No, the movie star Ingrid Bergman was never a starlet with a seven-year contract, and her stellar career didn’t begin opposite Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. It all happened in Sweden, where she turned herself into a screen sensation in just a couple of years. Eclipse’s six-disc set shows the immediate success of the daring Bergman, but also her acting range — her sterling qualities seem fully formed even in her first features.
Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years: Eclipse Series 46
The Count of the Old Town, Walpurgis Night, Intermezzo, Dollar, A Woman’s Face, June Night
1935-1940 / B&W / 1:37 full frame / 82, 79, 92, 77, 100, 89 min. / Street Date April 10, 2018 / available through The Criterion Collection / 55.96
Starring: Ingrid Bergman
Directed by Edvin Adolphson & Sigurd Wallén; Gustaf Edgren; Gustaf Molander; Gustaf Molander; Gustaf Molander; Per Lindberg
With the example of Greta Garbo preceding her by a decade, Ingrid Bergman decided early on that Sweden would be just a springboard to an international career. She of course became one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century — an actress of uncommon sensitivity, who defied convention and lived a remarkably independent life.
Fans of Ms. Bergman often adore her high-profile romantic American pictures, but either haven’t seen or dislike her less glamorous films with Roberto Rossellini, possibly because of the wretched English language versions shown here. Very few have seen the early Swedish pictures in which Bergman perfected her screen presence. She shook off conventional ‘cute girlfriend’ roles almost immediately.
We assume that her American contract holder David O. Selznick saw more of Ingrid’s work than just Intermezzo, the picture he entreated her to remake in Hollywood. The six movies in the Eclipse Series 46 disc set Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years show Ms. Bergman’s versatility in a wide range of characterizations. The set is an excellent chaser to Criterion’s Blu-ray of the feature-length documentary Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words.
Never seen an older Swedish movie? The production values in these B&W pictures are the equal of Hollywood’s. The films tend toward the humanistic personal-emotional end of the spectrum, with character concerns usually coming before spectacle or fancy trimmings. The language is beautiful, too. You’ll hear “I love you” enough times in Swedish to remember it — that phrase makes every language sound attractive.
Bergman graduated from bit parts to her first speaking role in 1935’s The Count of the Old Town (Munkbrogreven), a light comedy about a group of lovable characters that work, malinger and enjoy life around a little hotel near the wharf (in Stockholm?). Four under-employed older men connive to buy smuggled liquor because, having not jobs, they cannot get alcohol ration cards. A handsome young stranger shows up without explaining himself fully, which worries the hotel maid Elsa (Bergman) because she thinks he must be the jewel thief that’s been prowling around the neighborhood.
Bergman’s role is to be charming and worried; she and the stranger meet cute when he hides in her room when she’s not dressed. The established stars take turns doing ‘silly faces, silly chases’ low comedy, until the thief is unmasked, a lottery win comes out of nowhere and things wrap up with a double wedding. The comic tone is endearing, despite one character’s weird laugh and a mystery crime that a small child could solve in the second reel. The overall innocence gives the film the lightness of a happy fairy tale. For Bergman it’s all smiling close-ups and comic reactions, at which she already underplays beautifully.
Also from 1935, Walpurgis Night (Valborgsmässoafton) is a fascinating conservative soap opera concerned with possible adultery and a bad marriage that conveniently illuminates a social issue of the day. It gives the 19-year-old Bergman the opportunity to play opposite two major stars, Lars Hanson and Victor Sjöstrom. Smitten with her boss Johann Borg (Hanson), secretary Lena (Bergman) leaves her job to avoid ruining lives. But Borg is already miserable. His wife has made him unhappy by refusing to have children. Behind his back she seeks an illegal abortion to stay childless. Lena’s father (Sjöstrom) owns a newspaper that, to survive, must publish sensational scoops. His sources bring him evidence that makes it look as though Lena is the one who had the illicit abortion. Although Lena is innocent, lives are indeed ruined as various characters commit blackmail, murder and suicide; one joins the French Foreign Legion. And all because one ‘selfish’ woman doesn’t want children.
The moralistic theme echoes Lois Weber’s 1916 Where Are My Children?, which demonstrates a rather twisted view of family planning. Both movies propose that the real problem is that spoiled wealthy wives have abortions to keep their daily lives of carefree entitlement, including the freedom to have love affairs outside of marriage. We’re told that Sweden was experiencing a birth rate crisis in the middle ’30s, and that public policy encouraged couples to have kids ‘early and often,’ so to speak. Borg’s self-centered wife must undergo more than one lecture in which male authority figures dictate her maternal responsibility. A doctor tries to interest her in the idea that motherhood is a requirement for a happy life. Forget about the poor that can’t feed their oversized families, this is a problem of glamorous society women.
