Friday, February 19, 2016

Stromboli (Berit Films/RKO, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I reached through my old recordings from Turner Classic Movies and dug out the 1950 film Stromboli, one of those legendary movies I’d heard about for years but had never actually seen. According to Garson Kanin’s memoir Hollywood, it began in the late 1940’s, when Ingrid Bergman was one of the biggest movie stars in the world but was feeling dissatisfied with the direction of her career. Kanin suggested to her that she seek out the director Roberto Rossellini, an Italian filmmaker who had pioneered the so-called “neo-realist” style in the film Rome, Open City, a 1945 production actually filmed in Rome as the war was winding down, and featuring a professional actress, Anna Magnani, in the lead but with most of the other parts played by nonprofessionals acting roles similar to their real lives. Rome, Open City was a surprise worldwide hit and Rossellini made two more movies about the aftermath of World War II in a similar style, Paisan (1946) and Germany, Year Zero (1947), becoming a favorite among intellectual critics who thought most American and European movies entirely too slick, glossy and unconnected to real life. Bergman had seen Open City and been excited by it, and encouraged by Kanin and some of his other friends — Kanin recalls telling her that Rossellini was “a real director, not a Hollywood hack” (which seems decidedly unfair to the directors of her U.S. hits, including Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, Victor Fleming, Leo McCarey, Sam Wood and her Casablanca director, the underrated Michael Curtiz) — she tried to find him. He wasn’t easy to find because in Europe the studio system, such as it had ever existed, hadn’t survived the one-two punch of the Depression and World War II, and Rossellini, like most European filmmakers, worked for catch-as-catch-can producers rather than established companies. But her letter to Rossellini offering to be in his next movie did reach him at Lux Film, an Italian studio where he did post-production on some of his films, and he eagerly accepted the offer, thinking that working with an established Hollywood star would bring him prestige and boost the popularity of his next project.

What he had in mind was doing a film about a woman caught up in what was then called a “displaced persons’ camp” and which would now be called a refugee camp — so many modern-day displaced people are in such camps in Turkey and Jordan fleeing the violence and civil war in Syria this part of Stromboli seems timely today — who, just to get out of the camp, marries a crude fisherman and leaves with him to live on the island of Stromboli, off the coast of Sicily. The biggest natural feature on Stromboli, in the film and in real life, is a volcano that seems always to be emitting smoke and steam when it isn’t actively erupting (search “Stromboli” on and the first things that come up are films taken from space of the volcano Stromboli’s 2002 eruption, released by NASA); aside from that, it’s a primitive environment in which the people —the ones who haven’t left, which is most of the population — eke out a living growing barley and fishing. Ingrid Bergman plays Karin Björnsen — when I first heard her last name on the soundtrack I thought for a moment she was portraying her real Swedish nationality for once, but we’re told she’s a Lithuanian who got caught up in World War II; later she explains that she was living in a Nazi-occupied company and fell in love with one of the German officers, for which she was shunned (a fascinating inversion of her Casablanca role as the wife of an anti-Nazi freedom fighter) — whose application to emigrate from the refugee camp to Argentina is denied (there’s a grimly amusing sequence of the four officials in charge of emigration, each speaking a different language, debating the fates of the people applying to them for permission to resettle somewhere). She’s been cruised by Antonio (Mario Vitale), one of the soldiers guarding the camp — their attempts to kiss each other through a barbed-wire fence grimly symbolize the forces not only keeping them apart but blocking her off from any normal life — and in sheer desperation she agrees to marry him and live with him on Stromboli, where he was born and grew up.

Once she gets there about 12 minutes into a 106-minute film, Stromboli turns into a stunningly photographed and staged but dramatically pretty ordinary fish-out-of-water tale, as Karin finds herself shunned by just about everybody there. Most of the people don’t speak any English (Bergman acts most of her part with the same Swedish-accented English she used in her American films) and the ones that do tell her things like, “You’re not modest.” Even the local priest (Renzo Cesana) who married her and Antonio ultimately cuts her off — the script, by Rossellini himself with “collaborators” Sergio Amidei, Gian Paolo Callegari, Renzo Cesana and Art Cohn (the last-named I presume was there to supply the English dialogue; he would later die in the same plane crash that claimed the life of Mike Todd, with whom he was working on a film of Don Quixote that was to have starred Elizabeth Taylor as Dulcinea), doesn’t explain why but strongly hints that he has started to respond to her as a woman and therefore doesn’t want to see her for fear she would tempt him to break his vows — and when he isn’t going off on fishing trips with some of the locals (and being cheated out of his fair share of the proceeds from selling the fish in the market town of Messina — we’re told this is a comedown for Antonio because before the war and the last eruption of the volcano he actually owned his own boat), Antonio is getting jealous of Karin and beating her. Ultimately the volcano erupts — I think it was Anton Chekhov who once said that one of the basic rules of dramatic construction was that if you established a pistol in Act I, someone had to use it in Act III; and Rossellini and his collaborators no doubt were following that rule when they established the Stromboli volcano in Act I and had it erupt in Act III — and the eruption leaves Karin running around the island, desperate to escape her miserable life and her battering husband, though at the end the film leaves us uncertain as to whether she stays or goes.

