The Garden of Eden
review by Gregory Avery, 24 January 2003

Words survive. Plato, Aristotle, St. Matthew, Shakespeare, John Donne, Lady Julian of Norwich -- their words continue to speak to readers today no matter how many centuries may intervene.

Motion pictures, which have only been around for just over one hundred years, now, have not been so lucky. We don't currently have The Greatest Thing in Life, D.W. Griffith's 1919 anti-war and anti-racism drama. Nor Remodeling Her Husband, another 1919 film, in which Dorothy Gish was directed, for the first and only time behind the camera, by her sister Lillian. Nor The Shaft of Buried Ideas, a 1927 Czech film whose title cards included passages written by the poet Petr Bezruc. Nor The Merry Monarch, the last English-language film appearance by Emil Jannings, playing a king who had 365 wives, one for each day of the year. It is now estimated that, of the films made before 1950, fifty percent have vanished, either because they were made on unstable nitrate film stock or were just discarded; of the films made between 1893 and 1930, which were made almost entirely on nitrate stock, eighty to ninety percent have vanished. (And the losses haven't all been relegated to the distant past. A recent attempt to re-release the 1973 film, Lemora, resulted in new theatrical film prints being struck from a video master: none of the original film prints, or film elements, could be located.)

So we are fortunate to have the 1915 comedy short which features a newcomer named Buster Keaton and marks the first and only time the great comedian ever laughed on film. Chaplin knew enough to keep all the films he made, including the negatives, outtakes, and footage of uncompleted film projects, under climate-controlled storage conditions. And it is worth noting that, after it was re-released in the early 1980s, after spending decades out of circulation, that Hitchcock's Vertigo suddenly leapt onto many people's lists of the greatest films ever made. Recent editions of American Movie Classic's Film Preservation Festival featured such long-unseen but thoroughly remarkable films such as John Ford's 1933 Pilgrimage -- with a performance by Henrietta Crosman that made you wonder why it wasn't more widely well-known and celebrated -- and Lois Weber's 1915 Hypocrites. These are films which give you something back in exchange for your time and attention, whether it's simple entertainment or something more, such as insight

The Garden of Eden, a 1928 silent comedy that has recently been given a pristine release on DVD by Flicker Alley, is one of those films which had the ill luck of languishing out-of-sight. It is what the vernacular used to refer to as a "sophisticated comedy." It takes place at a time when people dressed for dinner, and there were still such things as civility, deftness, and tact. The repartee is witty (and funny), the characters well-mannered (but funny), and the story is capricious and clever (yet funny). It features two stars who may not have attained the enduring fame of Gable and Garbo, but that's nothing to hold against them and they're no less for that in the film than if they had.

"Under a Vienna moon -- and over a Vienna bakery." Toni Lebrun (Corrine Griffith) slips out one night after leaving her slumbering aunt and uncle a note, in which she confesses that she sees no future for herself "making pretzels." She's studied to be an opera singer, and, degree in hand, takes the train to Budapest, where she has already received a job offer to perform at the Palais de Paris. The Palais, though, turns out to be not much more than a high-priced girlie show (run by a rather butch proprietor, played by Maude George), where the upper-class men can come and openly ogle the girls. After she refuses to wear one costume (mostly consisting of a sequined micro-skirt) onstage, she's tricked into wearing the "Puritan" outfit -- which, when the lighting is just so, becomes transparent. Then, Toni is maneuvered into meeting, in a private room, Henri d'Avril (played by the suave actor and director Lowell Sherman), who, after pouring some champagne into her, expects her to fall right over. That hardly proves to be the case: the lights go out, and the furniture flies. Toni, in protecting herself, loses her job, but has made friends with the backstage seamstress, Rosa (Louise Dresser). Rosa is going on vacation the very next day -- to Monte Carlo, where she has made reservations at one of the ritziest places, the Hotel Eden. Here, for a few weeks every year, Rosa says, ."..I LIVE -- in pre-war style!" Would Toni like to go along with her? After some hemming and hawing, Toni, seeing that Rosa is sincere in her good intentions, agrees.

