Such a curiosity! The film is visually stunning, stolid, lumpy and howlingly unbelievable. But it’s worth a look for several reasons.
The story is so out of our time as to be worthy of archeological study. A young woman who used to attend a convent school near Paris (Marlene Dietrich—an obvious choice for a young French student, right?) has a major attack of purposelessness and ennui and returns to the school to get some life direction. She’s told to go to the desert, an obviously common recommendation for bored young women.
At the same time, we visit a monastery that produces a fine liqueur, and we jump in right when the monk who carries the secret recipe decides to break his vows and go into the world. He ends up meeting Dietrich’s character, and they….well, you can guess.
The renegade monk is played by Charles Boyer (who at least is French), in full “Come with me to the Casbah” mode, two years before that line became famous in the film trailer for his 1938 film Algiers.
This was in the middle of the low period for Dietrich, and was one of the reasons for her inclusion on the famous “box office poison” list of 1938. Watching her is a hoot. She learned a great deal about lighting from mentor/director Joseph von Sternberg, and her input must have won the day with the cinematographer. Her face is lit up more than any other person or object in the frame, almost comically at times. Her acting isn’t good, nor particularly interesting in any fun or strange way, as it could be in her earlier films. But what a presence she is on film!
Boyer gives the stronger performance. While he is as credible as a monk as Dietrich is as a French convent girl, his scenes (mostly done in long uninterrupted takes) at least demonstrate the level of conflict and pain the man is in.
What’s missing in the film is any sense of believability in the plot, or any real connection between the two leads. Boyer’s character’s pain is internal, and Dietrich’s character is all make-up, fabulous costumes, and “look at me” lighting. It’s a fantastic study of what classic old Hollywood could be, but it doesn’t make for an engaging film.
The strongest reason for seeing it beyond its stars is its look. It was the third film done in three-strip Technicolor, and has been featured in the celebrations of the 100-year anniversary of the technology. For those who think of American Technicolor as loud and brash, this film is worth a close look. It won a special Oscar for its color cinematography. Combining that with the talents of William Cameron Menzies, art direction/production designer extraordinaire, who was listed in the credits, and you have a glorious color film that prefigures both Gone with the Wind and even Lawrence of Arabia. Menzies, of course, won a special Oscar himself three years after this film for his work on Gone with the Wind, and one can see his earlier hand here. (This year was also the year he directed the famous Things to Come, based on the H.G. Wells novel.)
The look is rich and softer than you might think. Like The Red Shoes, this Technicolor wonder shows us what Technicolor could look like, and what color films could do. For those unfamiliar with early three-strip Technicolor, or for anyone who is curious about what could be done with color cinematography, it’s a revelation. In an era of eye-popping CGI, it’s exciting to see what beauty could be achieved with what is now an older color technology. The plot may be thin, but the film is a rich panoply of images.
Note: This is one of the last films directed by Richard Boleslawski, a former actor and acting teacher (and early proponent of what became known as The Method). He had a full history of stage and screen work before dying just two months after this film was released. Just another one of those “we’ll never know” items in Hollywood history.
It was also a David O. Selznick production, and one cannot watch it now without seeing it in the light of Selznick’s production of Gone with the Wind (1939). Production values are top-notch, the look and design are beautiful, and the Oscar-nominated score was by GWTW’s Max Steiner.
One way in which this is an historical relic is the element of faith in the story. (Spoiler alert) Boris (Boyer) decides that he has broken his vow to God and decides to return to the monastery after he and Dietrich’s character get together. Not only does the film essentially agree that this is the right decision to make, Dietrich’s character, while emotionally torn, ultimately agrees with him.
Not only would such an occurrence probably never be seen in one of today’s films, but the very idea of faith would likely be ridiculed or at least lessened relative to human love. Even the Max Steiner song introduced in the film is entitled “No One But God and I Know What is in My Heart”. No irony, no condescension. While the particular religious expression is not one that I share, I can’t help but be impressed by a film that gives narrative weight to the sanctity of vows and the importance of a call from God.