THE UNHOLY GARDEN. Goldwyn, 1931. Ronald Colman, Fay Wray, Estelle Taylor, Warren Hymer, Tully Marshall, Lawrence Grant, Ullrich Haupt, Henry Armetta, Misha Auer. Screenplay: Ben Hecht, based on his novel. [See comments.] Co-screenwriter: Charles MacArthur; director: George Fitzmaurice.

    “A GREAT STAR’S GREATER ACHIEVEMENT! Here is the Colman you knew in CONDEMNED … The Colman who startled you in BULLDOG DRUMMOND … Now giving you the thrill of a lifetime in a sensational story of sinners, sirens and strange adventure.”

    For once the publicity department wasn’t kidding. Here is a wild one that is too little known and features a great cast in a grand old fashioned romantic adventure. Colman is ruthless gentleman crook Barrington Hunt, who with his pal Smiley Corbin (Warren Hymer), is on the run from the police of several continents.

    He’s heard a tale of a hotel in the Sahara owned by a Baron de Jonghe (veteran character actor Tully Marshall) and his daughter Camille (Fay Wray), where crooks and exiles can hide from the law. Better yet there is a hidden treasure belonging to the Baron to be had by the first man smart enough to find it.


    Well, Colman didn’t play Bulldog Drummond, Beau Geste (silent), Francois Villon, and Raffles for nothing; obviously he will romance Wray, outwit the other crooks, and try for the treasure. Murder, sand storms, and melodrama abound in this cheeky little film that at 75 minutes moves like an express. Of course Colman will fall for Wray and end up battling the other crooks, and because this was pre-code he might just well get away with both.

    Wray is always delightful in this sort of thing, and it’s not hard to imagine why Colman falls for her, while Estelle Taylor (Eliza Mowbray) is a wonderful femme fatale, though it takes a bit to get used to her voice. Grant (as Dr. Shayne), Haupt (as Count von Axt), Armetta (as Nick the Goose) and Auer (as Prince Polakoff) could play villains with the best of them, always with an undercurrent of humor, and Hymer is well cast as Colman’s stooge pal.

    There’s an air of adventure and romance about the film and the crisp dialogue by Ben Hecht (based on his novel) and Charles MacArthur (Front Page, Gunga Din, …) adds to the film’s effect. The sets were designed by illustrator Willy Pogany, and the Moorish hotel in the desert is splendid.


    All in all it is a superior entertainment, gorgeous to look at, lush, and moves at a gallop. Colman is completely at ease in nonsense like this and carries the audience and other actors along with him.

    The cinematography by George Barnes is imaginative, and the film has few of the defects of many early talkies. For sheer entertainment you couldn’t do much better. The action is well handled and the cast of villains formidable.

    Yes, it is high romantic nonsense, it could as easily have come out of a serial in Adventure or Argosy as it did Hecht’s novel, and save for Colman, everyone’s performances are a little over the top, but that hardly matters in a film that looks this good and plays this well.

    In many ways this is a better film than either Colman’s set-bound Raffles or the more primitive Bulldog Drummond (for which he won an Oscar nomination in 1929), a grand fantasy that doesn’t care a whit it we believe a minute of it so long as we sign on for the duration.


    Colman is dashing and handsome, Wray and Taylor look wonderful in slinky, and the rest of the cast is colorful and on cue. This little picture is better than any number of bigger productions from the same era, and thanks to the never-never land aspect of the desert hotel holds up better than many similar films in more mundane settings.

    Frankly I could listen to Colman read the phone book, and when he has good dialogue and a role tailored to his style and charm, it is a real pleasure just to watch him run with the bit in his teeth.

    Unholy Garden is an old fashioned movie movie, and well worth repeated watchings. You can’t help but think that it must have been as much fun to make as to watch.