Ingrid Bergman is legendary for her Hollywood films and respected for her thoughtful comeback pictures. One aspect of her career that is rarely discussed is the collection of films she made in her native Sweden before becoming an international sensation. Of the six films she made in 1935-1936, only the original version of Intermezzo has been released on DVD in the U.S. Her other films from this period have been passed down to modern audiences in fuzzy VHS.
Walpurgis Night was one of her early appearances and it is a real curio. The plot involves a boss-secretary romance, an illicit abortion clinic, blackmail, the French Foreign Legion and we’re just getting warmed up.
Bergman’s leading man is Lars Hanson, who had romanced both Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo on the screen during the silent era. Her father is played by director/actor Victor Sjöström (I will refer to him by his Americanized moniker of Seastrom) who had directed Hanson, Gish and Garbo, as well as Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert and Alice Terry.
As we can see, Walpurgis Night has quite a number of connections to silent Hollywood and I am going to be discussing the career of Lars Hanson after my review of the film. So fasten your seatbelts, it’s gonna be a bumpy Walpurgis Night.
(This post is my contribution to the Ingrid Bergman Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Be sure to read the other posts!)
If I had to condense the plot of Walpurgis Night down to a single sentence, it would be this:
“Breed, woman, breed!”
Low birthrates are worrisome and so what is a nation to do? Well, enforced pregnancy tests and birth quotas are the draconian answer, though these measures backfired spectacularly in Romania. The other option is to sweet-talk couples into reproducing, making it seem glamorous, important and even patriotic.
Walpurgis Night is what happens when there is an unholy union between a melodrama and one of those movies they show you in the “special assembly” around fourth grade or so. (Okay, who else had to watch the one where they drew ovaries with pancake batter? And acted like purchasing certain feminine products made you sooooo rad!)
All the characters are drawn as the most basic of stereotypes. It’s the story of Johan Borg (Lars Hanson), a real prince of a guy who wants to hear the pitter-patter of little feet. He constantly nags at his wife, Clary (Karin Kavli), to start a family. Clary not only objects to having children, she plans to have an abortion behind her husband’s back when she does become pregnant. And, the film hints, not for the first time.
In contrast, we meet Lena (Ingrid Bergman), Johan’s secretary. She has an awful crush on her boss but is too nice to think of an affair so she gives notice instead. Her father, Frederik Bergström (Victor Seastrom), is the editor of a major newspaper and the proud parent of seven children. Lena is the only girl and the only one still at home.
Clary arranges for her abortion at an illegal clinic and tells Johan that she is leaving him. This clears the way for Lena and her boss to find true love on Walpurgis Night but there is a snag. Just after the doctor performs the abortion on Clary, he is raided by the police. Clary is spirited away but her medical records are stolen by a blackmailer.
Will Clary get her records back? Will Johan get his freedom? Will the Swedes make more babies? You’ll have to watch Walpurgis Night to find out!
The main problem with Walpurgis Night is that it does not play the game honestly. It never examines why the women of Sweden might prefer singleness or marriage without children. Clary doesn’t want to have kids because she’s selfish and nasty, nothing more and nothing less. The film would have been stronger if it had treated her like an actual human being and honestly asked why a woman in her position might hesitate to become a mother.
On the other hand, everyone who has children or who wants them is portrayed as sweet and nice and wonderful and unicorns scatter rainbow dust at their feet. Children are wonderful! Adorable! You’ll never know what you did without them! Again, I rather like children but there are trying times and parenting is not a breezy job full of gumdrops and punch. We have a lack of honesty that undermines the film’s central goal. It would be like me trying to convince people to recycle more by portraying people who recycle as sparkling fairy princesses and non-recyclers as meth-cooking fiends. The argument is framed in such a ridiculous manner that the original purpose is lost.
The film would have you believe that the average Swede of 1935 would drop everything to discuss the national birthrate. Frankly, it makes the whole country look like that crazy uncle you avoid at family reunions.
Another problem with the movie is genre hopping. It’s like the filmmakers decided they were already pushing one government agenda and so they may as well toss is another as well. In the middle of the film, everything comes to a halt so that we can stop and admire the traditional festivities. And then near the end, the film randomly decides to bring in… the French Foreign Legion? I won’t reveal all but we do get an extended scene of characters discussing how hard it is to leave the legion and how they could be shot if they try it. And then in the very next scene, one of the characters is safe and sound back in Sweden. Um, okay then. Not so difficult, was it?
Worse, the story relies on the cheapest melodrama and outrageous coincidences to keep the story moving. Hoary cliches are dusted off and given one more day in the sun. Does the hero accidentally drop something incriminating at the scene of the crime? Better make sure it’s monogrammed, how else will the story progress? Finally, the men of the story are all bossy, paternalistic creeps who constantly harp on the women to breed, breed, breed. Um, last I heard, that was at least a two-person job.
What does this movie have in its favor? A far better cast than it deserves. It’s as if an after-school special was made with a cast consisting entirely of Academy Award winners.
The main characters are played by two old veterans (Hanson and Seastrom) and a fresh-faced up-and-comer (Bergman).
Most modern viewers will be seeing this for Bergman and she does not disappoint. A fresh-faced kid of twenty summers, Bergman is natural and appealing. It helps that she has the one role in the film that somewhat resembles an actual human being but Bergman’s charm really puts it over.
Lena is in love with her boss but her own moral code will not allow her to pursue a married man. Considering the ridiculously overblown moral conflicts that the rest of the film features, this is a pretty realistic situation.
Bergman never allows the melodrama of the plot to infect her performance. While both Seastrom and Hanson indulge in a bit of stage-style hamminess, Bergman is a movie star for the new generation. She’s sensible, understated, natural and completely captivating. It is clear even this early in her career that she was capable of making the jump to international stardom.
