Ingrid Bergman is a genuine Hollywood icon thanks to her co-starring role in Casablanca and her collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock [review 1, 2. While many are aware of her later films, including the challenging Italian pictures directed by her husband Robert Rossellini, as well as her eventual pairing with the other famous Swedish Bergman, Ingmar, not as much attention is paid to her pre-Hollywood career. For a short period, Ingrid Bergman made her name as an actress in Sweden, and six of her m films from her home country are now collected in the Ingrid Bergman's Swedish Years boxed set from Eclipse--giving many of us our first chance to see a screen legend developing her craft in the earliest stages of her endeavors.
Though she had appeared in six features prior (including one uncredited role), one could argue that the 1936 version of Intermezzo was really what got things started. Directed by Gustaf Molander, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gösta Stevens, Intermezzo was the movie that brought Ingrid to the attention of famed producer David O. Selznick. He would soon bring her to Hollywood and cast her in the remake of Intermezzo, her breakthrough English-language role, in 1939.
In the movie, Bergman plays Anita Hoffman, a promising young pianist who ignores better advice and pairs up with concert violinist Holger Brandt (Gösta Ekman), joining the married man as both his musical accompanist and his lover. Brandt sacrifices his home life, leaving behind his wife and two children, to go on tour with Anita, who also gives up the tutelage of Brandt's former partner (Hugo Björne). The two are essentially happy, but they practically live in exile, with Anita in the subservient role of being Brandt's back-up rather than blossoming into her own as an artist. When an opportunity to study in Paris comes along, the two must ask themselves what is really important: the love for each other, or the love of music. Brandt must also face what he's already left behind. As he puts it, they are stuck with the irony that his past and her future can never be joined.
For a movie about two passionate artists locked in a scandalous affair, Intermezzo is surprisingly lacking in both passion and scandal. Its polite restraint is almost Victorian, like something akin to an Edith Wharton novel. Though solidly written, it never really gets much gas, and the inevitability of the melodrama more drifts toward its foregone conclusions than it relays any sense that there is a great force driving their fates. Thankfully, it's a film that is very well performed, with both Gösta Ekman and Ingrid Bergman making great use of their roles. They strike a fine balance, with Ekman's needy ego fitting in perfectly with Bergman's desire to please. The actress displays a sweet innocence at the start of the movie that is vastly different than some of her better-known, well-traveled roles. Intermezzo is also a pretty film to look at, with lots of intricate sets and a gorgeous wardrobe, presumably reflecting the style of 1930s Sweden.
Bergman teamed with Gustaf Molander a second time for the 1938 film A Woman's Face. Written again by Gösta Stevens, but this time adapted from a play by Francis De Croisset, A Woman's Face is a melodrama with a touch of noir. Bergman plays the villain of the piece--or at least, half a villain. At the start of the picture, she is the femme fatale of a blackmail ring, though her role tends to be more on the planning side than seduction. A childhood accident has left half of her face burned, and also left her bitter against the world.
Bergman plays Anna with a surprising anger, and also a pronounced vulnerability. She regularly reaches her hand up to her face, protectively shielding her scars. She projects her rage outwardly, pushing her crew to be tougher on their victims, and ends up taking one of the cases over herself. She is caught by the mark's husband (Anders Henrikson), who by no small coincidence is a doctor who fixed similar scarring for soldiers after World War I. He offers to operate on Anna's face, hoping it will warm her heart and inspire her to turn her life around. At first, she ignores the opportunity the healed visage offers, joining a previous scheme to cheat a young boy (Göran Bernhard) out of his inheritance, but posing as his governess helps her embrace love--particularly when she finds it with one of his uncles (Gunnar Sjöberg).
Anna's transformation from hard-bitten criminal to tenderhearted softie is a predictable one, but it's made believable by Ingrid Bergman's performance. She instinctively understands the various stages of Anna's metamorphosis and her work actually stands apart from the script, which I think expected the switch to be more automatic. Despite the fairly standard plotting, A Woman's Face avoids the treacle, never quite giving in to more conventional urges, instead settling on an ending that is more bittersweet than one might expect. I haven't seen the remake with Joan Crawford that came a couple of years after Molander's version, but knowing the Hollywood formula, it wouldn't surprise me if it took an entirely different exit than the Swedish production.
You can also read my review of Ingrid Bergman's final film, June Night, here.