Ernst Lubitsch didn’t have a lock on sophisticated romantic entertainments marked by elegant, winking sauciness. He’s just the one who did it best and taught the rest. By the end of the silent era, several contenders were capable of serving up his kind of continental spice. In The Garden of Eden, the versatile Lewis Milestone applied his tour-de-force tendencies to just this sort of glittering soufflé, with the crucial collaboration of regular Lubitsch screenwriter Hanns Kraly. The result is delicious.
Naïve young Toni (Corinne Griffith) dreams she can be a famous opera star, and she’s got the correspondence diploma to prove it. In the middle of the night, she flees her aunt and uncle’s Budapest bakery and heads for Paris, where she thinks a job awaits her in something called the Palais de Paris. In her first rude awakening, this joint turns out to specialize in a kind of entertainment that’s not exactly opera. She realizes this when the manager, who turns out to be a very butch woman (Maude George in a striking performance), hires her after making her lift her skirt to appraise her gams.
This first act is naughty and riotous, involving a titled cad (future film director Lowell Sherman) and a motherly seamstress (Louise Dresser). In the first fairy tale twist, the latter abruptly sweeps Toni off to Monte Carlo, where the rest of the plot involves a charming suitor (Charles Ray) and his elderly uncle (Edward Martindel), who both have designs on Toni. The climax builds to another riot of misunderstandings and daringly sexy displays.
Kraly, an excellent writer of fabulous sophistications, here adapted a Broadway play by Avery Hopwood, a very popular writer of risqué comedies. In this case, Hopwood adapted a German play by Rudolf Bernauer and Rudolf Österreicher, who are more famous for operattas. We’d like to know if the presence of a seemingly lesbian character reflects the German original or can be better explained by Hopwood’s own sexuality. Hopwood drowned that year and left a legacy for a University of Michigan writing prize that’s gone to many illustrious people. Wikipedia quotes the bequest: “It is especially desired that students competing for prizes shall be allowed the widest possible latitude, and that the new, the unusual, and the radical shall be especially encouraged.”
Corinne Griffith, Lowell Sherman and Maude George, in The Garden of Eden
As is his wont, Milestone’s direction is continually lively, even flashy, indulging in gratuitously beautiful camera movements, lighting tricks, and clever editorial juxtapositions. He’s got plenty to show off, for William Cameron Menzies’ sets ascribe to that artist’s typical penchant for the monumental, especially in the hotel. Milestone takes advantage of it for the kind of virtuoso staging he loved, as in the pans across the battlefield of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).
When we first get inside that hotel lobby, the camera glides through a modular series of columned tableaus as Toni is awestruck by all she surveys, and this visual trope partly recalls an earlier scene where the camera follows Sherman’s character as he sashays through the Palais. We’d initially seen him only from behind, and that choice would be varied later for a sensational dolly forward in the final act. Toni’s hotel room is constructed so that her lover’s balcony can be seen from her terrace in the distant background, and this leads to a recurring gag with lighting effects.
Cinematographer John Arnold completes the trifecta with Milestone and Menzies for realizing all this visual opulence. After having shot King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), he emerged as one of Hollywood’s major photographers of the late silent era. In the same year as The Garden of Eden, his projects included The Wind with Lillian Gish, Rose-Marie with Joan Crawford, and two Marion Davies comedies, Show People and The Cardboard Lover, the latter also set in Monte Carlo. As of 1931, he became president of the American Society of Cinematographers and began a 25-year tenure in charge of MGM’s photography department.
Corinne Griffith, one the most popular actresses of her day, is charming and credible as the naïve but spunky Toni. Her then-husband, Walter Morosco, produced this bonbon independently for United Artists. In real life, she’s a fascinating case who retired from the talkies and became a successful author. Her comic memoir, Papa’s Delicate Condition, inspired a Jackie Gleason movie. A later husband was the owner of the Washington Redskins.
At the end of her life, she was making the extraordinary claim of being her own younger sister and having replaced the deceased Corinne. This idea became the basis for Tom Tryon’s story “Fedora” and Billy Wilder’s 1978 film of the same name. She seems to have been a masquerader in several senses, which makes her fizzy role-playing in The Garden of Eden that much less unbelievable. This is a dizzying series of associations for any one person and it still doesn’t summarize her.
Here’s the bad news. Flicker Alley released a beautiful restoration of this film on DVD back in 2002; it threw in a bonus short in two-color Technicolor that contained an otherwise lost color dream sequence from the feature. That disc is now long out of print and expensive, and this Grapevine Blu-ray isn’t it.
Rather, Grapevine seems to be sourcing a standard print, possibly 16mm, worn and less sharp. The good news is that it’s watchable in a new 2K Blu-ray transfer performed to modify Grapevine’s previous DVD. The sophisticated delights of Milestone’s film are strong enough to shine through the presentation. David Knudtson composed the organ score. For those with no wish to pay extortion prices for the collectible 2002 DVD, this new Blu-ray will have to suffice.