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Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Most Anticipated Show Of Its Year

For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943) Teams Cooper and Bergman

A wartime's big one that few remember anymore. What made interest slack? Part of trouble may be support players, all with accent, turned loose as "colorful" characters out of Hemingway; did he mean for them to come across like vaudevillians? The author was said to have been overall displeased. I'd have been too in the face of overlength alone: this runs close to three hours. Paramount cut Bells after opener engagements, then further for a 1958 reissue. Some of footage got lost and had to be culled from survivor prints for a 90's restoration. An overture was also rescued. Extensive location work took crew and cast into snowy region, all of which stuns in Technicolor and gave roadshow patronage their money's worth. Romance is favored over politics: we never understand what these resistors are resisting, or why (that was part of Hemingway's beef). The Robert Jordan lead was novel-writ for Gary Cooper, so he's ideally placed, if necessarily low-key in the face of bombast in support (is there a more annoying movie presence than Akim Tamiroff?). Once we get in the mountains, we're stuck there, whatever majesty of same. Love scenes were daring for the day, especially a sleep bag seemingly shared by Coop and Ingrid Bergman. She wanted the Maria role desperately, little realizing the show done just before (Casablanca) would be her legacy. Tolls was the most anticipated US film since Gone With The Wind, first-run tickets for it selling higher even, but that was then and oh, how we've forgot since. Still, there are many good things here, especially in HD as on Netflix currently.


Blogger Michael said...

I think it's one of those wartime things that only worked when everyone was facing this dilemma-- that a loved one might be lost forever to us in the name of the higher cause. That was no abstract concept in 1943.

I think it's quite good, and Cooper really sells it, but definitely a film of its time.

10:18 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer tells of the actress who, and lost, a lead role in "For Whom The Bell Tolls" (Part One):

There's a bittersweet story to Ingrid Bergman's getting the role of Maria, and it concerns the actress she replaced.

When Hemingway sold "For Whom the Bell Tolls" to Paramount, he named Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman as his choices for the lead roles in the film. Cooper came with a high price, however, so after testing some actresses for Maria, including Olivia de Havilland and her sister, Joan Fontaine, the studio went with Vera Zorina, whom it already had under contract. Zorina was a stunningly beautiful ballet dancer and the protégé of noted choreographer George Balanchine, who would become her first husband. She had been a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and a hit on the Broadway and London stage before coming to Hollywood, for "The Goldwyn Follies." As superb as she was in the dance, it really didn't matter how she said a line. "I Was an Adventurous," a rather silly but fun film, with Zorina as a pretend-countess fronting for Erich von Stroheim and Peter Lorre, shows her to be a pleasant and interesting personality, but leaves her acting skills as something of a mystery. In truth, she disliked making films. The wonderful spontaneity and rapport she enjoyed on the stage with her fellow dancers and the audience seemed absent before the camera. There was no flow in a performance made up of discrete little bits. And she had no illusions about how good an actress she was. When the Hemingway picture was offered to her, she was terrified. After her screen test, however, the director, Sam Wood, told her that she was "magnificent," and she took that assurance into the production.

It was a production that took some time getting underway, with serious delays caused by the difficulty in coming up with a suitable shooting script. When location filing finally started in Sonora, California, however, Zorina was not with the cast. Even when she joined it, two weeks later, she still was given nothing to do for another week. Then she worked half a day on a scene where Maria and Robert Jordon pass on a mountain path. She had no work the following day and then she was ordered back to the studio, ostensibly for some cosmetic dental work. Instead, she was taken before the producer, Buddy de Sylva, who told her that Gary Cooper and Sam Wood had threatened to pull out of the production unless she was replaced by Ingrid Bergman. It was a stunning development, he said, but there was really nothing he could do about it.

1:10 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Dan Mercer:

A story went out that Zorina had been replaced by Bergman because she didn't photograph well in Technicolor. No one in the industry believed that for a moment. If she was dismissed so early in the shooting, she must have been giving a really bad performance. She would not work again for year, when she performed a dance sequence for "Follow the Boys," and then another year passed before she was given a supporting role in a minor comedy, "Lover Come Back." Both films were Universal. That was the end of her career in Hollywood.

What had happened? Bergman had really wanted the Maria part, but David O. Selznick was the one fighting for her. It was a time when he had wound up his studio operations and was making money by selling the services of performers like Bergman, who were under contract to him. Even before she told him how much she wanted the role, he had enlisted his brother, Myron Selznick, to pitch her as the perfect Maria and the one Hemingway wanted. He continued to work behind the scenes after Zorina was announced and Bergman had begun work on "Casablanca." The delays in the "For Whom the Bell Tolls" production worked to his advantage, but an even greater help was the memory of Bergman's wonderful American debut in "Intermezzo" and the reports coming out of the "Casablanca" sound stage. However good Zorina might be in the part, here was a new actress with an almost incandescent star quality. So much money was being tied up in this increasingly expensive production that having a Bergman in it, at the right price, must have seemed a necessary safeguard. When filming finally started, Sam Wood simply shot around Zorina, stalling until Bergman finished "Casablanca" and would be available.

In her autobiography, Zorina writes of simply lying about her house for days after her dismissal, as though she were ill. She couldn't believe that people could be so devious and cruel. Years later, she found herself at a banquet, seated next to David O. Selznick. She avoided talking to him throughout the evening, until he finally demanded, "You know that I was the one responsible, don't you?" She simply replied, "I know."

In his biography of Ingrid Bergman, however, Donald Spoto wrote that Zorina should have lit candles of gratitude for having been spared "For Whom the Bell the Tolls." As much as Bergman wanted to work on the picture, and despite the infatuation she developed for Gary Cooper, the months she spent on it were among the most frustrating of her career. The screenplay was wordy and pretentious, and neither it nor Sam Wood's direction allowed any real passion to enter the story. It became a series of pretty, well-composed scenes, in which the character actors performed their aptly described vaudeville, in a variety of contrasting accents, while Bergman and Cooper waited for the evening and something that was closer to life and living than what would be captured on film. It was a succes d'estime, however, and did nothing to interrupt the spectacular trajectory of her career.

As for Vera Zorina, after the end of her career in film and her marriage to George Balanchine, she went back to the stage and enjoyed much success there, including the premier of Arthur Honegger's "Joan of Arc at the Stake." Much later she was the director of the Norwegian National Opera. Whether she might have become a minor star, like Cyd Charisse, another alumna of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, did at M-G-M, is difficult to say. Such qualities as she had shown on film were not such as to cause any great demand for her, the unfortunate experience of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" notwithstanding. On stage, however, she was sublime and much in her element. So, despite the cruelty that is so often a part of life, especially in Hollywood, everything may have worked out as it should.

1:11 PM  

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