Cut to one of those spacious, fancy hotels that made moviegoers at the time go to see films like this one. There, Toni catches the eye of a fairly handsome young man (Charles Ray) who doesn't mind her looking at him a bit. He turns out to be Richard Dupont, one of the accepted and established members of the hoi polloi frequenting the hotel, and he and Toni court and spark successfully. However, Toni has also caught the eye of Richard's uncle, a retired colonel (Edward Martindel), and the two men make a deal: Richard will get a chance to propose to Toni first, but if that doesn't work.... Plus, there's the fact that Richard has another uncle -- as the film's advertisements put it, a "Snake with his best Broadway manners!"

Many people have spoken about, and you may have even heard of, the "Lubitsch touch," that evanescent quality that so many directors have tried to emulate, particularly Billy Wilder (who went a little bonkers when he tried to do so in 1948's The Emperor Waltz). The Garden of Eden is a film which has something like the "Lubitsch touch" without having been directed by Ernst Lubitsch (who, at the time, was busy over at Paramount, where he would later turn out a string of great films featuring the likes of Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Miriam Hopkins and Margaret Sullivan). The screenplay for The Garden of Eden was written by Hans (also known as "Hanns") Kräly, the German-born screenwriter who had worked with Lubitsch in Europe, including writing Lubitsch's "breakout" film, Madame DuBarry, in 1919, before following the director to the U.S. Directing Garden of Eden was Lewis Milestone, who had just picked up an award, for "Best Comedy Direction," for the film Two Arabian Knights from a nascent annual awards ceremony started by the newly-formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Milestone was directing Kräly's script for Garden of Eden at United Artists, while Lubitsch was filming Kräly's script for The Patriot over at Paramount.) There's a wonderful scene where Toni and Richard, whose hotel room windows face each other from a distance across a courtyard, signal to each other by turning their room lights on and off. It takes Rosa to point out the potential drawback in this -- looking further out the window of her room, Toni sees that everyone is turning the lights on and off in their rooms, doubtlessly creating havoc with the hotel electrical system.

The press book for the film (excerpts of which are included on the DVD release) note how Corrine Griffith originated from the town of Texarkana, Texas, as well as "Charley" Ray's love for outdoor activities and sports. ("Ray goes in for strenuous tennis, with occasional golf exercises.") The two stars made this film at crucial points in their careers. Corrine Griffith was known as the "Orchid Lady" of the screen, a paragon of beauty in the 1920s similar to what Hedy Lamarr achieved after she made her first, indelible appearance on American screens in Algiers in 1938. The emphasis on her beauty makes one expect that it was made at the expense of her acting skills, and her performance, here, initially seems a little affected -- she steals glances, purses her lips into a moué, and seems to be flirting with the camera -- but her character turns out to be a lot stronger. As already mentioned at the Palais de Paris, she stands up for herself and doesn't let herself be exploited or made "cheap." She enjoys being pursued by Richard, but doesn't make herself an easy conquest. When she feels that Richard should know about her possibly having a "past," she decides to make the facts known and to tell him, so there'll be no misunderstanding later on, and she's fully up to living with the consequences if they go badly. When Richard's relatives express disapproval, she divests herself of all of his "gifts" to her -- right down to the dress she wearing -- even if that means walking-off in her shanty-scanties. (The plot throws you for a bit a loop towards the end -- the figurative antagonist turns out not to be "Uncle Henri," but Richard's relatives, who behave haughtily while actually acting under mercenary motives.) Corrine Griffith gives Toni a delicate beauty, but she also gives Toni a mind of her own in this picture, and what's more, you get the impression that Richard wouldn't want her any other way. This is in contrast to many other romantic screen stories of the day, where a man would have a woman on his own terms, and her happiness was dependent on his approval and his needs. The romance in Garden of Eden doesn't feel dated because it's between two people on equal footing. (A Photoplay article made some interesting observations on a further source for Griffith's popularity at the time, in describing her as "an amazing contradiction...the face of an early Italian angel and the hands of a twentieth-century business woman. Her hands are large and thin and sturdy.... They prove that beauty was not the only reason for her present fame and fortune. These are working hands.")

Charles Ray had started his film career in what were called "rural melodramas," stories where the lead character, spawned in the country, goes to the city only to become wise to the slick and shady way of doing things, there. (The genre was delivered its death blow by the famous 1935 Variety headline, "Hix Nix Stix Flix.") In 1923, Ray, feeling typecast, put all his money into an elaborate historical drama that he would produce and star in: The Courtship of Miles Standish, based on the Longfellow poem. The movie became a spectacular flop and Ray lost all of his money in it, finding himself wiped-out at age thirty-two. Here, Ray plays Richard with an innate gentleness along with a debonair, sartorial quality -- an unusual combination, but it works, and it at times brings to mind the easy, casual elegance Gary Cooper displayed opposite Marlene Dietrich in Desire, only Ray also brings an element of breeziness and ingenuousness to his performance that sets him apart.

