BERGMAN BREAKS OUT: INGRID BERGMAN’S SWEDISH YEARS (Foreign Film: Third Journey)

Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years (1935-1940)

The Count of the Old Town (1935); Walpurgis Night (1935); Intermezzo (1936); Dollar (1938); A Woman’s Face (1938); June Night (1940)

This collection of six early Ingrid Bergman films is part of Criterion’s Eclipse series and a dandy.

Of all the English-not-their-first-language stars who made their way to Hollywood in the Golden Age, none, not even Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, had quite the impact of Ingrid Bergman.

She won three Oscars and probably deserved more…there are a few performances here that might have at least got nominations had they been made in America or even England. Be that as it may her legend is secure for as long as anyone cares about film and the greatest thing about this collection is that you can see it all coming. If by some chance she had never become a huge star, people who discovered these films would have wondered why.

There are other great things, especially Gustav Molander’s direction of the films that launched her on the international stage: Intermezzo, Dollar and A Woman’s Face. Molander evidently had no small impact on the other Bergman, Ingmar, and one can see why. The films are all potboilers of one kind or another. Intermezzo, later remade with Leslie Howard as Ingrid’s first Hollywood film, is a pure melodrama; Dollar and A Woman’s Face are noir-ish thrillers, though all have elements that blend with other genres, especially the great women’s pictures being made in America at the time.

But Molander and Bergman herself give them more than a touch of class. They make them move, physically and emotionally. Even being distracted by the necessity of reading subtitles you can catch enough to see these are world class talents on display. For intensity, excitement and even intimacy, the chase scene in A Woman’s Face equals anything in Hitchcock, Ford, Kurosawa. It would be worth the price of admission even if the film didn’t contain Bergman’s greatest early performance and one of her greatest ever.

Still, it’s a testament to Bergman’s undeniable star power (David Selznick started wooing her to Hollywood about four seconds after he finished watching Intermezzo–he’d have probably given her Gone With the Wind if she had asked for it–a Swedish Scarlett? Never mind just get her on the lot!), and her already considerable skill that she shines through because these films, especially the last four, have much else to recommend them and I’m sure will reward repeat viewings.

I was especially impressed, even moved, by the social backgrounds so skillfully drawn in Intermezzo. With dark shadows already looming over Europe, never mentioned but rumbling in the film’s subconscious like distant thunder, it’s apparent that bourgeois life went on, even thrived in places like Sweden, where the hope of avoiding disaster was real. The Great War and world wide depression had not killed it. It would take Hitler, Stalin, the Pax Americana and the soft style of bureaucratic  thuggery assembled in Brussels after the war to accomplish that. Add to that the striking, inventive camera work and deep shadings of both plot and cinematography in Dollar and A Woman’s Face, and these films would hold plenty of interest if Ingrid Bergman had never been born.

They wouldn’t have been as good though.

Bergman has a claim on being the greatest actress to ever set foot in front of a camera. The touch of madness that set Vivien Leigh apart can be glimpsed here, and the trouper who could give Barbara Stanwyck a run for her money is on full display.

Give or take Saratoga Trunk, though, a fascinating misfire if ever there was one (it’s a lot easier to imagine the Mighty Ingrid, slightly imperious and all the more lovable for it, as a tail-swishing gold digger chasing a rich husband after you’ve seen the films here than after watching Gaslight and Casablanca yet again), she never got much chance to display her full range, perhaps show us what Leigh would have been like if she had held the madness in check.

It was Intermezzo that brought her international fame. The Germans wanted her as badly as Selznick, badly enough that she actually signed a contract with them–one visit to Hitler’s Germany was all she needed to break it. That film also set her basic style and image. But the strongest film here is A Woman’s Face, which doesn’t skimp on the social drama, sharpens it if anything, despite being a crime film that features Bergman herself as an all too convincing femme fatale who manages a transformation from horribly scarred blackmailer, willing to commit murder for profit without a second thought, to a woman who has her conscience revived by the miraculous restoration of her beauty (all the more striking because she also has a claim on being the most beautiful woman to set foot in front of a camera) with a startling, naturalistic ease. It’s in watching that take place that you realize there’s nothing this woman can’t do–by which I mean both the character and the actress.

I don’t mean to slight the other films here, especially Per Lindstrom’s June Night, another crime/social drama, which has a beautiful, poignant ending I didn’t see coming and strikes a deeper chord for having been made in a world where Sweden was on notice that it would not be allowed to stand idly by as it had done in 1914. They’re all good and they add up to a portrait of Europe between the wars that, collectively, go as far as The Rules of the Game to remind us of what was irretrievably lost in the raging conflagration.

