Toronto Film Society presented Intermezzo (1939) on Monday, March 9, 1981 in a double bill with Hamlet as part of the Season 33 Monday Evening Film Buff Series, Programme 7.
Hollywood had never seen anyone quite like Ingrid Bergman when producer David O. Selznick brought the 24-year-old Swedish actress to California in 1939 to star in Intermezzo. In any era when feminine screen glamour was being pushed to the utmost, Miss Bergman, with her naturalness, directness, her lack of both sophistication and makeup, was like a breath of fresh air.
A native of Stockholm, where she had studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Miss Bergman had been appearing in Swedish films since 1934. In 1936 she had appeared in a Swedish version of Intermezzo, subsequently seen by Kay Brown, Selznick’s story editor. Miss Brown recommended the story to Selznick, together with its star.
This turned out to be an incredible stroke of luck for Miss Bergman. Selznick, for all his faults, was a perfectionist who threw his whole being into making quality pictures. Thus, Intermezzo benefitted from the best of everything–particularly photography by the incomparable Gregg Toland, on loan from the Goldwyn Studios.
As a co-star, Miss Bergman had the good fortune to work opposite Leslie Howard, one of the greatest actors of the century. A consummate professional, Howard could convey more with an expression, or a gesture, than lesser actors could with pages of dialogue. His voice–polished to perfection through years of stage training–suited his character perfectly: dignified but never pompous, intelligent, sincere, wistful; he and Ronald Colman made the language sing during the 30s and 40s.
Originally, William Wyler had been set to direct Intermezzo, but, after a series of arguments with the fanatical and mercurial Selznick, he quit, and was replaced by Gregory Ratoff. The Russian-born Ratoff switched to acting in later years, and is best remembered as Broadway producer Max Fabian in 1950’s All About Eve.
Incidentally, the child actress, Ann Todd, who plays Howard’s daughter, is not the blonde English actress who soared to fame in the mid-1940s.
Perhaps the one serious mistake Selznick made with Intermezzowas in not changing the nationality of Howard’s character from Swedish to English, for Howard was the quintessential Englishman. Edna Best, also, was English, and at one time was married to Herbert Marshall.
The story of Intermezzo—of a middle-aged man leaving his wife for a younger woman–is timeless, and in one variation or another is still being filmed today. What makes this 1939 film so appealing, compared to current films, is the romantic setting, the sympathetic characters whom one can really care about, the skill and artistry of all concerned. For her role as a piano teacher, Ingrid Bergman worked doubly hard–to perfect her English, and to master Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Howard, for his part, learned to play the violin.
Intermezzo, as a romantic film, is typical of its time; which, for this type of film, was a very good time indeed.
Notes by John Thompson
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