Friday, January 5, 2018

INTERMEZZO: A LOVE STORY (Selznick International, 1939) Kino Lorber

At 70 minutes, Gregory Ratoff’s Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939) just may be the most expedient exposition of grand amour, presumably to have spanned many years, ever put on celluloid. The picture that introduced Ingrid Bergman to American audiences is nearly a shot-for-shot remake of a Swedish film by the same name, also starring Bergman. Enamored by her on-screen presence in the original, producer David O. Selznick wooed the luminous Swede to Hollywood where some surviving Technicolor screen tests of Bergman absolutely solidify the fact Selznick had a keen eye for mining feminine beauty from the foreign market. Hollywood then, favored such exotic creatures; the trend begun by Pola Negri and Greta Garbo, later to be followed by Hedy Lamarr. European men, billed as Intercontinental lovers, were in fashion too, Charles Boyer and Paul Henreid among them.  
Yet, Ingrid Bergman was an 'import' unlike any other that had come, or been deliberately brought to Hollywood. She could act and speak English. Better still, she required no build up to prove these talents. They had already been proven elsewhere. Perhaps best of all, she came without all the unnecessary baggage of a diva; her exoticism, generally speaking, a clever mask to beguile an audience while simultaneously hiding her insecurity.  Although Selznick may have had other ambitions for Bergman's career - especially the project that should mark her American debut - he was overwhelmed with pre-production on Gone with the Wind (1939).  Ergo, Intermezzo went into production almost on auto-pilot, with Selznick instructing his creative team to mirror the strengths and virtues of the original Swedish movie as much as possible.
Long had Selznick desired to lure British matinee idol, Leslie Howard to partake of his opus magnum as Scarlett O’Hara’s long-suffering and never-to-be suitor, Ashley Wilkes. Howard, alas, did not fancy the part at all and turned Selznick down flat. Nor would he agree to star in Intermezzo unless granted co-producer’s credit. As a box office draw on this side of the Atlantic, Leslie Howard had achieved considerable notoriety in the film adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion (1938). Thus, the usually autocratic Selznick concurred. To gain access to this prince, he had first to kiss the frog. And thus, Howard’s name appears as ‘associate producer’ on Intermezzo. Exactly how much pull Howard actually had in this capacity remains a mystery. Besides, Selznick’s perfectionism ensured monumental amounts of post-shoot tinkering, whittling down the picture’s original 110 min. run time to 98, then finally, 70 minutes during his marathon editing sessions and sneak previewing of these various cuts before declaring Intermezzo ready for a nationwide theatrical release.  But Selznick was determined to do the Swedes one better: a remake superior to their original.  And, to a large extent he succeeded.
Typical of the way Selznick operated, he manically hired, then fired, ace cinematographer, Harry Stradling Sr. after he felt Stradling had failed to recreate the magic of the Swedish film. But only days into his replacement with the as gifted Gregg Toland, Selznick was even more dissatisfied with the results.  Inquiring to Toland why Bergman appeared so luminous and ravishing in the original, but alas, rather wan and manufactured in the rushes he was viewing, Toland quietly explained that in Sweden “they don't make her wear all that makeup.” Immediately, Selznick ordered retakes of Bergman’s scenes. Stripped of Hollywood’s trademarked ‘glamor’, Bergman’s natural wholesome beauty emerged unscathed. In later years, she would explain how the experience of first coming to America had thoroughly frightened her.
“They wanted to change everything about me,” said Bergman, “…starting with my name, then my hair, my eyes – everything. I tolerated it for as long as I could, but then elected to go to Mr. Selznick. I said, ‘you have brought this name, these eyes, this hair, this face to Hollywood. There must have been something you liked.” Indeed, Selznick liked a good deal. The girl had class, beauty, wit and guts. Furthermore, he greatly admired the ingenue’s candor. Selznick could admire all of these virtues, particularly when the talent was there to back them up. And Bergman was a natural, indeed. The camera adored her. Of all the actors to be cultivated by Selznick during this star-making phase of his career, Bergman’s ascended the quickest. It would endure the longest too – although, not without a near meteoric implosion in the late 1940’s after her extramarital affair with director, Roberto Rossellini became public and all but branded her a wanton and social pariah.  
