“Under a Vienna Moon — Over a Vienna Bakery.” That’s the title that both starts this undeservedly obscure, sophisticated comedy gem from director Lewis Milestone, and sets its tone. The Garden of Eden, dating to 1928, is what’s known as a sophisticated (back when that meant something) romantic comedy — the kind where the romance is invariably undercut by realistic doses of cynical wit (as in the opening title).
The story line — Toni Le Brun (Corrine Griffith) can’t seem to find happiness in a life of pretzel making; so, armed with a correspondence-school degree in opera, she sets off for Budapest to become a star — is very much in the mould of an Ernst Lubitsch comedy. And that’s not too surprising, since frequent Lubitsch writer Hans Kraly adapted the Avery Hopwood play for the screen. The movie is from Milestone’s most creative period, and while it’s true that the director’s relentless infusions of style occasionally seem more grafted onto his films than a natural outgrowth of the material, that’s rarely the case here — and it doesn’t keep that style from being delightful in its own right.
Milestone does right by the witty sophistication of the material (his style probably more resembles that of Rouben Mamoulian than Lubitsch, though all three share certain traits); he’s aided here in no small part by a terrific cast and some astonishing sets by William Cameron Menzies (among other things, he designed Gone With the Wind). Stars Corinne Griffith and Charles Ray are probably unknown to any but hardcore silent-movie buffs these days, but give them a chance, and you’ll wonder why they aren’t better appreciated (Griffith in particular).
The always reliable Louise Dresser and Lowell Sherman, that patented dapper man about town (and no mean sophisticate as a filmmaker himself) add just the right touch to the proceedings, not to mention Maude George as the outrageously butch proprietor of the seedy nightclub (really a girlie show with extra … trimmings for its wealthier patrons) where Toni gets her supposed break.
The Garden of Eden is a silk hat and a bottle of Mumm’s Cordon Rouge worth of truly classy entertainment.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke