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The Unholy Garden

The Unholy Garden(1931)

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teaser The Unholy Garden (1931)

"Kiss or Kill" reads the poster for the early Ronald Colman sound picture The Unholy Garden (1931), and the story offers plenty of opportunities for both romance and action, with moments of unexpected humor. It proved to be a popular combination for audiences and critics alike. New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall called it a "jocular melodrama" and a "packet of excitement and fun."

The title locale is the Palais Royale, a notorious hotel in the Algerian desert city of Orage where dashing thief Barrington Hunt (Colman) and his American accomplice Smiley Corbin have taken refuge from the European authorities pursuing them. There he meets the elderly, infirm Baron Louis de Joghe, allegedly hiding out there for 15 years with a huge sum of money he embezzled, and his lovely, innocent granddaughter Camille (Fay Wray). While the many criminals holed up in the hotel plot how to get ahold of the Baron's money, Hunt decides to romance Camille as his route to the fortune. In the end, Hunt gets the money, but changed by Camille's love, he decides to do the right thing.

The famed scriptwriting team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur gets credit for the screenplay, but according to modern sources, they "consigned" the actually writing of the story they developed to other unnamed writers so that they could go to work on the script for Scarface (1932). Since Hecht (along with several others) but not MacArthur is listed as the writer of the famous Howard Hawks gangster film, the reason seems disputable. But it is possible they passed it off to one or more subordinates; some sources claim it was written by John Lee Mahin, a friend and frequent collaborator of director Victor Fleming and an Academy Award nominee for Captains Courageous (1937) and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957).

Also somewhat in dispute is the question of who actually shot The Unholy Garden. On-screen credit goes to George Barnes, an eight-time nominee and winner for Alfred Hitchcock's American debut Rebecca (1940). But most sources say famed cinematographer Gregg Toland (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940; Citizen Kane, 1941) had a hand in the production, and the New York Times online movie file even lists Toland as the sole cinematographer. According to news items at the time in the Motion Picture Herald and Hollywood Reporter, director George Fitzmaurice shot extensive retakes and additional scenes in July 1931 after previews of The Unholy Garden failed to garner much positive reaction from audiences. The Reporter noted the unevenness of the film's photography and suggested the retakes may have been done by someone other than Barnes. In reviews in the Herald and Film Daily, Toland is given co-credit, even though his name doesn't appear on screen.

Director George Fitzmaurice is largely forgotten today, and he never rose to the ranks of the great filmmakers of his time. An American born in Paris, he studied art there and initially went into set design for stage productions and then, in 1908, for films. He eventually moved into first writing, then directing motion pictures. He also produced several of his own productions, including The Unholy Garden; two Greta Garbo pictures, Mata Hari (1931) and As You Desire Me (1932); and the successful sequel to an equally popular exotic romance, The Son of the Sheik (1926), featuring Rudolph Valentino in one of his most iconic roles.

Ronald Colman starred in eight of Fitzmaurice's films, including a turn as the distinguished gentleman jewel thief Raffles (1930). Colman is also listed in most sources as an extra in Fitzmaurice's The Eternal City (1923). Why this should be so is unclear as Colman, although not yet a star, was already a known actor with increasingly prominent roles. It will likely remain a mystery as The Eternal City, like much of Fitzmaurice's work (including several Colman films), is presumed to be lost. Although Colman is the undisputed star of The Unholy Garden and his name is placed above the title, it is listed last in the scroll of players.

Fay Wray, Colman's romantic interest in The Unholy Garden, had nearly 50 films under her belt by the time they appeared together for the first and only time. She had been in movies less than ten years at this point and was still two years away from her most legendary role as the scantily clad, ever-shrieking Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933). The other major female role in this picture went to Estelle Taylor, once considered one of Hollywood's most beautiful women. Taylor was married to champion prizefighter Jack Dempsey from 1925 to 1930.

The Unholy Garden was the first notable film score for Alfred Newman, who went on to receive an amazing 45 Academy Award nominations and nine wins over the course of his 40-year career. One of his nominations was for the Ronald Colman vehicle The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).

Director: George Fitzmaurice
Producers: George Fitzmaurice, Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur
Cinematography: George Barnes, Gregg Toland (uncredited)
Editing: Grant Whytock
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Ronald Colman (Barrington Hunt), Fay Wray (Camille de Jonghe), Estelle Taylor (Eliza Mowbray), Warren Hymer (Smiley Corbin), Mischa Auer (Prince Nicolai Poliakoff).

by Rob Nixon

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