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Tuesday, 8 May 2007

The Garden of Eden (1928) Lewis Milestone

Back in 1928 the Academy Awards were brand new and the categories kept changing along with the criteria used to qualify for them. Shortly after this film was released, director Lewis Milestone picked up the very first Oscar for Comedy Direction, for the wonderful film Two Arabian Knights, made a year earlier. Being so early on, there were two Best Director awards though, with Comedy Direction being presumably deemed lesser to Director, won by Frank Borzage for Seventh Heaven. Incidentally, while there weren't too many categories in 1927-1928, there were also two separate awards for Best Production or Picture, and Most Unique and Artistic Picture. wings won the former and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans beat out The Crowd and Chang for the latter.

Anyway, Lewis Milestone was very much on the up and he'd win again for Best Director this time, only two years later for the more famous All Quiet on the Western Front, and win a nomination in 1930-31 for The Front Page. In short he was a major name, though one that we don't tend to pay much attention to today. He wasn't the only one. Corinne Griffith is the star here and she appears with Lowell Sherman, Louise Dresser and Charles Ray. These were names to wonder at in 1928 but I haven't heard of any of them. Griffith was known as the Orchid Lady of the Screen and was Oscar nominated for The Divine Lady in the second year of the awards. Louise Dresser was nominated for A Ship Comes In in the debut year, when Milestone won.

Sherman I know better as a director, which he became in 1929, acting alongside working with his new found talent. Ray was the country bumpkin of the screen for over a decade, but had become by necessity a little more versatile by this point. The names extend to behind the camera too, as the art direction is by no less a name than William Cameron Menzies, who would become the premier name in his field by the time he won his honorary award for Gone with the Wind. He'd already won his first Oscar back in 1929 for Tempest and The Dove.

Corrine Griffith plays Toni Lebrum, who has completed her training to become a grand opera singer because she wants to do something more than just make pretzels at Bensinger Bakery in Vienna. She leaves her aunt and uncle for an audition in Budapest at the Palais de Paris, which of course isn't what she expects it to be in the slightest. The manager is a woman, Madame Bauer, played excellently by Maude George who amazingly doesn't even get a title card credit. She exudes butch lesbian and hires Toni as an opera singer on the basis of her legs and without hearing her voice, so you can imagine what sort of work she's really got herself into.

The Puritan costume, which of course is see through under the lights, proves a sensation and Lowell Sherman's character, Henri D'Avril, apparently some sort of nobleman, is eager to ply her with drink and take advantage. She escapes with Louise Dresser's assistance. She's Rosa, the seamstress, and she was due to be off on holiday the next day anyway, even before she got fired. Not content with just rescuing her, Rosa takes her to Monte Carlo and the Hotel Eden, which is where the title finally comes into play. It seems that Rosa is really a baroness, working fifty weeks a year and splurging her entire year's pension in style in the remaining two.

I really enjoyed The Garden of Eden, which begins as a very subtle comedy that brings smiles rather than raucous laughter but gradually shifts towards the latter as the film goes on. It has the mastery of the medium that is present in the great films of 1927 and 1928 but was soon lost as the world of sound took over and the focus shifted from artistic use of silent cinematography to forced constraints in order for the sound to work. There are some great shots here, especially one where Toni on stage appears on the glasses of d'Avril's theater binoculars as he adjusts them.

The cast is universally excellent and believable, from Griffith's radiance and expressiveness to Dresser's quiet yet powerful resolve. Sherman is an excellent cad yet one with hidden soul and Ray is believably idle rich, even though he's playing well out of type. The androgynous Maude George deserves more credit than she got, and Robert Israel's superb score for the 2002 rerelease is spot on. Everything goes to back up my growing belief that while I'm searching for good films of any description from 1929 I'm going to be reasonably safe watching anything from 1928.

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