I think they used to call it Civilization. The journey here, from the breezy comedy of The Count of the Old Town to the bleak romanticism of June Night, is a melancholy reminder of how quickly it can be lost.

Who better to take such a journey with than the Mighty Ingrid?

MY LATEST FOR SIXTIES MUSIC SECRETS….

Glad to have my site operating again after the glitches of the last two weeks! I’ll welcome everybody back with a link to my latest column for Rick at Sixties’ Music Secrets, “The 60’s: One Record to Bind Them All?” attempting to answer the question of whether such a tumultuous decade can be represented by a single record.

Well, can it?

Maybe, maybe not, but….

You should see what I left off!

 

DRAGONFLY

My friend Lisa Stephens entered her first photography contest in October and her photo of a dragonfly, titled “Nature’s Stained Glass” was chosen as a finalist and will hang in the Tallahassee Airport Gallery through January. You can see a modest sampling of her work under The Shutter Chronicles on my blogroll. Hoping she’ll be making more available online soon and I’ll share the sure-to-be-spectacular results as warranted. (Anyone in the region should be sure to get by the airport, because no on-line recreation can do the photo justice.)

Meanwhile, Congratulations! Not bad for a first-timer.

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT (Robert Forster, R.I.P.)

He was the kind of actor, and, presumably, the kind of man, who, when he wanted to be flashy would do something like change his name from Robert Foster to Robert Forster. He passed this week, leaving just short of 200 acting credits across half a century. I probably haven’t seen more than ten of those and I only remember him in three. It doesn’t matter. The three were Medium Cool (1969), Jackie Brown (1997), and (on television) Karen Sisco (2003-4).

I don’t need all my fingers and toes to count the number of actors who were that memorable three times in their life.

He’s being most remembered for Jackie Brown, where he and Pam Grier made all the other heavy hitters involved (Robert DeNiro, Samuel Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, even Elmore Leonard) seem as though not merely their careers but their lives were cartoons. There’s justice in that. But his turn in Medium Cool was one of the key performances in American film. He gave Haskell Wexler’s Godardian pretensions real bite and America’s moment of supreme confusion an underlying bitterness and cynicism that suggested the chaos was too deep to be rooted out.

For that alone, you might call him a sort of prophet, a harbinger of what would remain when what was being lost in the moment was truly lost.

And if he’s being remembered for only a few things tonight, it’s because Hollywood worked him like a mule and gave him very few chances.

When they did, he, almost alone, made good and left the small, permanent mark for which we owe him a debt of eternal gratitude.

 

BLUE COLLAR BLUES…MY LATEST FOR SIXTIES’ MUSIC SECRETS

My latest for Sixties’ Music Secrets, “Blue Collar Blues: Music and Class in the 60’s” is now online. You can access it here and find out which road through the sixties leads from Jimmy Reed to Nancy Sinatra!

Just to demonstrate what a great list of music you are going to find, here’s one that didn’t make the cut, Bob Gaudio’s ode to a street urchin who wiped his windshield at a New York stoplight:

 

ANOTHER WAY TO RANK THE PRESIDENTS

Whilst reading Roger Kennedy’s Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character, which I reviewed back in March, I was impressed by his assessment of the first three American presidents. He had Washington and Adams as straight shooters and Jefferson (a far greater president than Adams) as our first conniver.

It only took a little extra thought to start placing each president in one of three categories: Straight Shooters, Connivers (Kennedy’s suggestions), and Nowhere Men (my obvious corollary).

As a preliminary to some thoughts on Donald Trump and the Fourth Turning of the Empire, which I’ve been developing for a while, I thought I’d offer up what I hope is a Handy Breakdown of the previous presidents. Have fun processing and feel free to argue/discuss in the comments. (Please note that these are notes on character, not effectiveness. Also, no man complicated enough to ascend to the Presidency ever fits squarely into one category. I chose based on the aggregate of their characters, knowing there are many dimensions that belong elsewhere.):

Straight Shooters (12):

George Washington
John Adams
John Quincy Adams
Andrew Jackson
James K. Polk
Ulysses S. Grant
Grover Cleveland*
Teddy Roosevelt
Calvin Coolidge
Harry Truman
Dwight Eisenhower
Jimmy Carter

Connivers (11): 

Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
Abraham Lincoln
Andrew Johnson
Woodrow Wilson
Franklin Roosevelt
John F. Kennedy
Lyndon Johnson
Richard Nixon
Bill Clinton

Nowhere Men (20) (Note: This includes a number of men who did not serve long enough to be fairly judged. History is seldom fair.):