Walpurgis Night is not a good movie. It’s only seventy-five minutes long but soon begins to drag thanks to its thin plot and constant harping on reproduction. However, it’s delightful to see a young Ingrid Bergman make her mark and it’s also a pleasure to see veterans like Seastrom and Hanson. While its appeal may be limited, it is definitely worth seeing.
When Lars Hanson made his movie debut in 1916, he was jumping into a vibrant creative powerhouse. The Swedish film industry soon kicked into high gear with films like Sir Arne’s Treasure, Erotikon and The Phantom Carriage. Hanson was a popular leading man who split his time between stage and screen but his career in Hollywood was the result of a movie executive with a tooth infection and a very particular leading lady.
Lillian Gish was a brilliant performer but her real-life ego spilled onto the screen and became a fatal flaw in her artistry. Gish was not good in ensembles as, like John Barrymore, she tended to blast less confident performers off the screen. (Contrast this with, say, the work of Lon Chaney or Conrad Veidt, who both showed great generosity to their co-stars.) To be a Gish leading man, a certain amount of strength was required. Richard Barthelmess had been one such actor but he was busy with his own productions released by First National and Gish had signed with MGM.
Gish had particularly wanted to adapt The Scarlet Letter and was given cautious approval—provided she could work around the trickier bits and sneak a movie about adultery under the noses of the pearl-clutching church groups. (Such groups, needless to say, held far more influence over American motion pictures then.)
The leading man issue was particularly tricky. To play Reverend Dimmesdale, Gish’s partner in adultery, they needed to find an actor who was appealing enough to entice a puritan wife but who was also sensitive enough to keep the role within the bounds of good taste. He also had to be a powerful enough presence to withstand Hurricane Lillian.
Louis B. Mayer had come down with a nasty series of tooth infections while overseeing the Italian shoot for Ben-Hur and was taking a working vacation in Germany for his health. That’s where he saw a Swedish film called The Saga of Gösta Berling and immediately secured the services of its leading lady, Greta Garbo. Mayer remembered the leading man and suggested that Gish watch the film and consider Lars Hanson as her Dimmesdale. Gish did and agreed that he was ideal. Irving Thalberg added another dose of Swedish by assigning Victor Seastrom to direct.
Hanson is electric in his part. The grand finale, with Dimmesdale opening his shirt to reveal his own scarlet A, stands out as one of the most powerful scenes in silent cinema. He didn’t speak much English but that didn’t matter. In the silent era, good acting had no language barrier.
The Scarlet Letter was a hit, it avoided most of the slings and arrows from the pearl-clutchers and, most importantly, it was great cinematic art.
Juicy (but slightly off-topic) controversy: According to Aileen Pringle, Photoplay Magazine took to sniping at Lillian Gish around this time, snarking that she was snobby, dowdy and generally no fun at all. Pringle contended that Mayer was using the magazine as a mouthpiece to keep Gish in line. Mayer’s biographer, Scott Eyman, quotes Pringle but does not comment one way or another on the veracity of her statements. Gish’s biographer, Charles Affron, dismisses the Mayer theory as unlikely considering the money Gish’s vehicles were making at the time and contends that the Photoplay hitpieces could have started because of Gish’s refusal to have her likeness carved onto a set of commemorative movie star spoons (!) that Photoplay was hawking. I personally prefer the Affron theory as it is by far the more entertaining. “You refuse to be immortalized in silver plating and sold as a set for $3.79? You’ll pay for this, Gish!”
Hanson was now in demand as a Hollywood leading man. He reunited with Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil, though we all know that the real interest in the film comes from Garbo and John Gilbert and their “were they, weren’t they” romance. Next came a more religious (and more nautical) film called Captain Salvation. Both of these pictures survive and are available to the general public. The rest of Hanson’s Hollywood career is not so well-represented.
Hanson next worked with child star Jackie Coogan in Buttons (1927), which is missing and presumed lost, and acted opposite Garbo one last time in The Divine Woman. The latter film is one of the most sought-after lost films in the world. A nine-minute fragment is all that remains.
Finally, we have The Wind. Gish, Seastrom and Hanson worked together to create one of the most artistically satisfying films of the silent era. It’s a tale of madness, murder and the terrible wind. Gish deserves all the praise she receives for her performance but Hanson proves to be her equal. Alas, it has only been released on VHS.
Sound was closing in and foreign stars had to make a choice. Would they return to their native countries or would they try to learn English? There was a third option and many stars took it. They would try to outrun sound by continuing to make movies in lands where silence still reined.
Lars Hanson’s most famous film from this period is Homecoming (1928), directed by Joe May. Next, he teamed with Lya De Putti in 1929 to make The Informer. (Later remade by John Ford with Victor McLaglen in the Hanson role.) It was a part-talkie but it wasn’t Hanson’s sound debut. We never hear his voice. Oh, his character talks but Hanson was dubbed by an English speaker. As is usual with such compromises, the results are mixed. The voice double speaks so slowly that Hanson appears to be in a trance. It’s truly bizarre.
For six years, there was no Lars Hanson on screen, though he was seen on stage. Walpurgis Night was his talkie debut. So, how would this handsome leading man of the silents fare in his first talkie role?
Seeing a silent film actor speak for the first time gives a glimpse into what must have been a strange time for movie fans. Would your favorites sound the way you imagined? You see, silent movie audiences had been imagining voices and dialogue for years and it’s hard to imagine the real thing living up to their dreams.
Lars Hanson’s stage-trained voice is pretty great. It’s youthful, making him seem far younger than his forty-nine years, and it’s soft without being weak. I would call this a successful transition!
Hanson would continue to act in Swedish films until 1948.