In Woody Allen’s 1985 film, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” one of the characters in the film within the film — a black-and-white drawing-room comedy-romance from Hollywood’s golden age — breaks through the fourth wall and emerges from the screen so he can experience the real world.
A new, ongoing series of novels written by Martin Turnbull and set at the Garden of Allah Hotel in Hollywood do just the opposite. They transport readers through the literary fourth wall back in time so they can experience life as it may have been in Hollywood’s golden era.
Relying on rigorous period research and a powerful imagination, Turnbull has created a fully realized, unromanticized vision of this bygone world. In The Garden on Sunset, the first in the series, we get the glitz and glamour inside the Movie Colony as well as the grit and grime of the grim world outside the Colony’s imaginary gates.
The Garden on Sunset opens in 1927, at the very moment that talkies are revolutionizing the movie industry. The story begins with one of the three main characters, Marcus Adler, a young aspiring writer fleeing a secret back in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, arriving at the Garden of Allah not long after its owner, Alla Nazimova — a Russian-born former Broadway superstar whose once brilliant film career has cratered — has been forced to convert her three-plus acre estate on a dusty stretch of Sunset Boulevard into a residential hotel.
The hotel caters to actors, writers, musicians and other Hollywood types — like the two other principal characters: Kathryn Massey, another aspiring writer who spent her childhood in the shadow of a domineering mother determined to make her a star, and Gwendolyn Brick, a gorgeous but wise-beyond-her-years Southern ingénue who arrived in Hollywood, not as the typical naïf off the bus, but fully aware of what it takes to become a star. The three young people meet when they become neighbors after Marcus moves into one of the Garden’s cheaper apartments.
For fans of classic movies and Hollywood history in particular, the fun starts as Marcus, Kathryn and Gwendolyn encounter a who’s who of historical figures from the era — big stars like Tallulah Bankhead, Ramon Navarro and Greta Garbo, as well as the writer Dorothy Parker, director George Cukor, Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson and, of course, the mysterious Madame Nazimova herself, just to name a few.
Turnbull’s Garden of Allah books have been compared with Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series. They do share a similar accessible, unpretentious tone, and both series revolve around the lives of young people from relatively sheltered backgrounds — Mary Ann Singleton, Mona Ramsey, Michael Tolliver and the rest in “Tales” and Marcus, Kathryn and Gwendolyn in the “Garden” series — who move to the big city to start new lives only to find their middle-class sensibilities challenged by decadence and extravagance that would be unimaginable back home — the pre-AIDS heyday of San Francisco in “Tales” and Hollywood’s golden age in the “Garden” series.
But the “Garden” series’ setting against the backdrop of what we now think of as the classic-film era sets it apart, and Turnbull’s characters are not unlike the characters written for movies in that era — people with inner strength, strong moral compasses and sweetness stripped of naivete. You could easily imagined a pre-Code version of The Garden on Sunset produced by MGM with Dick Powell cast as Macus Adler, Ann Dvorak as Kathryn and Constance Bennett as Gwendolyn.
In The Garden on Sunset, the young people at the center of the story strive and connive and are put to the test, but even when they fail and are wracked with self-doubt, like the young people in classic movies, they’re bolstered by an inner optimism. You just know they are going to end up on top.
The first two books in the series, The Garden on Sunset and The Trouble with Scarlett are available now. The third book in the series, Citizen Hollywood, is due in late 2013. For information, go to MartinTurnbull.com.