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Intermezzo: A Love Story

Intermezzo: A Love Story
1939 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 70 min. / Escape to Happiness / Street Date October 19, 2004 / 14.95
Starring Leslie Howard, Ingrid Bergman, Edna Best, John Halliday, Ann Todd, Cecil Kellaway
Cinematography Gregg Toland, Harry Stradling Sr.
Art Direction Lyle Wheeler
Film Editor Francis D. Lyon
Written by George O'Neil from an earlier version written by Gösta Stevens, Gustaf Molander
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by Gregory Ratoff

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

David O. Selznick couldn't make a botch of things all the time or he wouldn't have gotten anywhere. This romantic soaper, apparently made as Gone With the Wind was getting into gear, bears traces of his handiwork in every department. It was a ready-made property, having already been shot almost identically in Swedish three years before. Talent broker Selznick imported both it and put its luminous young star Ingrid Bergman under contract at the same time. Leslie Howard had to be enticed with an associate producer credit and was reportedly roped to play Ashley Wilkes as well. The entire enterprise would be a tired rehash of a story done fifty times before, if it wasn't for the personalities of the stars and (to be fair) Selznick's high-toned sense of taste. Intermezzo was a gigantic hit and launched Bergman as a top American star.


Concert violinist Holger Brandt returns to Sweden after an American tour to rest with his family and find another accompanist for a planned European trip. His home life with wife Margit (Edna Best) is idyllic but when she reminds him of their domestic responsibilities he becomes disenchanted, and gravitates toward daughter Ann Marie (Ann E. Todd)'s piano tutor, Anita Hoffman. They play together at a party and are an obvious match made in musical heaven, as fearfully observed by Margit. An affair starts, but when they go to break it off the pair instead run away to concerts on the continent and a villa in Italy. But their conscience returns in the form of mentor Thomas Stenborg (John Halliday).

Intermezzo begins with credits that scroll past like a concert program, an affectation that Selznick used to distinguish his product. But the melodrama that follows is strictly silent-movie stuff, beautifully shot and almost perfectly acted. All the characters behave in a high-born manner that requires them to be noble and refined, no matter what the circumstances. The lovers suffer guiltily but never lose their pride, and the wronged wife holds up like a martyr, saving her tears for private moments. None of it may be real but it serves the film well in that these people are so glamorous, virtuous and clean that the average popcorn chomping filmgoer is bound to feel too intimidated to question why the adulterous triangle is so underdeveloped. The lovers simply go into denial about their responsibilities and when forced to face reality say things like, "His place is with his wife. I was just an intermezzo in his life."

That's the key to the movie. Holger Brandt is a sensitive artist and therefore can be forgiven his transgressions. Everyone bends their lives to accomodate his needs and his heart-tugs. If the alpha male needs to stray, wifey has to understand. This script is so straight, there's not even as much as a scene where Margit blames herself, or anybody even sees fit to open criticize anyone else. It's prime soap, 99 & 44/100% pure, and as such is an enjoyable fantasy.

Intermezzo definitely uses classical music to intimidate the audience as well. Few families in the depression years gathered 'round to hear various family members play concert-quality music, but even a Brandt birthday party is a scene for rapturous impromptu concerts. Music is sexy if you're an intellectual, see, and Holder and Anita bond through a duet right in front of his wife. Selznick must have fancied himself a superior alpha male as well (despite his neurotic, paranoid penchant for voluminous memoes) and turned his life into the same story, carrying on with his actress-paramour right under his wife's nose. Like Anita being willing to throw her own career away to be with Holger, Selznick then proceeded to flummox most every movie his second love tried to make.

Ingrid Bergman is a wonder to watch. Unlike Garbo, she could handle dialogue immediately and her sweet good looks and gentle Scandinavian smile melted hearts everywhere. Dressed and made up as a simple scrubbed Swedish piano teacher, the part in her hair makes her look like a teenager as compared to her later, more sophisticated roles. The movie's all hers. Leslie Howard is a cultured bore, as usual. He would seem to be a superior alternative to the ubiquitous action-man heroes ususally seen in movies, but in most roles he comes off as incapable of being decisive. If not happy for the wrong reasons, he mopes a lot in a way that doesn't arouse much sympathy.

Edna Best was only a few years beyond major stardom in English films and comes off much more solidly - her underwritten wifey role has to be conveyed through looks and mannerisms, because the only scene she's really given is a breakfast conversation where her character has to throw a wet towel on Holger's selfish plans to drop all responsibilities and act like they're single lovers again. They're not, but Holger of course doesn't want to grow up. Best is most famous as the proto- action woman in Alfred Hitchcock's first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the nervy heroine who uses her Olympic sharpshooting skill to nail the kidnapper of her child.

Ann E. Todd plays Holger's daughter, that serves as one of Selznick's shameless bids for tear-jerking when she's run over by a car to provide some trumped-up emotional fireworks for the ending. It's pretty funny when the girl, not a mark on her, is treated for hit-and-run as if she had a head cold. Selznick trotted out this same insulting schtick to goose the ending of his otherwise charming romantic comedy-drama Made for Each Other. Intermezzo helped me straighten out the Ann Todd mystery, as there's another more famous Ann Todd in many classic English films like Things to Come, but that one is twenty years older. This Ann Todd also plays Ann Sheridan as a young girl in King's Row.

Typical of the hidden heartlessness in soaps like Intermezzo is the little girl Marianne, played by an actress named Marie Flynn. Holger teaches her the violin in Italy and for a while it seems as if a strong emotional bond has been formed, that maybe a new Holger-Anita-Marianne trio will gel. Just when it seems like Marianne has some weight in the proceedings, Holger ditches her and sprints back to Stockholm. The real basis is economic of course, but why are Latins (-American and -European) always considered expendable non-entities in stories about North Americans and Northern Europeans. They continually go south to recharge their spiritual batteries (read: find sex) but would never think of bringing any of "those people" home.

MGM's DVD of Intermezzo is a beaut, as the element used for transfer is bright, flaw-free and has excellent sound. The B&W camerawork is attractive and the various violin concertos play well. As part of the MGM ABC distribution deal there are no extras, but reading about the film in books as easy as it is covered in detail in books about Selznick and Bergman.

The package back has an image of loving hands on a keyboard, that, if I know the clever cut-ups in the MGM art department, probably belong to current MGM employees! At least, that's my guess.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Intermezzo rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 10, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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