A Woman’s Face


Since we have to stay at home, and since the type of job I do is not something I can do from home, I have plenty of time to watch films if I so choose.  A film that had been on the back burner of my mind was the Swedish version of A Woman’s Face [En kvinnas ansikte] (1938) directed by Gustaf Molander and one of ten films Ingrid Bergman made before being brought to Hollywood.

It’s a stunning film.  It was photographed by Åke Dahlqvist and you can see the care he takes with each scene, capturing Anna (Ingrid) before, during and after her cosmetic metamorphosis.

If you don’t know the basic story line, the film, based on the play “Il etait une fois” by Francis De Croisset is about a young woman who had one side of her face scarred in a fire when she was a child, causing her to grow up to become a bitter misanthrope.   We meet her as an underworld figure, the boss and only female in a blackmailing ring.  When in between setting up a new blackmail scheme and completing one already set in motion, Anna’s literal accidental meeting with a talented plastic surgeon offers her the opportunity of fulfilling her deepest life’s dream–a perfect face, which is something I don’t think she believes even money can buy.  The balancing beam she finds herself on when the bandages come off with regards to the success or failure of the operations to her face, is the deciding pinnacle of whether her nature will change from dark to light.

Ingrid Bergman is superb in this role.  She’s all of 23 when she made this film and her beauty and youthfulness are captivating.  Not only is she compelling, but so is the whole film.  Even when you question whether the logistics of the story completely work, in the end, you find it all gels together and what you may have questioned in an earlier scene, makes sense at its completion.

It’s stated in a number of books, including the notes in the Criterion copy that I am fortunate to own is that Bergman’s husband, Petter Lindstrom, a dentist, created a brace that would fit inside Ingrid’s cheek to assist, with makeup, in the contortion to the left side of her face where Anna Holm’s childhood burn occurred.

What is odd is what is found written in Ingrid Bergman: My Story (published in 1972)–and which was widely copied in other books and references–and I quote, ” ‘The technicalities of the distorted face was fine’, said (director) Gustav Molander, ‘but I couldn’t get the story right.  The right ending just wouldn’t come.  Anna Holm, embittered by her hideous face, is deeply involved with a blackmailer….  Anna shoots the blackmailer dead….  So I asked Ingrid her opinion.  She thought about it for a couple of minutes, then without hesitation, she gave me the answer.  And it was the right answer.  It was Anna Holm’s answer for she had become Anna Holm. ‘I shall go on trial for murder,’ said Ingrid, ‘and that’s the end of the film.  What happens next, whether I receive clemency or not, we leave to the audiences to guess.’ ”  Why this is so odd is because this is not even remotely how this film ends!  It’s a completely different ending.  But–spoiler alert–this is how the Hollywood version ends.  It is utterly weird to me, that Ingrid possibly dis-remembered and allowed this supposed quote by a director who would know how his film ends to go in her book, when the making of A Woman’s Face was so important to her.  She was promised this serious and difficult role after she had played previously (just like in Hollywood) in Only One Night, a film she thought was a “piece of junk”.

Another thought that struck me while I was watching was that while the film was made in 1938, just a year or so before WWII began, it had a certain “freshness” to it that many Hollywood films made in the very late 30s didn’t.  I could have been watching a film made after the war.  There was something so NOT vintage looking about it.

After seeing this film, how could I resist watching the American 1941 remake?  Although I had seen this film most probably twice before, the only thing I remembered were the close ups of Conrad Veidt and Joan Crawford.  The cinematography here, by Robert H. Planck is different, but certainly still beautiful.

Joan Crawford, certainly photogenic, was 38 and older than Ingrid when she played Anna.  Does it matter, the age of the character?  Here’s what I think: when she’s the gang leader, it seems to make sense that she’s older and “been around”, but when she plays the governess, being younger seems to work better.  Why?  Maybe it’s because even if not with love, Joan just seems too worldly than a younger woman would be.  Plus, of course and as you will see, the story is changed up, Hollywood-style.

The characterization of Torsten Barring is completely different in the two films.  In one, he’s weak and hated, in the other he is strong and loved by our heroine.  And because he is played by Conrad Veidt as the loved one in the 1941 A Woman’s Face, we can accept this version.  Joan is tolerated after seeing Bergman in the role.  But Veidt is given a very different character and a more prominent role than George Rydeberg is given in the 1938 film and because it is Conrad Veidt, the 1941 film is worth the view!

Another question, although certainly not necessarily important, is why did they change the side of the disfigurement when they made the Hollywood version?  Because I saw them one after the other, I was very aware that they distorted Crawford’s right side, when I was already used to seeing Bergman’s left side disfigured. Maybe Joan, like many actors, liked one side of her face better than she liked the other, and figured they might as well distort her less photographic side for this picture.