Naturally, the husband in the story is faultless. These days, it’s fairly obvious that men traditionally want their women married and busy with children for the sake of male dominance: a wife with kids is a source of male pride — and proof of virility — but only if she submits. A Mommy is also easy to control: stuck at home and easy to monitor. If she breaks the rules badly enough, she’ll likely be condemned as evil and lose her kids in the bargain.
The rebellion of Borg’s wife is given zero approval. Instead of birthing babies and supporting the conventional family arrangement, she’s murdering the husband’s potential children.
In contrast to the wandering wife, Lena is established as a bona fide Earth Mother. She volunteers to change the diapers of her sister-in-law’s baby, because she (sigh) just loves babies. Ms. Bergman is exceedingly convincing in loving & nurturing mode, selling the film’s thesis 100%.
Within those parameters the film is beautifully directed and acted, with the good Lena pulled into a tragedy against her will. The actual crime story is suspenseful, and a forgiving attitude is extended to all except the blackmailer, who is made up to look like he’s auditioning for the lead in Dracula. The ‘bad’ wife is given a little sympathetic consideration, if not understanding. Her fate seems determined by a Svenska edict similar to what our own Production Code would decree, if it even allowed the subject of abortion on U.S. movie screens. The publisher’s ambitious gossip snoop learns some decency as well — when he realizes that his target is Lena, the boss’es daughter, he goes back to a crime scene to remove evidence!
Carrying the romantic lead, Ingrid Bergman is luminous. She has already lost a bit of the ‘baby fat’ that makes her look like a teenager in Old Town. She commands a wide range of emotional reactions, all the way to a happy ending where love and virtue result in the ultimate triumph, a (respectable) baby of her own.
Intermezzo (1936) is the original version of Intermezzo: A Love Story, the Bergman/Leslie Howard film that fans know well. The Swedish-language original presented here is similar but less glossy. Bergman receives third billing and isn’t made the dramatic focus of every scene. Unlike the American version, the screenplay doesn’t go to extreme lengths to apologize for the characters’ moral lapses. Lovers change partners and people get hurt. The beautiful stars aren’t given a free pass. Bergman’s Swedish characters are ambitious and selfish about their desires, unlike the faultless, noble adulterers of many of her American pictures.
The storylines of the two Intermezzos are almost identical. Promising concert pianist Anita Hoffman (Bergman) teaches piano to young Ann-Marie (Britt Hagman), and falls in love with the girl’s father Holger (Gösta Ekman), a renowned violin virtuoso. Holger is often away on concert tours, which strains his marriage with the patient Margit (Inga Tidblad). Margit agrees in principle that Holger needs his freedom to feed his talent, apparently under the odd notion that creative geniuses are above common morality. But Margit is crestfallen when Anita becomes Holger’s accompanist for his next major European tour — and also his companion-lover. For her part, Anita is shelving her own promising career to pursue her adulterous romantic fling. Holger’s abandonment of his daughter begins to haunt him, and the mood of their romance changes. Anita prepares to simply leave, to make things easier.
The only major difference between the two movies is tone. The Swedish original spends less time with the suffering of Anita and Holger, which in the remake seems rather disingenuous — Bergman and Howard have their cake and eat it too. Although the Swedish movie is just as reserved as Selznick’s, it makes more obvious the fact that Holger and Anita’s romance is sexual. In the American film the stars mainly pose for glorious romantic close-ups, if anybody wants to interpret their romance as merely spiritual.
Although Bergman’s transparent emotions are what we most remember, the original is written as Gösta Ekman’s story. Anita even leaves the film before the finish. Perhaps her absence only made Bergman seem more vital, as she alone among the cast can project her feelings directly through the camera. Intermezzo was the crowning success of Bergman and her Swedish director Gustaf Molander.
Gustaf Molander’s Dollar was meant to be a vehicle for a male lead, with Ingrid Bergman only one character in an ensemble. That plan apparently changed as the film progressed. We’re told that director Molander also elevated Bergman to top billing. Most of the critical praise was reserved for Bergman’s performance, which indeed stands way out in front of the other actors and the picture itself.
The show wants to be a screwball comedy about three wealthy couples with marital problems — four partners within the group are straying, and gossip is spreading at the yacht club. Gambling debts complicate a group excursion to a ski resort, where they’re to meet Mary Jonston (Elsa Burnett) a rich American and potential investor. But she’s more interested in seducing a local doctor (Edvin Adolphson, the original star, and one of the directors of The Count of the Old Town). The pushy Mary immediately puts her nose where it doesn’t belong, falsely accusing the group of multiple infidelities. One of the wives, fearing the end of her marriage, has a skiing accident in a snowstorm. Acclaiming herself a better therapist than the doctor, Mary tries to interest him in a wager — if she can get the lady up on her feet, the doctor will marry her.