Martin Van Buren
William Henry Harrison
John Tyler
Zachary Taylor
Millard Fillmore
Franklin Pierce
James Buchanan
Rutherford B. Hayes
James Garfield
Chester Arthur
Benjamin Harrison
William McKinley
William Howard Taft
Warren G. Harding
Herbert Hoover
Gerald Ford
Ronald Reagan (a Straight Shooter on Soviet Communism, a Nowhere Man on all other matters)
George H. W. Bush
George W. Bush
Barrack Obama

(*Cleveland is the only President to serve nonconsecutive terms so his entry counts twice, as the 22nd and 24th occupants of the office. Hence, though Trump is the 45th President, only 43 men served before him.)

And where does Trump fit? Ah, won’t that be a question.

Hint: It won’t be among the Nowhere Men.

HONOR BOUND TO ROCK AND ROLL (Eddie Money and Ric Ocasek, R.I.P.)

Eddie Money and Ric Ocasek’s band the Cars emerged at almost the same moment, had a similar run of hits, exited the main stage together. A few weeks back, Money and Ocasek exited this world within a few days of each other, mutual testimony to how far a work ethic and a commitment to rock and roll at the expense of all else could take you.

Money was just about the definition of a bread-and-butter rock and roller, a guy who always looked and sounded like he had dropped off his lunch bucket on the way to the arena…and sang like he feared he might be found out at any moment. Inside that arena (the stage, the recording studio, the star machine), he carved out a dozen hits and at least half a dozen radio staples, most of which he wrote. He was easy to take for granted–I can’t have been the only one–until he was gone and you realized how few of his kind there had really been, and that there wouldn’t be any more.

Ocasek was the tall, shy guy in the corner who somehow found himself fronting a semi-glamorous hit machine. The Cars’ bassist, Ben Orr, was a heartthrob and the band’s best singer by miles. Their keyboardist, Greg Hawkes, gave them their distinct sound with his unique ability to seamlessly link a purely synthetic, electronic vibe to good old rock and roll rhythm, again and again, making every Cars’ hit stand up to endless radio play and rendering each of them instantly recognizable.

Through all that, no one ever doubted that Ric Ocasek was the leader of the Cars. He wrote virtually every song they ever recorded, sang lead on the majority, and gave the band its strange mix of cool/uncool identity, one that allowed them to be respected across the board until they were finally, like only the best rock and roll bands, just….there.

That, plus he saw Robert Mueller coming from forty years out.

They saw Rock and Roll America to it’s deathbed, but they weren’t handmaidens. You can still get back there through their music.

That’s a quality I’ve learned not to take for granted.

 

ANCIENT MYSTERY SOLVED BY OLDIES RADIO (Segue of the Day: 10/7/19)

“Gimme Some Lovin'” Spencer Davis Group (1966, Pop #7)/”Venus” Shocking Blue (1970, Pop #1)

Sometimes, something just bugs you. Something that bugged me for about forty-five years was why I had misheard the lead voice on Shocking Blue’s “Venus” as belonging to a male, when in fact (as I learned not less than twenty years after I first heard it on the radio), it belonged to Mariska Vares, a comely Dutch-born femme of Hungarian, Romani, Russian and French heritage by way of Germany.

I never could figure out why I thought it was a male voice, even if singing to a goddess who was “the summit of beauty and love” sounded like something that should be coming from a man if it wanted to make sense. I mean, nobody else ever fooled me that way. Well, not until Taylor Hanson on “MMMMMM-Bop” anyway and he, at least, was a long-haired, angelic looking teenager.

Then, just this week, I heard “Venus” in a whole new context, following immediately on Stevie Winwood’s vocal on the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’,” which I’ve always known was male even if it sounded most like someone speaking in tongues, a state that transcends gender right along with everything else.

With one song running straight into the other (now there’s some ups!), I could hear the obvious: long-haired, teenage Stevie Winwood’s unmistakably male voice was at least as high as Mariska Veres’s.

Same for the families Osmond, Jackson and Partridge, and many others who surrounded Shocking Blue on the radio in the early 70s.

I had been prepared by the airwaves–TV and radio–to accept voices in that range as male.

Clearly, it messed with my head.

I now believe that the state of clinical depression I incurred between the ages of 16 and 23 was a deliberate plot foisted upon the young by World Government.

I’m just glad I resisted the whole Punk madness they came after me with next.

And that’s one more reason you can file any political comments I happen to make here under “Why I Insist on Keeping an Eye on the Bastards.”

Thank you Oldies Radio….Today’s Top 40 would never be allowed to reveal as much!!