George Cukor was the director, and a fine director he was, but he was an American and of Hollywood, not an emigre, and you can feel the difference.  What Cukor did, though, to erase any overacting on Joan’s part while recounting Anna’s childhood misery, was to have her recite the multiplication tables over and over until she was drained of emotion.  Only then was she to be filmed telling her tale.

In the 1941 film, there is another woman in the blackmailing ring.  There is no love lost between Christina (Connie Gilchrist) and Anna anymore than Anna has for the men she works with in either of the two films.

A key character in both films is the housekeeper, Emma.  Played by Hilda Borgström in the 1938 film, she’s quite likable and kindly.  She lets us know she’s been in service to Magnus Barring (Tore Svennberg–who is also in the wonderful film The Phantom Carriage) nigh on 40 years.  In the 1941 film, Marjorie Main is cast in the role and she’s the opposite in nature to our earlier Emma, a slightly over-the-top, distasteful pious woman.  And for some reason which I only wondered briefly as to why, she lets us know that she’s been in the employ of the Barring family for 30 odd or so years.

Both wives of the doctor are different characters.  The attractive Karin Kavli as Dr. Allan Wegert’s (Anders Henrikson) wife has depth and while you have some inkling as to why she leaves her marriage, you don’t think of her as frivolous.  The extremely glamorous Osa Massen plays the differently named Dr. Gustaf Segert’s (Melvyn Douglas) wife and she she just comes across as vacuous and silly.  Because Melvyn Douglas plays the strong, not so silent heroic doctor, you only imagine that this marriage is doomed because these two should never have married in the first place.

Göran Bernhard

Both actors who played the child Lars-Erik quit acting once they reached their teenage years.  Richard Nichols, who played in the 1941 Hollywood film and who is still among us, became a minister, retiring after 44 years.  Just to take you on a tangent, what was of interest to me was that sometime last month I decided to watch the 1933 version of Little Women because I didn’t think I had ever seen it before and had a strong enough memory of the 1949 one with June Allyson.  (Except for the loveliness of Elizabeth Taylor, it’s a film I hope to never have to watch again.)  That led me to watching its sequel Little Men (1940) because (a) I didn’t know the story, (b) that Kay Francis plays Jo and (c) because I had read a book on Hattie McDaniel, who I wrote about in my last post, and thought she played the role of Asia in the film.  However, I was wrong when it came to (c) because it turned out she played Asia in the earlier 1934 version which I don’t have (but is available on YouTube).  But back to Richard Nichols: he played Jo and the Professor’s son, Teddy, so considering he only made six feature films, I felt fortunate to see this cute kid in two movies so close together and where I could actually remember him!

Richard Nichols and Albert Bassermann

Interestingly, both actresses became mothers around the time of making these films.  Ingrid was pregnant during the filming and gave birth to her first child, Pia Lindstrom, in September; while shortly before badgering Louis B. Mayer to play this supposed unglamorous role, Joan had adopted her first child, Christina.

Both films feature the climatic horse-drawn sleigh scene near the end of the film with, to my mind, the 1938 scene being just a wee bit more thrilling.  It also brought back to mind imagery from another Swedish film, the 1924 The Saga of Gösta Berling.  As I mentioned, both films of A Woman’s Face have a number of differences and in a sense a different ending, and what plays out during this sleigh scene and onward may beget a similar outcome for the two Annas, but each film goes about it in very different ways.

By the way, there is a French version of the play, Once Upon a Time made in 1933 which would be interesting to see.  Wondering if it exists and is available anywhere.

If there’s only one version of this film you decide to watch, I highly recommend the 1938 Swedish film with Ingrid.  But if you’re like me, you might not be able to restrain yourself from wanting to then compare the two.

4 thoughts on “A Woman’s Face

  1. Fascinating! I never knew about this film. I will have to watch it. I remember one of the horrors that always scared me was “Eyes Without a Face” (1960) and I am still to see “The Face of Another” (1966). Facial disfigurement is a sensitive subject, but always so compelling.

    • Thank you, Diana. I also enjoyed your write up of books by Patricia Highsmith. I have read THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY but I don’t think much else. But I do listen to audiobooks and you inspired me to to choose one of hers next!

      I have seen EYES WITHOUT A FACE but not THE FACE OF ANOTHER which sounds very intriguing! Another film I enjoyed about facial disfigurements is HOLLOW TRIUMPH (aka THE SCAR) (1948) with Paul Henreid and Joan Bennett.

      Hope you are bearing up during this trying time.

  2. Dear Caren,

    This is a great review! I love the way you compare these two movies. They sound fascinating. The idea of a woman being so disfigured in a Phantom-like way is very intriguing. I want to see these movies now!

    By the way, I nominated you for The Sunshine Blogger Award: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2020/04/27/the-sunshine-blogger-award-from-sally-silverscreen/. In this post, I also invited you to participate in my monthly guest series, What the Code Means to Me. I look forward to hearing from you!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

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