Monday, December 28, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #4

As Greta Garbo's career came to an end in the early 1940s, a new Swedish actress began making her mark on Hollywood.

Ingrid Bergman was a radiant, commanding screen presence. She was a dramatic actress of great depth who also had the most infectious smile. She quickly became a popular star, and her string of hits during the 1940s contains one classic after another.

Coming off the successful American remake of 1939's "Intermezzo," her first film in Hollywood, Bergman didn't take long to begin appearing in strong fare opposite top stars. For example, 1941's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" with Spencer Tracy showcases both actors' skills, with Bergman as Ivy Peterson, the barmaid whom Mr. Hyde desires and keeps locked away.

From there, Bergman only got better. Her next film was "Casablanca." Claude Rains' Captain Renault pays Bergman's Ilsa Lund a huge compliment about being the most beautiful woman in Casablanca. It is an understatement, yet Bergman is the perfect match for Humphrey Bogart's Rick (below). It takes a special woman to send him into a tailspin and get to him in a way that no one else can.

I don't need to go into the background of this production or its plot. What I will say is that Bergman is faultless as Ilsa.

Next up was "For Whom the Bell Tolls" opposite Gary Cooper in this strong adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's book. She plays Maria, a peasant fighting with the rebels during the Spanish Civil War. Her love scenes opposite Cooper are magnificent, and this role earned Bergman the first of three successive Oscar nominations.

It was clear this actress deserved great roles, and for several years she could do no wrong. MGM's glossy "Gaslight" in 1944 allowed Bergman to play Paula, a woman slowly going mad. There are times when I wish this film had more intensity and grit to match Bergman's performance; for once, the MGM lushness worked against the story. Co-starring with Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten, Bergman's work is still top-notch and won her an Oscar.

If this wasn't enough to solidify her reputation, Bergman was paired with Bing Crosby in 1945's "The Bells of St. Mary's," the immensely popular sequel to "Going My Way" and one of the decade's biggest moneymakers. Even if the film is a lesser carbon copy of the original, it's still enjoyable, with Bergman just glowing as Sister Mary Benedict. Bergman's dramatic moments toward the end are riveting, and it nearly won her a second consecutive Oscar.

The same year brought "Spellbound," her first film for director Alfred Hitchcock. He would guide Bergman to an even better performance in 1946's "Notorious" opposite Cary Grant (below). She plays Alicia Huberman, a woman hired by the government to spy on her father's Nazi friends in South America. The film includes a steamy encounter between the two stars that was especially crafted by Hitchcock to get around the censors. He had Grant and Bergman intersperse dialogue between their kisses to produce a scene that's remains one of the most fully-clothed yet erotic scenes from this time period.

So think about it: In six years, she worked with Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Bing Crosby, Gregory Peck and Cary Grant. Not many actresses can claim this distinction on their resumes.

In 1948, Bergman earned another Oscar nod for playing the title role in "Joan of Arc," not as popular as some of her early triumphs. But the next year she brought on the venom of both the government and religious groups. Studio publicity had painted Bergman as a wholesome, devoted wife and mother off screen. However, when she left her husband in 1949 for Italian director Roberto Rossellini, Bergman was cast out of Hollywood for this immoral scandal. She would make a triumphant return in the mid-1950s, but the affair broke the fairy-tale run of her 1940s work.

Thankfully, it's this work that remains as a testament to Bergman, a woman of great talent and beauty.


  1. Another good entry, Brian.

    I'm all for casting against type, but I do wish M-G-M had stuck to their guns with the original "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" casting of Ingrid Bergman as the fiancee and Lana Turner as the barmaid. Bergman is not shown to her best in this film, and I feel that if the roles were switched the film would have been much more memorable.

    The final scene between Bergman and Crosby in "Bells of St. Mary's" is one of her all time best. Beautifully understated and all the better for it.

  2. Thank you, and glad you pointed out the final scene in "Bells of St. Mary's." I also like that scene ... her prayer in the church is also strong.