Early Ingrid Bergman at the Bfi Southbank

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A few weeks ago now (2nd January) I was lucky enough to attend screenings of two very early Swedish-language Ingrid Bergman films, at a mini-season of her films at London’s own Bfi Southbank – with my good friend Christian Hayes. One of these was The Count of the Old Town (1934/5) and seems to have been her first role, although IMDb suggests she played, uncredited, a ‘girl waiting in line’ in a film before this. At any rate it’s her first starring role, at the age of 19. Although she doesn’t seem to be quite an actress yet her star presence is there in spades; I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to be able to see the star of Notorious (1946) at the outset, finding her feet.

I’m actually someone who came to the concept of the star persona relatively late, in that I didn’t feel it as an instinct as a child or even as a teenager: first I was fascinated simply by the stories and characters, then by the “art” of the films, focusing on the director. In my early twenties something clicked. There were stars before Ingrid but I think it was the double-whammy of her alongside Cary Grant in Notorious that did it for me. Notorious was my favourite Hitch for a long while, which had as much to do with the Ingrid/Cary combo as with Hitch.. 

In The Count of the Old Town Bergman plays a hotel maid. Our first sight of her is through a slightly ajar door, half-dressed. And this is from the point-of-view of a handsome young man who convinces her to let him hide in her room, away from the cops.

Her face really does light up the screen. Because it’s the very start of her career (as well as partly because I think ordinary films can have a tendency to do this), it feels, watching this, as though you’re getting a pure, unfiltered version of her personality.. Well anyway I took from the film a sense that although at times Bergman came across a little Joan Fontaine-insipid, her true character appeared full of tenderness and inner strength. Here’s a picture from the film that maybe illustrates this:

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In many ways The Count of the Old Town is a fairly ordinary film- although it does have a number of nice, offbeat characters. It’s a little like the folksy atmosphere of a provincial Renoir picture in a way.. The eponymous Count is a drunk and hangs out with another drunk called Cucumber, so-called because this was what he used to get hold of for people on the blackmarket in a time of rationing. There’s some storyline about diamonds being stolen and the police searching for the thief, but thankfully nobody on the film seems to be paying too much attention to the plot. Instead we have a whole host of wonderful character actors filling out a lovely little movie.

The film has, really, one scene that plucks it out of the ordinary which involves our hero, again hiding from the cops, dressed in an incredible beetle-suit that covers him and has a flap covering his face that he can open, to take a look-out. The costume has words on it that say something very strange I can’t quite remember, but which seemed to serve in an obscure way to mean something along the lines of “The End is Nigh”.. We then see him chased by a cop in this beetle-suit. I really can’t explain why this was so funny and seemed so absurd. I think it had to do with the way that he actually looked like a life-sized beetle, being chased down the streets, his feet the only visible human element- it really felt like the spirit of Kafka had taken this otherwise fairly ordinary movie completely unaware. 

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The other movie we saw that night is one I highly recommend: Walpurgis Night (1935.) It stars not only Bergman but the great Victor Sjostrom – yes, another double-whammy actor movie. The film is set around the Spring Festival of the title, which comes about once a year (and which Wikipedia tells me was named, back in the 8th century, after a woman called Walpurga, who, bizarrely, hailed from Devon.) Anyway, Ingrid’s father (Sjostrom) in the film runs a newspaper and, an old romantic, insists on covering the Spring Festival rather than all the more juicy stories around about celebrities and murders. He’s weary of the falsity of the business, particularly critical of his colleagues’ pretense towards engagement with serious political issues, when they repeatedly take the side that’ll sell.

Meanwhile Ingrid is leaving her boss because she’s secretly in love with him – and he’s married. The scene is incredibly touching and the silent love between the pair is undoubtable – maintained throughout a long scene in which everything said is cosmetic alongside those impassioned looks. At times Ingrid seems really a silent movie actress – here she brings an absolutely palpable emotional impact to this scene, through her carefully nuanced movements and gestures, and her eyes. Needless to say he convinces her to come out to the Spring Festival; they’re photographed and when daddy gets shown the photo he buys it, so as to cover up the story.

The title would seem to imply the film’s status as a romantic comedy. Indeed Walpurgis Night opens with a Lubitsch-esque scene as we see a line of mothers with identical prams, one of which has newspapers in it. Cut to the newspaper office and a debate about lack of housing, which Sjostrom blames on young couples being selfish, having kids and taking all the houses! Yet the film swiftly deepens. The story is strong, touching on complex areas such as abortion and suicide with the kind of maturity rarely seen in Hollywood. But it is the performances of Ingrid and Sjostrom, their development of a constantly changing father-daughter relationship, that make the film something special. While Ingrid develops her character silently in a seamless transition from small and modest girl into poised, solemn young woman, Sjostrom gives his performance conviction through a development of his voice alongside his physical performance as a direct extension of his character’s enveloping physical rage. 

I should be headed out to a couple more Ingrid movies tonight – tho Hollywood movies this time round. I’d really love it if somewhere would show more of these early Swedish films of hers – they all sound pretty special.

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4 responses to “Early Ingrid Bergman at the Bfi Southbank

  1. Aha, I see you have been at it since I last checked in. Interesting observation on coming to stars late, and fantastic picture of Bergman from that first film.

    While we’re on the subject of early Swedish films, have you seen those of another Ing. Bergman? As a Sjostrom admirer, I wonder what you’d think of To Joy (when Ingmar died a year and a half ago, I launched as complete a Bergman retrospective as I could – quite more comprehensive at the time than I could manage today – and discovered a lot of fascinating films in the process).

  2. I have of course seen a number of Ingmar Bergman films, tho not nearly as many as I feel I should have! I have taped so many off the telly over the years … really I should sit down and work my way through them. The same happens with John Ford – the tapes stockpile but there’s always something else that seems more essential when I sit down to watch a movie. I really admire ‘the Ing’ all the same..

    I remember being particularly affected by Through a Glass, Darkly.. I’ll take your advice and check out To Joy then asap I think!

  3. I just saw Ingrid in 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express. She plays a minor character in a film of mainly minor characters (an inevitable product of the grand ensemble cast), for which she won an Oscar for best supporting actress. A strange victory, perhaps more an act of industry tribute than anything truly earned, at least by that performance. I consider Autumn Sonata a much better example of late Ingrid (I know you’re discussing early Ingrid, but gimme a break, this is my comment), although perhaps my preference is due to the simple fact that anything Ingmar did is vastly superior to the austere bullshit of the Agatha Christie flick.

  4. I saw Ingrid in Anastasia recently, at the Bfi too – for which she also won an Oscar, for Best Leading Actress. A pretty dull film btw, with some nice moments I guess (mostly at the start!)

    Uncanny the way that one Ing makes you think of another.. Must also catch Autumn Sonata then!

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