The Unholy Garden (1931) by matthew c. hoffman

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“Shooting and spoofing take their turns in the packet of excitement and fun known as ‘The Unholy Garden,’ which arrived at the Rialto last night. In this picture Ronald Colman as Barrington Hunt, an Englishman with an unsatiable appetite for crime, does his one good deed before he speeds off in somebody else’s car with a thug who would probably like to put a bullet through him.” — The New York Times, Oct. 29, 1931

The Unholy Garden (1931) is an insane film. For me, it’s always been a Ronald Colman guilty pleasure. By that I mean it’s a lot of fun if viewed as a comedy and not as serious drama. It is, understandably, considered one of Ronald Colman’s weakest films– certainly the least effective of his early sound films. Colman himself felt it was his poorest to date. However, looking at his entire body of work, it’s actually more entertaining than My Life With Caroline (1941) or The Story of Mankind (1957). (Anyone who has seen the latter two might not read that as a ringing endorsement.) But The Unholy Garden is just weird enough to be of interest to those who appreciate the cinema of the bizarre.

My first introduction to the film was in a book called Human Monsters: The Bizarre Psychology of Movie Villains by George E. Turner and Michael H. Price. The authors saw value in it and listed it among dozens of other obscure films from the ’30s and ’40s waiting to be re-discovered… though many would claim this one is best left buried by the sands of time.

Perhaps the attraction is in seeing the dashing, debonair Colman in an ugly milieu of villainy where no one can be trusted. And yet, he still remains true to the “Colman image” in the film’s final moments with the heroine.  Colman plays Barrington Hunt, a gentleman thief who has fled to Algeria from Marseilles– “the knight of rueful countenance whom chance had blown into the Sahara,” as biographer R. Dixon Smith wrote.  With Colonel Lautrac (Arnold Korff) out to find him, Hunt is keeping a low profile in a North African tavern. Outside are the crowded streets of the marketplace with Arab music filling the air. Sultry Elize Mowbry (Estelle Taylor), the sort of lady who helps men pass the time very pleasantly, is working for the Commandant with her own interests in mind (that is, the reward). Knowing where Hunt is, she plans to use her wiles to lure him to her home for the authorities to nab.  Once outside, Hunt sees that the marked vehicle is property of the Algerian Commandant and so hijacks it. He’s a rather polite kidnapper as he takes Elize along for the ride. He drives off to the Palais Royal, a broken-down hideaway in the Sahara– an “unconvincing Grand Hotel in the sand,” noted  R. Dixon Smith. It’s in the heart of Arab territory, but more importantly, out of French jurisdiction.

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There, Hunt meets up with his old associate, Smiley Corbin, the dim-witted comedy relief partner played by Warren Hymer. (Character actor Hymer–of the Nat Pendleton school of acting– often played illiterate gangsters, though in real life he was a Yale graduate.) Together, they’re the odd couple of robbers. Also holed up at the oasis is Dr. Shayne (Lawrence Grant, the villain from 1929’s Bulldog Drummond). Here, he plays a murdering doctor who uses the skull of his third wife as a container for tobacco. “Quaint,” Hunt tells him. There is also Colonel von Axt (Ulric Haupt), a German who sold out his division in The Great War, and various other international reprobates by the names of Prince Nicolai Poliakoff (Mischa Auer), Kid Twist (Kit Guard), and Nick-the-Goose  (Henry Armetta).

Upstairs lives a blind, wheelchair-bound embezzler, Baron de Jonghe (Tully Marshall), who is cared for by his sweet granddaughter, Camille (Fay Wray). The denizens read the cranky old man’s mail and learn he is sitting on a lot of money. They try unsuccessfully to investigate, but the old man wields a gun at all visitors. Fortunately for the crooks, his aim is not good. This sort of job calls for a degree of finesse. Enter Barrington Hunt. As the outsider, he quickly gains the old man’s trust while reassuring the others it’s all an act. His plan is to seduce the naive Camille in order to get to the ten million francs. He prefers to work through mood. The courtship is on.

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But Barrington doesn’t appear to be working fast enough for the others, and one of the gang spies on him in the garden as he recites poetry to his desert Cinderella. Reporting to the others afterward, Hunt tells them, “Tomorrow I shall switch from Shelley to Byron. Work my way slowly eastward through the Oriental poets. And Tuesday, if there’s a moon, I shall plunge deep into Roman mythology.” Later, when Hunt offers to start a crackling hearth in the baron’s room, he is ordered at gunpoint to put away the matches. Hunt figures it out that the money is hidden somewhere in the fireplace.

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After hearing a drunken Elize spout out Smiley’s confidences, the thieves suspect that Hunt and Smiley are planning a double-cross with the intent on taking the money for themselves. Smiley is knocked out and the criminal ne’er-do-wells go after Hunt. At gunpoint they lead him into a storage room during the Christmas festivities. The heavies tell Hunt that when the man at the piano starts playing they are going to shoot him. “Ask him to play something sad,” he jests like Bulldog Drummond.  However, the gentleman thief is able to con two of the crooks into taking action against the other two. “There should be enough for the three of us,” he tells the doctor and the colonel. “Why let the others in?”

