“How many wooden performances can an actor give and still be called ‘great’? When Marlene Dietrich wasn’t interested, she wasn’t interested . . . .”
Thus begins my entry for Dietrich in my list of the fifty best film actors of all time. Dietrich certainly qualifies for the list: The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930), Morocco (Sternberg, 1930), The Scarlet Empress (Sternberg, 1934), The Devil Is a Woman (Sternberg, 1935), Angel (Ernst Lubitsch, 1937), Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939), The Flame of New Orleans (René Clair, 1941), A Foreign Affair (Billy Wilder, 1948), Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950), Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952), Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958), Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1962). But there’s a trace of woodenness in even some of her finest performances; in something like The Garden of Allah, there is scarcely anything else. She just wasn’t interested. We don’t have to guess at this. Dietrich herself dismissed the film as “trash.”
Having ended her string of films for Josef von Sternberg the previous year, Dietrich knew well the difference between art and kitsch. Dietrich intended The Garden of Allah, lavishly produced by David O. Selznick for his own independent operation, as a sacrifice to popularity in order to jumpstart her flagging career. No such luck. The film flopped. (Three years later, she was back on top with Destry Rides Again.)
Directed by Richard Boleslawski, who the year before had made a fine Les misérables magnificently acted by Fredric March as Jean Valjean, this was the third film version of Robert Hitchens’s 1904 romantic novel.* That was the start of the problem; Hitchens is no Victor Hugo. Moreover, the novel’s morbid double self-sacrifice, placing love of God above human love, was way passé by 1936. Even in much of the backward United States, by the time of the Depression many people had caught up to the fact of God’s death in the nineteenth century. In such a context, The Garden of Allah, with its jibberish that “marriage to the Church” trumps a spousal union, must have struck many as bewildering, bizarre and decadent. Not religious herself, Dietrich could hardly have been expected to play such nonsense with conviction.
On the other hand, she was Selznick’s choice for the part of Domini Enfilden, the wealthy and devout French woman who, following the death of her father, whose caregiver she had been, journeys into the Sahara Desert in search of solitude and peace. There, she meets, falls in love with and marries Boris Androvsky, who, unbeknownst to her, is a monk who, breaking his final vows, fled from his Trappist monastery. Merle Oberon was originally cast, but Selznick bought out her contract for an enormous sum that contributed to the film’s financial woes and substituted Dietrich, another one of the world’s most beautiful and exotic actresses. This made Dietrich Selznick’s third choice because, when Selznick was at M-G-M, he originally planned to star Greta Garbo in the film. Trust me; if Selznick had wanted her to begin with, Dietrich might have livened up her performance.
It hardly matters. Dietrich, in color (cinematographers W. Howard Greene and Harold Rosson won richly deserved Oscars), dazzles the eyes, and in her big scene, after Domini and Boris have parted, she is convincingly and compellingly emotionally chaotic. Charles Boyer has much the more difficult role as Boris, formerly Brother Antoine, whose joy in love is ever crossed by the shadow of his previous commitment. The role is fatuous, but Boyer’s heartfelt sensitivity and “bedroom eyes” pull him through. (In one especially regrettable shot, the camera moves in to catch a tear forming in Boyer’s eye and dribbling down his cheek.) Joseph Schildkraut, Basil Rathbone, C. Aubrey Smith and John Carradine are adept in supporting roles.
This is a dull film, a piece of “visual storytelling” like Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor et al., 1939) up ahead; but the two stars, glamorous, charismatic, do intermittently touch us and always rivet our attention. And those among us who are best described as masochistic religionists will have their dear little hearts battered and their very breath taken away.
* The first version, in 1916, was directed by Colin Campbell. Helen Ware starred as Domini. (Seventeen years later, Ware was superb as the former actress who attends backstage to Katharine Hepburn’s Eva Lovelace in Lowell Sherman’s wonderful Morning Glory.) The second version, in 1927, was directed by Rex Ingram (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1921).