Three Thrifty Thirties Selznicks








The names of directors Richard Boleslawski, Richard Wallace, and Gregory Ratoff are prominently featured above, but their producer, David O. Selznick, would undoubtedly pen a wordy missive to our website if he failed to receive due credit for this trio of films from the latter half of the 1930s. (Having died in 1965, we are possibly out of danger.) Continuing their commendable re-release of much of the independent producer’s output from the 1940s, Kino Lorber turns to the decade preceding for these three smaller films whose relatively modest scale nonetheless reveals the sure hand and attention to detail which would culminate in his decade-ending, bar-setting production of Gone With The Wind (1939). An exotic melodrama, a family comedy, and a romantic drama, respectively, show the producer’s unerring sense of storytelling direction, even when nominally credited to hired hands like Boleslawski, Wallace, and Ratoff.

To simultaneously uphold, subvert, ridicule, and passionately defend such Production Code-era concerns as the importance of marriage, family, work, and religion make these films not only compelling documents of their time but also effectively entertaining exercises in complex film viewing. From Riviera casinos to Arabian bazaars to European concert halls, as recreated on Hollywood soundstages and near-Hollywood locations, the first productions of Selznick International Pictures offer a fascinating glimpse into the story-, star-, and production-driven vision of the most independent- yet popular-minded filmmaker of the Classic Hollywood Era. With a rattling nasal sweep signing voluminous correspondence, dictated thousands of times to harried secretaries through nearly 40 years of Hollywood history, one would be remiss in assigning credit here to anyone other than David O. Selznick.

The title refers to the desert, and more particularly to the Sahara, but the 1936 Technicolor filming of The Garden of Allah exists solely as an exotic backdrop for the passion play of its two stars, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer. As much romantic reflection as creator of a then popular dream-image of North Africa – with its scorched skies, camel caravans, and shifting sands – this thousand and second Arabian tale drifts across the torments, travails, and terrors of doomed fairy-tale longing under the desert-burning sun. Convent-reared Dietrich and monastery-fleeing Boyer seek a mythical oasis but instead find each other while encountering varying levels of mysticism represented by oracularly cadaverous John Carradine, priestly devotional C. Aubrey Smith, dubiously efficient Joseph Schildkraut, and aristocratically impressive Basil Rathbone. All lend verisimilitude to Boyer and Dietrich’s brightly-shaded swooning, and may even convince viewers, effectively seduced by its desert spell, that Dietrich’s glances are less knowing, and Boyer’s film-length deception more innocent, than its harsher message of Christian duty, abnegation, and forbearance might further imply. Otherwise, produced to a faultless fare-thee-well, the tragic dimensions of Impossible Love – star-crossed, sun-burnt, and sand-shone – are brought to bear by the eloquently measured line-readings of two romantic performers for whom English was a scandalously sexual second language.

Trading top hats and derbies for fezzes and turbans, 1938’s The Young in Heart similarly moves from the Technicolor dreamscapes of moody romantic melodrama to the Art Deco-designed fantasia of sophisticated romantic comedy. Spending a brisk 90 minutes with the pleasantly predatory Carleton family, on both sides of the English Channel, the viewer has ample opportunity to both enjoy and condemn their film-length fleecing of a kindly, elderly estate-dweller unambiguously named Miss Fortune (Minnie Dupree). With Janet Gaynor and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as the sibling con artists, along with fatigued Roland Young and fluttery Billie Burke as their equally conniving parents (reprising their middle-aged married act from the previous year’s Topper), it’s all in good fun, of course, and the family’s pretense of industry and productivity – through such agency as a super-modern car with a dashboard-length speedometer called the Flying Wombat, the younger Fairbanks’ engineer-inflected infatuation with fetching young industrialist Paulette Goddard, and co-star Richard Carlson’s most unconvincing Scottish brogue this side of Scrooge McDuck – are story-rewarded at film’s end by all this flurry of good work, however pretended, apparently being its own reward. A scene set over a construction site, as father and son cannily contemplate the anthropological dimensions of 9-to-5 labor, however, may linger in the viewing mind well after the film’s mainly enjoyable and undemanding running time.

24-year-old Ingrid Bergman makes her Hollywood debut even as 46-year-old star Leslie Howard makes his Hollywood farewell in 1939’s Intermezzo, a grand romance of infidelity between two European-touring concert musicians. Whether Deems Taylor on the radio, Toscanini at the Philharmonic, or Jose Iturbi in the Hollywood Bowl, the era’s middlebrow interest in classical music is certainly reflected in Howard as married violinist Holger Brandt’s dreamy-eyed drift towards youthfully radiant Bergman as his accompanist Anita Hoffman. Powerful film censor Joseph I. Breen and his Hays Office may have categorically forbidden illicit love in their prudish Production Code, but how could even Aunt Tillie from Tallahassee object when set to Ms. Bergman’s passionate grand piano rendering of Sinding’s Rustle of Spring? Picturesque matte renderings of seasonal Vienna – without an invading Nazi in sight – and some seamlessly virtuosic violin doubling for Leslie Howard, story-excused for his callous treatment of abandoned wife and mother Margit (Edna Best) by his character’s musical skill, courtly bearing, and middle-aged maleness (in that order), make Intermezzo either a big swoon or snooze – depending on one’s sensibility – but Bergman’s Fraulein Hoffman proves both the story’s linchpin and saving grace. Possibly the best thing David O. Selznick did in 1939 besides burning down Atlanta was bringing Ingrid Bergman to Hollywood, and her reprisal of the 1936 role that made her famous in her native Sweden here brought her deserved world fame.

Mostly because I can’t avoid any (and all) alliterative opportunities in my writing, I included the word “thrifty” in my title sub-heading above, but producer David O. Selznick and his moviemaking methods were always almost anything but. These three titles, however, are somewhat lesser known in the Selznick canon, and while not often mentioned in the same breath as the producer’s more lavish films of the period like A Star is Born (1937), The Prisoner of Zenda (Ibid.), or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) – all while in varying states of pre-planning and casting for Gone With The Wind – prove to have the same high sheen and glossy entertainment value as those concurrent productions. Besides a gallery of related trailers on each disc, these three Blu-rays are mostly bereft of special features, but a commentary track by blogger and film historian Kat Ellinger accompanying Intermezzo is especially valuable for its detailed information on the production of the film, David O. Selznick’s obsessive work methods, and most of all on the leadup and legacy to Ingrid Bergman’s Hollywood debut. “Thrifty”, again, may be the least applied adjective to the 40-year career of Classic Hollywood’s most grandiose and ambitious producer, but these unassuming termites among a high gallery of white elephants still hold up with consummate storytelling prowess and polish after 80 years.

The images from the movies are credited to DVDBeaver and are taken directly from the Blu-rays.