Friday, August 28, 2015

Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944)

Arguably the height of legendary actress Ingrid Bergman's career was the mid-Forties. It was in 1942 that she appeared in what may be her most famous film, Casablanca. The success of Casablanca was followed by other successful hit films, including For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946). Among Miss Bergman's successes of the era was Gaslight (1944), in which she played  Paula Alquist Anton, a woman nearly driven to madness by her husband (Gregory Anton, played by Charles Boyer).  For her role as Paula, Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Lead Role.

In retrospect there should be little wonder that Gaslight (1944) was a success. Not only were both stars Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer at the peaks of their careers, but the film was based an already existing and very successful property. The film was based on the play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton, which debuted on London's West End at the Apollo Theatre in December 1938. Gas Light proved extremely successful, so much so that both it and its subsequent movie adaptations would give rise to the term gaslighting, referring to the psychological manipulation of someone into questioning his or her own sanity. Gas Light made its way to the United States where it ran on Broadway, for whatever reason, under the name Angel Street. Angel Street debuted on Broadway on December 5 1941 and ran until December 30 1944.

The popularity of the play Gas Light in the United Kingdom guaranteed that there would be a film adaptation. Indeed, the first one was made before the play even arrived on American shores. Gaslight (1940) was produced by British National Films and directed by Thorold Dickinson. It starred Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard in the lead roles of Paul and Bella Mallen respectively. Gaslight (1940) was well received by audiences and critics alike in the United Kingdom.

Columbia bought the American distribution rights to Gaslight (1940) and planned to release it in the United States. For various reasons, Columbia never did release the original, British adaptation of the play. Regardless, the success of the play on both sides of the Atlantic would lead MGM to buy the American film rights for $150,000.  As early as  August 1944 The New York Times reported the rumour that MGM had ordered every single copy of the 1940 adaptation of Gaslight destroyed. Despite the persistence of the rumour to this day, Gaslight (1940) would eventually be released in the United States under the title Angel Street by Commercial Pictures in April 1953.

While Ingrid Bergman would go onto win the Oscar for Best Actress for her role as tormented wife  Paula Alquist Anton, she very nearly did not get the part. In October 1942 it was Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas who were announced as the stars of MGM's adaptation of Gaslight. MGM later offered the role of harassed wife Paula to Hedy Lamarr, who turned the role down (curiously, she had earlier turned down Casablanca, perhaps Ingrid Bergman's most famous role). Miss Bergman had seen the play when it had been on Broadway and even tried persuading David O. Selznick (to whom she was under contract) to buy the film rights. Unfortunately, Mr. Selznick refused. Quite naturally when she learned MGM was producing its own version of the play, Miss Bergman asked him to loan her to MGM so she could play the female lead. Unfortunately Mr. Selznick would do so only if she was given top billing over Charles Boyer. Mr. Boyer refused to take second billing to Ingrid Bergman. At last Ingrid Bergman broke down in tears and begged David O. Selznick to loan her to MGM for the film. Fortunately, Mr. Selznick acquiesced.

There was one minor complication in Ingrid Bergman playing opposite Charles Boyer, one that seems somewhat laughable today. Ingrid Bergman was tall for a woman of the era, standing 5 foot 9 inches. Charles Boyer was about average height for a man of the era, also standing 5 foot 9 inches.  Unfortunately at the time Hollywood liked for its male leads to be taller than its female leads. As a result Charles Boyer played many of his scenes opposite Ingrid Bergman standing on a box or wearing shoes with two inch heels!

Here it should be noted that in addition to Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, the cast also boasted Dame Angela Lansbury in her film debut. Miss Lansbury was only seventeen when shooting on the film began, so that a scene in which she smokes a cigarette had to be delayed until after her eighteenth birthday. It was an auspicious start  to Miss Lansbury's career. Not only did she have a significant role in a hit film, but she was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

Gaslight would turn out to be a hit with both critics and audiences. Gaslight earned  $2,263,000 in the United States and Canada, and it was the thirteenth highest grossing film in the United States for 1944. The film also did well as the Academy Awards. In addition to Ingrid Bergman's win for Best Actress in a Leading Role for the film, Gaslight also won the Oscar for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White. It was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Picture; Best Actor in a Leading Role (for Charles Boyer); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (for Angela Lansbury); Best Writing, Screenplay; and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.

Over the years there has been some debate as to whether Ingrid Bergman deserved to win the Oscar for Best Actress for Gaslight. After all, 1945 was the year that Barbara Stanwyck was nominated in the category for Double Indemnity (1944), while Bette Davis and Greer Garson received nominations for Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Mrs. Parkington (1944) respectively. While one could debate whether Ingrid Bergman or someone else deserved to win, it is hard for me to understand how anyone could say that Ingrid Bergman did not give a good performance as Paula in Gaslight. Bergman does a good job of taking Paula from a naive young girl in love to a young woman who is convinced that she is going out of her mind. What is more, she plays off Charles Boyer and he plays off her quite well. Including Angela Lansbury in her first film role, it would seem obvious that Gaslight is very much a film to watch for its cast's performances.

Today Gaslight remains one of Ingrid Bergman's better known films. It marked the occasion of her second Oscar nomination (the first was for For Whom the Bell Tolls) and the first Oscar she ever won. It remains one of those films every Ingrid Bergman fan must see.


Virginie Pronovost said...

Excellent article Terence! :) Ingrid was so great in Gaslight! Thanks for taking part of the blogathon!

Virginie Pronovost said...

Of course I also invite you to read my article for the blogathon, a tribute to Ingrid Bergman in honour of her 100th :)

Silver Screenings said...

Thanks for providing all this great background info, e.g. Angela Lansbury waiting until she turned 18 before she could be filmed smoking.(!)

I cannot imagine this film with Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas. They would have been good in those roles, but I wonder if the film would be as memorable?

Phyl said...

Dunne and Douglas!?! I guess I can see Dunne but she wouldn't have been as perfect for the role as Ingrid. And I can't see Douglas as the "villain" at all! That's hilarious about Angela Lansbury!!