Dollar is just too heavy to succeed as a comedy — the people aren’t particularly witty or likable. Their initial attitudes and behaviors are on the reprehensible side, what with the insults and fits of jealousy. Unhappy that her husband seems to be straying to the wife of a business partner, Julia (Bergman) flirts far too seriously with her brother-in-law, driving his wife to fits of anxiety. Julia seems to feed off the petty upset she causes. In general, the comedy angle vanishes because the film’s idea of sophistication is calculated cruelty. Everybody eventually slides back into a more acceptable sentimental-generous mode, a character shift that only Bergman makes convincing. She finally becomes sweetly philosophical, wondering why people play the games they play.
The emphasis in the second half shifts to the horrendous American character, an uncultured, prepossessing harpy that shouts things that should be whispered. Mary tries to make everything into a ‘deal’ that only she can win. She pressures the cool doctor into the notion of a marriage of convenience, with her sexual desires crudely out in the open. The biggest surprise is that the good doctor, after first defeating her trickery, eventually gives her a positive response.
The fun is watching Bergman hold court while manipulating her friends. Her Julia is forever dancing around rooms like Katharine Hepburn, pretending to be in control and above the trifling emotional problems she’s helping to inflame. But inside Julia is equally insecure as her friends.
In America Bergman would also have to remake foreign pictures starring other actresses. Her Oscar triumph Gaslight was a revisit of an earlier English hit starring Diana Wynyard. 1938’s A Woman’s Face (En kvinnas ansikte) was of course remade by MGM as a Joan Crawford picture a couple of years later, when the actress was desperate for an attention-getting role. The original Bergman film, while certainly different, is a rather far-fetched tale, with a trick plots that one might see in a cheap film noir a few years later. The idea is to give Ms. Bergman a wild character arc, transforming from a ruthless and hateful criminal into a caring, warm human being. . . in other words, into a good Swede.
The original story is almost too simple. Evil Anna Holm (Bergman) has a horribly disfigured face. She runs a gang of cheap blackmailers. Anna is personally putting pressure on an unfaithful wife when the woman’s husband, Dr. Wegert (Anders Henrickson) catches her in the act of stealing. A great humanitarian, Wegert also happens to be an ace plastic surgeon (surprise!) who donates his services to Anna’s cause. Several months later, the wicked woman emerges with a pristine, scar-free face — and leaves her wicked ways behind. Happy that she will now be accepted in public, Anna adopts a new identity. She hires on as governess for the little heir to the Barring industrial fortune, and moves to the family’s factory-chalet high in the snow country. But her still-active gang conspires with rotten Torsten Barring (Georg Rydeberg) in a dastardly scheme. Anna is expected to murder the young heir, Lars-Erik (Göran Bernhard) who stands between Torsten and the Barring fortune. She has come to love the Barrings, and doesn’t know what to do.
The Swedish makeup artists give Bergman interesting facial scars. One eyelid is pulled down Lon Chaney-style, and a wicked doll-like smile is plastered onto one corner of her mouth. The intent of Bergman and Molander must have been to demonstrate Bergman’s acting range. As Anna Helm she’s not really convincing, if only because we never buy the idea that Anna’s disfigurement mandates her revenge on the world that shuns her. That message gets lost when Dr. Wegert’s plastic magic give the vicious Anna a new personality. She’s now a sentimentalist that cries in gratitude when a small boy asks for a goodnight kiss. From that moment on the movie becomes an unbalanced melodrama. Faced with a choice of saving a boy’s life or maintaining her status with her new family, Anna stalls and balks.
Again we’re compelled to compare this Baltic curiosity with its ultra-glossy MGM remake. Joan Crawford and director George Cukor amp up every aspect of the picture, in some ways improving it. Joan is a more convincing criminal monster, at least on a comic-book level. The remake adds quite a lot to the transition-to-sainthood scenes, showing Crawford’s Anna luxuriating in a room lined with mirrors that are no longer her enemy. The remake also benefits from the presence of Conrad Veidt, whose malevolence is a good counterpoint to Anna’s earlier disfigurement. MGM adds an entire, rather overblown action finale. It puts paid to Veidt’s slimy villain, who seemingly takes Anna’s sins with him when he departs.
In the original seen here, Bergman’s Anna can’t simply transfer her complicity in crime to another character. The show ends on a more complex note that reminds us of her later Fox vehicle The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. The unconventional conclusion gives Ms. Bergman’s emotional scenes greater weight. Neither she nor we can assume that her character will live happily ever after.
Ingrid Bergman’s last Swedish film for over forty years, June Night (Juninatten) is probably the most satisfying show in this set. Working with another director, Per Lindberg, Bergman fills the star role in a contemporary (1940) tale of love and scandal. Seen through the filter of another culture, June Night’s view of morality and premarital sex is unlike anything being made in Hollywood at the time.