Stromboli is an example of what the critic Dwight Macdonald called “the Bad Good Movie,” the opposite of “the Good Bad Movies” that would make up most of the fare offered (and mocked) on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. It’s obviously an attempt to make a film of real dramatic and artistic quality, but it just as obviously goes wrong even though watching it, it’s not altogether clear what’s wrong with it. One thing the critics at the time noticed about it was how badly Ingrid Bergman fits in with the neo-realist style — reviewers who’d liked Rossellini’s previous films turned against him on this one and said he had no business working with a Hollywood star — not only does she look too good to be believable as a piece of human flotsam who’s been dragged through the war and ended up first in a refugee camp and then on a primitive island, her acting style, though naturalistic by U.S. movie standards and credible for the character, clashes badly with the non-professionals with which Rossellini filled out his cast. Bergman ended up falling in love with Rossellini, starting an affair with him and ultimately bearing his child (Isabella Rossellini), which given that she was still married to Dr. Petter Lindstrom, the husband she’d brought with her from Sweden to the U.S., sparked a nationwide scandal that resulted in Bergman being blacklisted from the American screen for six years. It got so ridiculous that she and Rossellini were actually denounced on the floor of Congress by U.S. Senator Edwin C. Johnson, who said, “The degenerate Rossellini has deceived the American people with an idiotic story of a volcano and a pregnant woman. We must protect ourselves against such scourges.” (In the film Karin gets pregnant with Antonio’s child, but our only clue that that’s happened is the way she’s rubbing her belly during her final scenes.)

Though Bergman was falling in love with her director, her attitude towards her co-star couldn’t have been more different; Mario Vitale had never acted before in his life — though on-screen he comes off as surprisingly charismatic, a cross between Mario Lanza and Montgomery Clift — and Bergman despaired of the whole experience as Rossellini called for take after take after take of their scenes together to try to get a semblance of a performance out of him. The most interesting parts of Stromboli are the semi-documentary portions — notably the early scenes in the refugee camp (filmed at the real one in Farfá, Italy that Bergman’s character is supposed to be interned in), the scenes of the island itself — including the black rocks, spewed forth by the volcano during its periodic interruptions, that strew its beaches — and above all the scenes in which Vitale and his fellow fisherman put out to sea in rowboats and actually catch fish. The fishing scenes are shot in much the same overdramatic manner as British documentarian John Grierson used in his first film, Drifters (1929) — when I saw that movie with Charles we agreed that Grierson must have had an orgasm watching Battleship Potemkin and decided to shoot his fishing film the same way, and one wanted to take him aside and tell him, “Look, the sailors in Eisenstein’s film were making a revolution; your guys are just catching herring!” — complete with relentlessly overdramatic music by the director’s brother, Renzo Rossellini (one aspect of Rossellini’s film that was all too much like the Hollywood conventions of the time was the overwrought, over-loud, over-obvious and overused music) — but the fishing scenes, particularly the last one in which the fishermen are trying to keep the large tuna they’ve caught from either escaping back to sea or flopping around in the ship’s hold and dying before they can get them to market, are far and away the most exciting and entertaining ones in the movie.

Stromboli was a box-office flop — Bergman’s former producer David O. Selznick wrote a memo at the time saying he thought her career could have weathered the scandal if Stromboli had been a better movie, but even without the scandal and the denunciations from the U.S. Senate Bergman would have been in trouble because her two immediately previous films, Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc and Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn, had also been flops. It didn’t help her career that with one exception — a 1954 film of Arthur Honegger’s oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake, made in France with Jean Cocteau directing — Rossellini didn’t let Bergman make films for any other director for the next six years, though at least in their future projects he compromised enough to give her professional actors like Alexander Knox and George Sanders as her leading men. Eventually Bergman got tired of making films in the Rossellini manner (though their marriage lasted until 1962) and accepted a rather gingerly and tenuously made offer from 20th Century-Fox to star in Anatole Litvak’s Anastasia (1956), about the Paris street woman in the 1920’s who was picked up by a crooked Russian expatriate (Yul Brynner) and passed off as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, one of the five children of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. The Tsar’s kids were slaughtered in 1918 by the Communists who had taken over Russia, but there were rumors for years that Anastasia had somehow escaped — and this movie was built around that legend, with Helen Hayes cast as Nicholas II’s mother, the person the schemers have to convince in order to admit the supposed Anastasia to the Tsar’s family and, more importantly, his fortune. Helen Hayes was known as such a hard-core Roman Catholic that her willingness to act in a film with Bergman was considered proof positive that Bergman had repented and could be readmitted to American movie houses and their audiences, and Anastasia was a smash hit and won Bergman her second Academy Award.