As in the Swedish version, Bergman plays Anita Hoffman in Selznick’s adaptation of Intermezzo. Anita is a gifted piano teacher brought to the attention of violin virtuoso, Holger Brandt (Leslie Howard). George O'Neill's screenplay remains remarkably faithful to the original Swedish film. Holger Brandt’s world tours keep him away from his dutiful wife, Margit (Edna Best) and their children, Eric (Douglas Scott) and Ann Marie (Ann Todd). The realization for Holger - that his art is eclipsing his life - is mirrored in Anita's intense desire to become a great concert pianist. Recognizing a kindred spirit in Anita, Holger reasons that to fall in love with her would mean never having to sacrifice either his career or private life. They would be as one.  However, a bittersweet tryst on the Riviera reforms these daydreams for an illicit future together, though not before fate nearly destroys Holger’s home life and family forever.
One aspect of the role particularly haunted Leslie Howard; his rudimentary understanding of the violin. Indeed, Toland tried every camera angle to will a convincing performance from his star’s pretend plucking, but to no avail. Howard’s fingering was severely off and his maneuvering of the bow looked frenetic and silly. In desperation, Toland turned to a rather ingenious bit of in-camera trickery.  During closeups, Howard kept his hands at his side as a pair of violinists, their arms tucked close to his body, bowed and fingered his Stradivarius for him. The illusion proved so uncanny, in later years it would be copied by Isaac Stern for star, John Garfield in Humoresque (1946). As for Bergman, while hardly an accomplished pianist, she was able to learn the correct fingering by herself; the actual concertos dubbed by virtuosos, Toscha Seidel (for Howard) and Norma Drury-Boleslawski (for Bergman). As Intermezzo neared completion, Selznick worried using the original title (loosely defined as a light dramatic, musical, or other performance inserted between the acts of a play) would confuse the audience. Repeatedly delayed in his search for another, more suitable alternative, Selznick eventually relented to use Intermezzo for his sneak prevue’s, perhaps even then, planning to find something ‘better’ before the picture went into general circulation. Mercifully, he did not.
In a year overwhelmed by the public’s ravenous consumption of Selznick’s monumental, Gone with the Wind, not to mention such heavy-hitting entertainments as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Women, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Love Affair, Dodge City, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Beau Geste, The Rains Came, Only Angels Have Wings, Drums Along the Mohawk, Stagecoach, Dark Victory, and, of course, The Wizard of Oz, Intermezzo’s release proved a valiant performer at the box office in its own right.
Curiously today, the picture lacks the same ‘word-of-mouth’ notoriety as these aforementioned competitors despite its many virtues.  But Intermezzo remains a peerless entertainment.  The stars have aligned - literally - on this outing. Bergman and Howard exude an intensity easily equating to one of the most blistering and bittersweet passions ever put on film. Given Selznick’s overriding commitment on GWTW - the amount of time and money he chose to lavish on what he could only have perceived as a minor programmer – has resulted in a gorgeous, timeless love story.  Gregg Toland’s cinematography yields a dreamy landscape perfectly at odds with this all too human tragedy of the heart. The result: Intermezzo evolves into a visceral and poignant story of imperfect love. Bring Kleenex.
Intermezzo’s Blu-ray release via Kino Lorber won’t win any awards, but its solid and stable, with a light smattering of film grain looking indigenous to its source. I suspect most of the work performed on this deep catalog title harks all the way back to the MGM’s DVD release from 1999. Contrast is a tad weaker than anticipated, and minor dirt and scratches do persist. This transfer would have undoubtedly benefited from a new 2K scan of surviving elements. What’s here is okay, in your basic ‘middle-of-the-road’ level of expectation. I’m just not a ‘middle-of-the-road’ sort of critic. Digital tools have since made film restoration and preservation – if not cheap – then far more cost-effective and manageable than in years gone by. So, spend a little more to do right by these iconic masterpieces from old Hollywood. To do so would have eradicated the intermittently chunky appearance of video noise. The DTS 2.0 mono is competently rendered – again, adequate if unremarkable. Film historian Kat Ellinger provides a thoroughly comprehensive and engrossing audio commentary, rich in cinema history and back stories; truly, an ornament to this presentation. We also get a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Intermezzo looks good, if not great. The movie is worth its weight in gold. So, recommended, with minor caveats. Selznick, Bergman and Howard…what a class act!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS

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