In a regional town, the young and carefree Kerstin (Bergman) has a fling with a sailor, Nils (Gunnar Sjöberg). When she arbitrarily breaks off the relationship, he shoots her. Kerstin survives with a damaged heart. The court hearing gives her a merciless moral beating, and the scandal is picked up by an ambitious Stockholm reporter, Willy (Hasse Ekman). Now nationally known as ‘The Wounded Swan,’ Kerstin changes her name to the romantic-sounding Sara Nordaná and quietly relocates to Stockholm, where a job has been arranged for her at a pharmacy. The friendly nurse Åsa helps Sara move in with three other lively girls, none of whom know about ‘Sara’s’ amorous experience. Åsa is engaged to Stefan, a doctor (Olof Widgren) and sleeps with him on occasion. Nickan (Marianne Aminoff) is a telephone operator for the Dagsnyheterna, Willy’s paper. She’s Willy’s virginal girlfriend and desperately wants him to propose. Things heat up when Stefan sees Sara in the medical offices and is instantly attracted to her — which throws the sweet Åsa into confusion and despair. Then Nils shows up, paroled early from his prison sentence. He apologizes but really wants Kerstin/Sara to come back to him. Now Sara is distraught, and her heart can’t stand the emotional strain.
June Night’s vision of romantic delirium is justified by the nature of its confused, suffering heroine, the ‘Wounded Swan.’ Kerstin/Sara works at the Swan Pharmacy and suffers from an ailment that kicks in when matters of the heart overwhelm her. This picture of young Swedes in love is untouched by anything like Hollywood’s Production Code. In a sanctioned MGM version of young love, Judy Garland might cry because Mickey Rooney takes Ann Rutherford to the big dance, but a happy ending is assured. Per Lindberg’s young adults are on their own, operating outside the supervision of parents. Kerstin is a sexually charged catalyst wherever she goes, turning the heads of young men already involved with her new friends. We all know that her past will catch up to her.
The drama is frank about relationships and sex. Åsa is a sweet and sensitive darling, who knows Sara’s secret and remains a true friend even when her own romance is threatened. She is by far the film’s most ethical and thoughtful character, and yet she is the one sleeping with her fiancé. In Nickan we get a no-nonsense portrait of a woman being used by a career-minded boyfriend. Their relationship is put to the test as well. We’re also impressed by the film’s view of journalistic ethics. Willy’s editor wants to pillory Kerstin as a small-town hussy until he sees her photo, and immediately decides that Willy has done the right thing in defending her in print. When Willy later wants to exploit Kerstin/Sara as a tabloid sensation, the editor refuses, as doing so would be outright persecution. We wonder if this enlightened attitude reflects Swedish newspaper policy of the time. The ethical editor makes a nice contrast with the awful woman who so maliciously destroyed Kerstin’s reputation back at the trial.
The film’s ending is a thought-provoking surprise. It simply has no equivalent in American movies, where romantic dilemmas are usually solved through whatever convenient expedient will keep the stars together and neutralize/eliminate surplus suitors. Here, romance is revealed as the essentially cruel and selfish thing it is — amorous rivalries often leave somebody on the battlefield, alone and hurting. Kerstin/Sara may be emotionally delicate but she knows very well what she wants. I generally avoid the lazy habit of relating actors’ movie roles to their private lives, but June Night really seems a foretaste of the Ingrid Bergman to come. She refused to play noble for the press or to serve as a role model for a conventional moral value system. Ingrid went her own way, and is remembered as nobody’s fool.
Eclipse’s Series 46 DVD disc set of Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years presents clean transfers of these fascinating examples of star-vehicle foreign pictures of the 1930s. I think some restoration has been applied to the pictures, for the three that appeared on an earlier Kino disc set look better here, with a smoother grayscale and less density fluctuation. The Count of the Old Town is so clear, we can see that the setting is a real old quarter of the city, not a studio set. In June Night we can see for the first time than the first shot of a rural house is actually a model. The images are attractive and the lighting flattering, and of course Ingrid Bergman also sparkles.
Because Eclipse discs don’t carry the usual Criterion battery of extras, the liner notes become more important. Taking on the task this time is Pamela Hutchinson, who wrote the excellent BFI booklet on the German silent Pandora’s Box. Her analysis of the pictures conveys needed facts and context, that I’ve cribbed above whenever I say, ‘We’re told that…’ In a compressed form, Hutchinson hints at the big ambitions of the actress from Sweden. If Ingrid Bergman ever harbored grave self-doubts, they don’t show in her bold career decisions.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years: Eclipse Series 46
Movies: Good to Excellent
Video: Very Good +
Supplements: liner notes by Pamela Hutchinson
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Six DVD discs in plastic cases in card sleeve
Reviewed: March 19, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson