The Garden of Allah
The Garden of Allah was based on a popular novel by Robert Hichens and had already been filmed twice before as a silent picture in 1916 and 1927. While still at MGM, Selznick envisioned Greta Garbo in the role of Domini, a devout woman who unknowingly falls in love with a Trappist monk who has fled his order in a crisis of faith. When Selznick left MGM and founded his own production company, Selznick International Pictures, he bought the rights to the story for $62,000. By then he had hired actress Merle Oberon to play Domini, but he ended up paying her $25,000 to cancel her contract since he didn't feel she had enough box-office draw. Selznick replaced her with Marlene Dietrich, on loan from Paramount, who still had box-office appeal despite a string of recent disappointments. Selznick paid her $200,000 and hired debonair French actor Charles Boyer to play the tortured monk, Boris Androvsky.
Selznick remained at his office in Culver City, California, while he sent the cast and crew to a remote part of the Arizona desert known as Buttercup Valley to begin shooting. He was well aware of Dietrich's reputation as a diva, and tried to put director Boleslawski's mind at ease about working with her. He assured him that he had talked to Dietrich about how high the picture's budget was and how "it was up to her to keep it from going higher." Selznick also cautioned Dietrich about her behavior, and she promised pure professionalism. In a memo to Boleslawski dated April 14, 1936, Selznick advised him to "go right ahead as though you were directing some newcomer, and not worry about any legend of Dietrich difficulties."
In another memo to Boleslawski just two weeks later, Selznick's tone was markedly different: "I am getting to the end of the rope of patience with criticism based on assumption that actors know more about scripts than I do." He had heard reports that Dietrich was arguing over camera angles, costumes, makeup and hair. The other actors were also "ganging up" to have things done their way, egged on by Dietrich's insolence. Selznick insisted that Boleslawski talk to Dietrich and Boyer privately and let them know that "neither of them has ever had a single picture comparable with any one of fifteen that I have made in the last years." If the actors didn't shape up, he threatened to let their "sloppy" performances remain without appeasement and release the film as it was.
One of the co-stars of The Garden of Allah, Basil Rathbone, had worked on three previous Selznick productions, but he picked the wrong time to ruffle the harried producer's feathers. In his 1956 autobiography In and Out of Character, Rathbone recalled how one day on the set of Allah he refused to rehearse a scene because it cast his character, Count Anteoni, in an unsympathetic light. Selznick was incensed and ordered him to do as he was told or "he would press charges of insubordination" against him with the Screen Actors Guild. "You will never work for me again as long as you live!" Rathbone recalls Selznick snapping at him that day. He never did.
As the film went over budget, something unusual for a Selznick production, another small battle broke out over Marlene Dietrich's hair. With most of the film's action taking place outside in the desert, Selznick noticed while watching the dailies that winds would be blowing the trees, but Dietrich's hair never moved an inch. "Would you please speak to Marlene about the fact that her hair is getting so much attention, and is being coiffed to such a degree that all reality is lost," he exasperatedly pleaded with Boleslawski. "Her hair is so well placed that at times it remains perfectly smooth and unruffled; in fact is so well placed that it could be nothing but a wig. Surely a little reality can't do a great beauty any harm." Dietrich's daughter Maria Riva recounts in her 1993 biography of her mother, Marlene Dietrich, that Marlene was angry making the film, and "she compensated by overemphasizing the one category she could control -- the way she looked."
"I came to hate working on that movie," Marlene Dietrich said of The Garden of Allah in her 1987 autobiography Marlene. "My curls, the bombastic script -- everything annoyed me." Still, she surprisingly praised Selznick and said that she actually liked working for him because he took charge, was clear about what he wanted, and was generous with production money. "Selznick was the greatest perfectionist I have ever known," she continued and called The Garden of Allah "the most beautiful color film ever made."
With the cast falling ill, expenses stretching far beyond budget, star temperaments running hot, and constant problems with the new Technicolor process, Selznick eventually called the cast and crew back to California where filming was completed on a studio soundstage. Released in November of 1936, The Garden of Allah did not do as well as Selznick hoped, though it won a special Academy Award for its use of color cinematography.
With its stunning and much praised visual beauty, The Garden of Allah has found new appreciation over the years. Watching the film's tranquil elegance, it's hard to imagine the behind-the-scenes drama that plagued the production, but the desert melodrama is all the more interesting to watch because of it.
Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: Richard Boleslawski
Screenplay: W.P. Lipscomb, Lynn Riggs
Art Direction: Edward Boyle, Sturges Carne, Lyle Wheeler
Cinematography: W. Howard Greene, Harold Hal Rosson
Editing: Hal Kern, Anson Stevenson
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Domini Enfilden), Charles Boyer (Boris Androvsky), Basil Rathbone (Count Anteoni), C. Aubrey Smith (Father Roubier), Tilly Losch (Irena), Joseph Schildkraut (Batouch), John Carradine (Sand Diviner), Alan Marshal (De Trevignac), Lucile Watson (Mother Superior).
by Andrea Passafiume