The baron’s brother, Alfred (Charles Hill Mailes), arrives on the scene in an attempt to get the baron to surrender the money and return to France. However, the old man is soon shot by the Russian, who absconds with the metal box containing what he thinks is the money. Hunt, though, had already beaten him to it and is running through the palace with the francs safely tucked into the pockets of his white dinner jacket. During the ensuing chase, the Russian is killed and the rest of the crooks turn on each other. Hunt had left a little ‘sugar’ in the baron’s room for them to fight over, scattering some of the notes on the floor.

Camille is rushed to Alfred’s car, but instead of fleeing with her, Barrington gives her the money in the movie’s best scene.

“… it’s the one thing I’ve done that’s any good. Don’t spoil it. I love you more than I said. That’s why you must go on– alone. Oh, it would be nice, my dear, but it’s nicer this way. It would only mean a little while together, and then the police. You wouldn’t find Paris very nice as a convict’s bride. I would keep you with me, but–but, don’t you see, I planned it this way. A better job than I’ve ever done before. Go back to life. And someday, when your eyes are shining, and you go to meet an honest man, look at Paris once for me, and think of it as my wedding present.”

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At the time The Unholy Garden was made, Ronald Colman was the biggest star on the Goldwyn lot. With that in mind, Samuel Goldwyn would not have deliberately given him a bad script. The origins of the story, in fact, came from two of the best writers in Hollywood: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. They had narrated their basic idea to Goldwyn in a meeting at the Pierre Hotel in New York. Goldwyn was quickly sold on it and brought the writing duo to Hollywood to write the screenplay. Unfortunately for the studio, instead of concentrating on the idea they had pitched, Hecht and MacArthur put all their creative energies into a script for another studio: Howard Hughes’ Scarface. There is the story that Ben Hecht wrote The Unholy Garden in a one-night marathon at the typewriter. Suffice to say, the final script that Goldwyn got on his desk was not the great story that had been envisoned at the initial meeting in New York. There was nothing that could be done at this point as production was about to start, and Colman was bound by his contractual obligations to do it. The experience no doubt instilled in him a greater desire to become independent– and more selective with his film projects.

The film was helmed by George Fitzmaurice, who had directed Colman in several of his silent films, including two opposite Vilma Banky: The Dark Angel (1925) and The Night of Love (1927). This would be his last film with Colman.

Fans of classic horror will appreciate the presence of King Kong‘s Fay Wray as Camille.  In Juliet Colman’s biography of her father, Ronald Colman: A Very Private Person, Fay remembers:

“He (Colman) made no overt objection to the film, but there was an air of discomfort about the whole thing. I wasn’t comfortable in it either. I felt an uneasiness in playing scenes against so grubby a background, wearing pastel chiffon with Alencon lace and having a hairdresser standing by. I was a brunette then but because all the women that had played opposite him had been a blonde, I was made a blonde…… Ronnie really was a teacher… I felt that while we were running through the dialogue, while he made suggestions, that he was not in his part, that he was directing to some degree. Fitz was the director, but I remember much more keenly rehearsing with Ronnie. He was both in the scene and watchfully outside, making significant observations about how, for instance, I reacted to a poem he was reading: ‘Hark! Hark! The lark at Heaven’s gate…'”

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The Unholy Garden works best if you take it as an adventure spoof rather than drama. Though it lacks the polish of Bulldog Drummond, this 75 minute adventure is by no means dull and has its witty moments.  The sharp contrast between Colman and the American goof, Smiley, is rather amusing, as is the idea of inserting an actor as distinguished as Colman into this cutthroat enclave. Though he plays a crook, it’s after he falls in love with Camille that his gallantry shines through– very much in keeping with what audiences expected of Colman at the time. There’s a nice moment when Hunt is with Camille in the mosque garden (a too obvious Goldwyn soundstage) and he reflects back on Christmas in England. “Decency had its moments.”

Ronald Colman would follow this with two far superior films: John Ford’s Arrowsmith (1931) and King Vidor’s Cynara (1932), but it is a testament to Colman the actor that even in “trash” we can find hidden treasure. Authors Turner and Price wrote of the negative critical consensus:

“This oversimplified view takes into account some rather predictable elements of plotting and perhaps an overabundance of bizarre touches, but neglects to acknowledge that the production shimmers with high artistry. Not to mention that the cast, in support, serves up some of the most intriguing vamps and scamps any lover of melodrama could desire. Garden does sink deep into the outre, an excess that the viewer will find either charming or offensive. The skull-as-tobacco jar is one such example, but the most effectively disturbing touch is a Christmas party scene where the criminals sing carols in assorted clashing keys and languages. The dialogue sparkles with romance and wit.  (Willy) Pogany’s evocative sets are magnificently lighted and photographed to generously eerie effect by two of the great cinematographers, George Barnes and Gregg Toland. Colman’s rakishly sophisticated demeanor is complemented beautifully by the innocence of Miss Wray…”
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NOTE: A decent quality dvd copy of this film is available at www.vintagefilmbuff.com

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~ by mchoffman on July 6, 2009.

One Response to “The Unholy Garden (1931) by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. Hi Matthew, vintagefilmbuff.com has this title as well as a few other Ronald Coleman DVD’s, in case you are interested. (Disclaimer, this is my own site.)

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