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?

VIVIEN LEIGH…A Handy Ten

Tennessee Williams thought she was the finest dramatic actress of her day, Noel Coward the best comedienne (a side that was seen only in her very earliest films and on stage). I’ll have some educated guesses here about what Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando really thought.

She was severely bi-polar in an age when that condition was, to put it mildly, not well understood. She spoke seven languages, had a reputation as a spectacular hostess, won two Oscars and a Tony, and I suspect would have traded every bit of it for a kind word from her peers (“Oh no, Vivien, you mustn’t do that,” John Gielgud once said, when she asked him to read lines with her while she was practicing for Juliet. “That requires a real actress.”).

And that was just her friends.

Like many geniuses who deliver a shock to the system, she got most of those kind words (including from Gielgud) after she was safely dead, at 53, of tuberculosis, having spent years receiving periodic electroshock treatments.

And, like many geniuses safely dead, she remains misunderstood by those who fawn and carp alike.

She is the only person who has ever truly frightened me while giving a performance on screen–and I confess I was frightened both for and of her.

I do not blame anyone for refusing to get her. For those who dare….

1)  Gone WIth the Wind (1939)
D: VIctor Fleming

It’s fascinating to see her screen tests which–despite an early childhood in Colonial India that I suspect gave her instinctive insights into the Plantation South her Hollywood competition couldn’t comprehend–barely hint she would take over the character of Scarlett O’Hara so fully that imagining anyone else in the part was soon rendered not only moot but ridiculous. It was an art-house performance, given not in a Euro-classic masterminded by some bleak or pointilist master like Dreyer or Bergman or Renoir, but in a (make that the) Hollywood blockbuster that stretched to nearly four hours, had at least three principal directors and was micro-managed by the definitive example of that dread antithesis of Art, the Super Producer. And it was a (make that the) star turn given by someone who was not yet a star. Her own screen time ran to nearly two-and-a-half hours. I once watched it without sound and then listened to it with my eyes closed, back-to-back, trying to catch a false note. No such luck. I also developed a habit over the years of counting how many times Scarlett physically assaults someone. It’s somewhere around a dozen but I’ve never managed to convince myself I didn’t miss one or two. In short, there’s nothing else like it. Whenever there is a list of greatest film performances and someone else is on top (there always is–and it’s never her Blanche DuBois, the only real competition), I laugh. People amuse me sometimes.

2) Waterloo Bridge (1940)
D: Mervin LeRoy

A remake of a 1931 weeper, Leigh and co-star Robert Taylor both named it as the favorite of their own movies. Though she had been turned down for Rebecca (after a screen test that was no further from Joan Fontaine’s fine performance than Leigh’s GWTW test had been from her Scarlett) this was an interesting place to land. After Gone With the Wind, Leigh gravitated by hook or crook toward self-destructive characters who increasingly mirrored her own life and personality. This one is a gut-punch, to my mind more subtle and delicate than the fine earlier version, thanks mostly to Leigh’s ability to turn melodrama into the real thing, even if she had to live it. I won’t tell you how it ends, only that, like most of her post-Scarlett adventures, it is prescient and not an easy watch.

3) That Hamilton Woman (1941)
D: Alexander Korda

Does one really need to do more than look at those two shots and realize they are the same actress in the same movie? Or should I add that there is no hint of strain in the transition? She spent the rest of her marriage to co-star Laurence Olivier begging him to do another movie with her (especially Shakespeare, his specialty!). He refused….and kept the reputation as the Great Thespian of the two, which I suspect he knew he had not earned. Clever man.

“After? There is no after.”

I should mention before moving along, that if Hollywood had been serious about having Oscars match Art, she would have won for both of the preceding movies (she was nominated for neither). For better or worse she wouldn’t make another movie for nearly five years.

4) Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
D: Gabriel Pascal

And a curious thing it was. She may have gone after it harder than she went after Gone With the Wind. The resulting film is–like just about every Shaw play that wasn’t based on Pygmaliion–about equal parts maddeningly entertaining and just maddening. (He’s my favorite playwright but his style rarely translated well to film.) The worst part was that Leigh suffered a miscarriage during the filming. It was one of several but this one seemed to cost her the best chance of having a child with Olivier. For someone who was already at least flirting with mental illness, it was bound to leave a scar. The movie reflects some of that. It’s still worth seeing, as a curio if nothing else (and for the impeccable Claude Rains as a definitively Shavian Julius Caesar). But nothing in it matches the photograph of Leigh with Shaw that Kendra Bean dug up for her excellent book of such photos (with insightful essay) dedicated to Leigh’s life and career (which I reviewed here). There are grainy reproductions on the net, but by all means find the book. The picture there of Leigh standing between Shaw and director Pascal contains multitudes. If the old man had still been on his game, he would have written a play about her pursuit of his approval–and I bet it would have made a better movie than Caesar and Cleopatra or perhaps even Pygmalion. Especially if he convinced her to play herself.

5) Anna Karenina (1948)
D: Julien Duvivier

By now the pattern was set. She was a complex narrative actress in a simple narrative medium…so the construction of the connective tissue required to drive home the telling details in stories that took place over years (and, here, miles) was generally left to her. Everyone else could do their thing, as she could play with or against anyone (Clark Gable, Leslie Howard,  Robert Taylor, Olivier, Claude Rains, here Ralph Richardson, all except Olivier just because she was asked–you try it some time). Anna’s not the plum part some make it out to be. I don’t quite buy Garbo in the role (I buy the movie, and Garbo, just not the part where we all know she’s going to kill herself–what you might call the Anna part–though I accept I am in the minority) and it left Keira Knightley lost and confused. How would Gielgud have put it? It requires a real actress. Someone who can make you feel the weight of going under that train that every English major in the world knows is coming for her from the beginning even if they’ve never been within ten miles of Tolstoy. She does that. Mostly, I think, by giving it just a touch of cold and allowing the passion underneath to show through only at the crucial moments. It didn’t win her any friends or awards, but you can start to see why she only made a movie every three years.

6) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
D: Elia Kazan

“Yes dear, you strike a lovely match. But will you burn down the cornfield?”

Which meant the next one was this, the truly frightening one. I watched it for the first (and so far only) time about fifteen years ago. My response to Brando was So this is where he got that reputation.

My response to Leigh was You can’t do that.

Not because the part required a “real” actress (though it did), but because, when you are living in someone else’s skin, there are places you can’t go and expect to come all the way back–especially if the someone else is having a rape-induced mental breakdown. Leigh, alone among screen actors, went there. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. A few years later, on a visit to New York, I saw an Off-Broadway play called Orson’s Shadow (if it’s ever near you, see it) which is, among other things, about the last days of Leigh and Olivier’s marriage. In the lobby during intermission I wandered around, reading the play notices. One of them contained a quote with which I was previously unfamiliar (as I was with Leigh’s history of serious mental problems):

“She (Blanche) is a tragic figure and I understand her. But, playing her tipped me into madness.”

If you want to know what the affect on Brando was, read any story of his sad pathetic life. Like Olivier in That Hamilton Woman, he knew what had happened, even if (as with Olivier) there was an entire cottage industry devoted to insisting it wasn’t so.

He went on to be careful and mannered and lauded in On the Waterfront–prelude to a lifetime of being showered with accolades and represented as the epitome of approved good taste masquerading as revolution.

She was carried off her next film set in a strait-jacket.

One of these days. I’ll watch this one again.

7) The Deep Blue Sea (1955)
D: Anatole Litvak

(No box office you say? With advertising like that? Just one of life’s little mysteries.)

This has apparently never been available in any home video format. I’ve seen it only in a grainy bootleg version which is barely watchable. But there’s enough there to know she had, post Streetcar and post breakdown, mastered a certain kind of fragility which gave her characters a vulnerability everyone else has been forced, for their own protection, to play act. Again, not an easy watch.

8) The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)
D: Jose Quintero

A good double bill with The Deep Blue Sea. Same train, different time. Similar result. Tennessee Williams insisted she was the only one who could play the part on screen. He knew what he was about. Hell, he probably wrote it about her, even if only subconsciously. Not an easy watch…but you know that by now. Don’t let its fame (or infamy) or good-not-great reputation or Warren Beatty playing an Italian fool you. Beatty’s quite good, she knew how to make this stuff hurt all along–and she only got better at it. Everyone who has walked through the beauty-terrified-of-losing-her-looks narrative since has done so in her footsteps. Maybe someone has filled her shoes, but, if so, I haven’t seen it. Here, as elsewhere, when she destroys herself, you not only believe, you believe there was no other way.

9) Ship of Fools (1965)
D: Stanley Kramer

After? There is no after.

She was dead in two years.

10) Vivien Leigh with Kenneth Tynan, Sam Goldwyn and Edward R. Murrow.

Permit yourself to time travel. Their like, good and bad, are with us in every age. Her like, we won’t see again.

Except for Kazan, she worked with no director who could be mistaken for an auteur, though none were less than solid professionals.

John Gielgud was a fine actor, by many accounts a wonder of the stage. By every account superior to his dear friend Vivien.

Today, though, when we hear her name, we think of Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche Dubois, of Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire.

When we hear his name, we think of Arthur, if not Arthur 2.

Talent abides.

Genius finds a way.