The picture itself is light in step all the way, and there are several fine individual moments: an elaborately staged roundelay in a hotel room where Richard tries to sneak, unnoticed, past Rosa while Toni distracts her; the scene where Richard tries to propose to Toni, complicated by, of all things, draughts of "sleeping powder"; a climatic scene where the electric lights are doused and a flurry of hand-held matches are lit and held aloft by the attendant crowd. When Richard and Toni stroll into the hotel's garden by night, the scene fades out -- only to fade back from black to show that the two have fallen in love with each other, and two swans, one white and the other black, glide past them on a stream, side by side.

When Toni earlier boards the train out of Vienna, she has a dream of what her life would be like after she has become successful and renowned. This scene was cooked up in part by production designer William Cameron Menzies, who had worked on Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad and would later work on another film, Gone With the Wind, and it was filmed in two-color Technicolor, a shimmering early color process that can be seen, on the Garden of Eden DVD, in a short subject entitled The Toy Shop, as well in the surviving feature films Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and Doctor X (1932). The color sequence was individually cut into each black-and-white print of Garden of Eden, and does not currently survive (although production photos on the DVD, plus text excerpts from the film's original promotional press book, convey some idea of what it was like).

The Garden of Eden premiered, on March 18, 1928, at the recently-opened Paramount theater, on New York's Times Square, at a time when movie palaces were really movie palaces -- the lobby for the Paramount was modeled on the one for the Paris Opera -- and the audience were given a show for their money (along with the picture, there was a stage show with live performers, "de rigueur" at the time in order to compete with the ones presented regularly at S.L. Rothafel's Roxy theaters.) When it opened, one could look on the entertainment page of the New York Times and, in one sweep, see large ads for Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson, Emil Jannings in The Last Command, and the World-War-One aerial drama, Wings, along with a slightly smaller ad for The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson.

Richard Quirk, editor of Photoplay magazine, judged Corrine Griffith to be one of the silent screen stars who would easily make the transition to sound pictures. (Others deemed to make the same transition included Marion Davies, Colleen Moore, and Clara Bow, who, according to David Stenn's biography of her, actually developed a phobia over sound equipment that would end up crippling her ability to perform.) In 1929, Griffith would appear in The Divine Lady, singing and playing the harp onscreen, although the dialogue in the picture was conveyed by title cards. Although Photoplay would later tattle that both the singing and harp-playing was doubled, Griffith would receive an Academy Award nomination for her performance in the film. (She, and some considerable competition, would be trounced, though, when the award went to Mary Pickford, for her hell-bent attempt to play a modern-day Southern belle in Coquette) Griffith would retire from screen acting shortly afterwards, but she would make one more contribution, writing the book, Papa's Delicate Condition, which would be made into a still-popular motion picture, starring Jackie Gleason, in 1963.

Charles Ray could not have known, in 1928, that the peak years of his career were already behind him. He would continue in character roles into the 1930s, before his death in 1943. One would like to have seen how he would have done playing Dick Diver, F. Scott Fitzgerald's eponymous hero, in a movie version of Tender is the Night.

Lewis Milestone would go on to direct one of the best films I've ever seen -- All Quiet on the Western Front, the great 1930 anti-war film -- and one of the worst -- The North Star, a woefully misbegotten piece of anti-Fascist tin-rattling set in an idyllic Russian village on a Hollywood soundstage and released in 1943 -- along with the original version of Ocean's 11 and another war film, Those Who Dare, whose ending was ripped-off and used as the ending for The Dirty Dozen (and the two films couldn't be more dissimilar). Milestone became more and more associated with heavy drama during the thirty years following The Garden of Eden, moving away from his earlier achievements in comedy -- here, in one of the last that he would direct, the performers and a whole bygone age seem to have been captured for our approval, not under glass or in amber, but in the animate incandescence of the motion picture medium.

Directed by:
Lewis Milestone

Corrine Griffith
Charles Ray
Louise Dresser
Maude George
Edward Martindel
Lowell Sherman

Written by:
Hans Kraly

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.






  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.