulfilling life. With Boris the only member of the brotherhood to know the secret formula to the famous liqueur, passed down by generations, the monastery loses their main source of income in his disappearance. In pursuit of finding something greater outside the monastery walls, Boris meets Domini (Marlene Dietrich), she too a soul looking for guidance by wondering the desert lands after the sad passing of her father. Without revealing Boris’ past, the two fall in love and marry, honeymooning in the deepest beautiful corners of the desert. In time a bottle of the very same liqueur which Boris once brewed begins to haunt his mind and shines light on his past as a monk, and the emotional torture he feels every day for breaking his vows. With both Boris and Domini both being from very religious pasts it becomes evident that Boris must return to his monastery, for he is married to religion before he was ever to his wife, a heartbreaking truth they both share in.

The picture is a short, but slowing moving love story of these two individuals, both who find a hole on their heart that is filled by each other, but for Boris the hole is far greater, because of his own self-affliction of breaking his vows. This love story feels a bit empty with the character of Boris clearly never being happy throughout the picture, even through the marriage. Dietrich, the clear star of the picture, and emotional center of the story, with the obvious focus of the film as the new full color film quality enriches the beauty of the actress, making her new and vibrant. To see Dietrich in full color with such beauty can be likened to when motion pictures started talking in 1927 and stars of the past became further legends when their voices finally came out of their mouths on screen. With rich cinematography that captured far more elemenst and natural beauty of the sets, costumes, and landscapes, it assisted in making The Garden of Allah a film to be seen by many for its pursuit of the next step in motion picture production.

Produced by well-known man in the film business David O. Selznick, long time veteran of many of the finest films out of RKO and MGM, with his new venture of Selznick International Pictures he would pursue producing a small amount of pictures a year at high quality, for the sake of artistic greatness. This would be a far different process from the usual practice of major studios that pushed out many pictures a year, some prestige pictures, some quick and dirty films to make a speedy buck, to the countless movies pushed through the pipeline. Selznick looked to produce films only in the new verging market of color features. The small company would unofficially merge with Pioneer Pictures, who shared similar ideas in film production and released the first three-strip Technicolor film with Becky Sharp. Selznick’s venture would pay off with some very well known classics, including the all-time beloved Gone with the Wind, but ultimately the company would fold as the major studios would begin to produce color films as well.

To drive the ship of the creative aspect of the picture was director Richard Boleslavski. The Polish born filmmaker most recently known for his work on film adaptation of Les Miserables, Boleslavski is well aware of the significance he is given in making this feature. Already skilled with his many previous works, it is here where his use of light and shadow, foreground and background, and as well as skilled use of picture matting, he turns this love story into a film of visual beauty beyond that of the actors. The visuals overshadow the slow story with small drive. His skill with the Technicolor camera far outweighs that used in Becky Sharp, for here he uses shadows, and darkness, as well as details to make his picture shine. It is known that in order to produce a vibrant color image with this new three strip process the cinematographer had to use great amounts of light to make the color stands out. However here Boleslavski understands further the aspects of the camera to make the colors work for him in darker scenarios, creating what would have been some of the most beautiful images some audiences had ever seen on their theater screens.

In a way the stars, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer play second fiddle to the Technicolor of the feature. Dietrich shines and radiates from the use of the new color process, manifesting new shades of beauty that a regular black and white camera would not have been able to capture. Her performance would be adamant, anchoring the emotions of the feature, which overall lacks drive or attachment to the characters feelings. To make her character’s story more interesting there is added a small side character of a sand reader, who reads into her future happiness followed by tragedy, which ultimately comes true in marriage, then parting with her husband. The film does hinge on the tale of Boyer’s character, Boris, despite the character and his performance as being a bit annoying, leaving you wondering how a beautiful woman would fall in love with such a brooding man with no direction. Boyer, being a well traveled French born actor, was a name and face many would recognize, but he comes off as dry and arch-less, even though he is clearly the one who drives the film’s story. It is a tough performance to swallow, but the visuals would help make up for it at the time of release.

Selznick’s great actors would be supported by other well anchored supporting cast of Basil Rathbone and C. Aubrey Smith. Rathbone would be best known for his villainous roles, but here provides a dear friend that leads to the ultimate bad news of Boris as a monk. Smith is seen in common role his as a loving fatherly figure, here as the beloved priest that cares for and marries off Domini for the sake of her hapiness. For a small up-start production company, these would be big names to land in such a film.

With contributions to the world of motion pictures with the new three-strip Technicolor process, The Garden of Allah would be given an honorary Academy Award for cinematography. Years later the picture would receive little recognition or mention as it sits primarily as a stepping stone in the history of motion pictures for bigger and better productions to come. Here the motion picture world would begin to see to possibilities that this high quality color film would bring to the cinema world which would slowly evolve through the remainder of the decade.

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