Lewis Milestone enjoyed a long, prestigious career in Hollywood. He directed over 40 films, from the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1930 "All Quiet on the Western Front," where he won the Best Director's Oscar, to the maritime Marlon Brando epic "Mutiny on the Bounty" in 1962. Milestone made his share of good World War II movies, principally "Edge of Darkness" and "A Walk in the Sun." Milestone's eleventh outing, the silent, black & white, romantic comedy "The Garden of Eden," is a tale of initiation based on a German play. Clocking in at a minimal 78 minutes, this lightweight but flirtatious "Cinderella" saga about a single girl who discovers Mr. Right generates a lot of laughs. Watching it is like watching a 1980s chick flick as the impressionable heroine finds true love and happiness after enduring some hardship. What most people will find entertaining about this silent movie is its modern sensibility. Is Madame Bauer a bisexual? Milestone proves above everything else that he had a nimble touch when it came to comedies. Of course, bona fide film geeks will appreciate the fact that William Cameron Menzies served as art director on this amusing piece of fluff. Menzies won an Oscar for "Gone with the Wind." The Academy recognized him for his "outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood in the production of Gone with the Wind." Interestingly, the year before "The Garden of Eden" came out, Menzies received his first Oscar for Best Art Direction for "The Dove" (1927) and the same year that "The Garden of Eden" (**** OUT OF ****) went into release, he received his second Oscar for "Tempest."
A headstrong but naïve young woman, Toni LeBrun (Corinne Griffith), decides to pursue a career as an opera singer. Before she can realize her dream, she has to abandon the pretzel making business at the Viennese bakery where she works with her aunt and uncle and leave town. Clearly, Toni cannot discuss this career decision with her relatives because she has to sneak out of their house and catch a late train for Budapest. "The Garden of Eden" depicts what happens when this optimistic, misguided girl from the country arrives alone in the big city, and goes to a metropolitan night club, the Palais de Paris, to audition for a role. Instead, Toni finds herself having to hoist her dress so that the business savvy manager, Madame Bauer (a masculine-looking Maude George of "The Marriage Bubble"), can gaze at them. "Good! I'm sure you'll be a great success as an opera singer," Bauer observes with more than a little irony. Bauer slips the cabaret seamstress, Rosa (Louise Dresser of "Salomy Jane"), a hand written message to put Toni in the 'Seemore' outfit. When the curtains rise at the Palais de Paris, Toni is stomping around backstage having a temper tantrum because of the modest costume that she has to wear. She refuses to wear it and Madame Bauer arrives in time to hear Toni's complaints. Bauer steps forward and reprimands Rosa for giving Toni such a revealing dress. Rosa reminds Bauer that she told her specifically to prepare the Seemore dress for Toni. Bauer approves a new dress, the Puritan costume, and Toni has no qualms about wearing this conservative apparel. Although it hasn't sunk into her head yet, Toni doesn't seem to realize that the Palais is a gentleman's club, and Madame Bauer is nothing less than a female pimp. One of Bauer's wealthy customers, Henri D'Avril (Lowell Sherman of "Satan in Sables"), wants to have a drink with Toni, and Bauer provides a private room for them. Rosa watches as a cabaret waiter locks Toni and Henri in the room. Eventually, after she drinks a couple of glasses of liquor, Toni freaks out and the lights go out. Rosa is frantic about this arrangement and pulls out her key to unlock the door. When the lights come on again in the private room, Henri finds himself kissing Rosa instead of Toni. Madame Bauer fires both Toni and Rosa on the spot. Rosa's response is to embark on her annual vacation where she lives like royalty at the Hotel Eden in Monte Carlo, and she drags Toni along with her. At the hotel, she signs register as Baron her in as her daughter Antoinette.
As they settle into their luxurious hotel room, Toni limbers her fingers up on a piano. She plays music that attracts the attention of a young man, Richard Dupont (Charles Ray of "Alias Julius Caesar") and he manages to get her attention. The remainder of this introduction scene and the bedroom scene later are two of the best scenes in "The Garden of Eden." The first one involves a system of signaling each other that they discover quite by accident. In other words, they flick the lights on and off in rapid succession. Before long everybody else in the hotel mimics them, much to Rosa's chagrin. Richard calls Toni on the phone, but winds up talking with Rosa. He wants to visit Toni in person and Rosa plans to surprise him, not unlike she did Henri at the Palais de Paris. Richard opens the wrong door and sees Toni at another door facing the room where Rosa is playing the piano. This entire scene is a masterpiece of blocking. Richard winds up stuck behind a door when Rosa undresses and then he cannot leave because uncle shows up to romance the ladies. At the last moment, he appears and ends up going to eat with them. The repetitive way that Richard has to dodge back and forth behind the door is hilarious. A scene almost as funny occurs not long afterward when Toni and Richard take a sleeping powder and struggle to stay awake. Eventually, Richard persuades Toni to marry him, but problems occur when Henri D'Avril shows up for Richard's wedding and exposes Toni for who she really is.
"The Garden of Eden" is fantastic!