Actress Files: Elisabeth Bergner
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1935 Best Actress Oscar to Bette Davis for Dangerous)
Why I Waited: With a title like that? Hard to resist, but too delicious to waste. Plus, it's not the easiest film to come by. (An image of the poster has proved even more elusive; even the ones listed for sale on eBay, explicitly linked to the 1935 film, turn out to be for the 1947 remake with Errol Flynn, Ida Lupino, and Eleanor Powell.)
The Performance: Escape Me Never is a sadly ironic title for Bergner's Oscar-nod vehicle, since both Bergner and this film are the virtual opposite of "inescapable" these days. Setting aside her headlining role in the AIP-produced Cry of the Banshee in 1970 (though if I ever come across that film, there's no way I'll set it aside), Bergner has no English-language film credits to her name after the six-film run from 1934 to 1941 when Hollywood briefly tried to parlay her stage and screen successes in Europe into mainstream American stardom. Her Anglophone debut in The Rise of Catherine the Great, released the same year as Dietrich's take on the same part in Sternberg's Scarlet Empress, has just become more accessible through the Criterion Collection's box set, under their "Eclipse" insignia, of Alexander Korda's royalty dramas. The 1936 As You Like It she filmed opposite Laurence Olivier is also kicking around its fair share of libraries, but otherwise Bergner's career is a distant relic, dating to an era when the studios were still sorting out which genres of performersilent-screen celebs? Broadway eminences? foreign imports? Met Opera singers? Midwestern check-out girls, leant new names and dossiers?could be best enlisted as deities of the talking cinema.
Bergner was married to Paul Czinner, the Austro-Hungarian-born helmer of five of her six American movies, including Escape Me Never, and of most of the German-language projects on which she got started. The trope of the Teutonic glamor-gal guided perpetually by the hand of the same doting auteur is one of several suggestive links between the Czinner-Bergner alliance and the Sternberg-Dietrich enterprise, although Bergner had more theatrical bonafides by the time she crossed into pictures than Dietrich did. She doesn't come-across as the pure-born creation of movie magic that Dietrich does, and Czinner presents her as a stage-trained thespian rather than a shimmering phenom of bone and lace, skin and light. In Escape Me Never, he opts for lots of proscenium long shots that invoke the stage rather explicitly, such that we're well into the second half of the film before Bergner seems to be making a concerted transition into acting for the camera. Still, it's clear that the moviemakers love her: she gets an antic but charming intro as a teenager taking a school-group tour of some Venetian aristocrat's castle, slingshotting herself up the marble stairs and into the verboten private living quarters, where the more sedate young beauty Fenella McClean (Penelope Dudley-Ward) is confiding to her snobby parents her plans of marriage to the struggling composer-conductor Caryl Sanger (Griffith Jones). Bergner's impetuous Gemma, crashing the gates of this solemn family summit, serves the purpose, too, of livening up a film that has begun as a garden-variety, chin-up soaper. With her pale, pageboyed beauty and her insouciant refusal of manners, Gemma annoys the McCleans but comes close to starting to soften them, until, quite unaware, she drops the info that she is a poor housekeeper only disguising herself as a student to gain entry to the palazzo, and that she lives with an artist called Sanger. Here, of course, she is escorted out, with Bergner, in her late 30s at the time of filming, forcing her childlike impishness a bit hard, and the film looking even more like one of those Norma Shearer vehicles where intolerant wealth and precocious irreverence are equally calcified by the staid machinations of a convoluted but airlessly predictable plot.
Bergner and her male lead, Hugh Sinclair, start saving the screen through pure, attractive charisma in the next scene. Turns out he is Caryl's more rakish brother Sebastian, a composer-choreographer, and that it's he, not Caryl, with whom Gemma resides. She has a child by another man, someone who treated her gruffly in the past, and ostensibly she and Sebastian cohabitate by convenience, though she clearly has her eye on him and enjoys his jealous reaction to a probably made-up story about someone else who wants to marry her. It's around this time that the story's loosened but still post-Code relation to domestic and erotic arrangements starts to give Escape Me Never some flavor, aided by Czinner's provisions of some unmotivated but elegant zooms and camera movements. It seems less clear what might count as a couple in Escape Me Never. "Were they lovers?" Gemma asks as Sebastian points out the constellations of Castor and Pollux in the sky. "I don't quite remember - anyway they were inseparable," he responds, with some of the dry, sexy hauteur of a studio-era Rupert Everett. Bergner's allure falls somewhere between the indolent knowingness of Dietrich and the off-center daffiness of Carole Lombard, which one can imagine as a strenuous combo to pull off, but she doesn't seem to be working at crafting a screen persona, or predetermining her effects on her audience.
Admittedly, that farcical, hyper-gamine bit near the outset is a bet testing, and there are swerves into bathos at the finale from which few actresses would emerge unscathed. I doubt, though, that the relative successes and limits of Bergner's work have only to do with what is already felicitous or otherwise in the screenplay. Part of why the first and last movements in Bergner's performance seem thinner than the others resonates with these being the moments where Gemma has the least complicated feelings (her climactic grief is overwhelming, but not necessary complicated). By contrast, for the lengthy middle of Escape Me Never, Gemma pines for Sebastian even as she finds his coldness and arrogance off-putting; she sees Sebastian and Fenella growing adulterously closer but expects her observations to be denied by him and ignored by her; she feels compelled to warn the cuckolded Caryl but has a hard time finding him particularly sympathetic (as did I); she heeds an overarching call to accept moral compromise and a certain amount of unhappiness as long as it keeps herself and her child fed and sheltered, yet she cannot help getting caught up in the four-way intrigue, sometimes finding her feelings hurt and sometimes taking a kind of wicked, ironic pleasure in the shortcomings and naïvetés of the others, including the one she's married to. It's actually the dimwitted Caryl who discloses to Gemma that Sebastian is lying to her about the trips he takes, and offers patronizing advice about what to tolerate in her lovers if she wants to be happyand yet it's Gemma who intuits immediately, as Caryl has not, that the woman with whom Sebastian is apparently cheating must be Caryl. In this scene, Bergner achieves lucid, subtle, but compelling blends of fresh dismay and absorbed knowledge, of embarrassment at having missed earlier signals and of smugness that she laps Caryl so quickly in the race from ignorance to awareness.
Those wavering emotional states lead to Bergner's best sequence, which is also the movie's, as she calls privately on Fenella to see what the woman knows and, after a long period of waiting during which Fenella predictably condescends to her, Gemma discloses the marriage to Sebastian that they have up to that point concealed, and with a serpentine ease sticks the knife into Fenella, letting her know she'll be a dislikable wife to Caryl, just as she has been a deceived and futile mistress to Sebastian. Of course, Gemma is much less assured than she's pretending that everyone will behave in the ways she will describe, and that Fenella's allure really will be as short-lived for Sebastian as Gemma hopes. She is counting on his fickleness and his superseding love affair with himself and his art: a less inspiring rationale than one probably wants in articulating why a husband is likely to stick around. Gemma seduces Fenella, then, into revealing just how dim she finds her to be before applying the cold splash of a prior claim and of superior knowledge, even as her multifaceted performance of strength in this scene, all the way down to a sleeker, sexier outfit than we've ever seen her wear, doubles as a kind of desperate reinforcement to herself that she really is in charge. We have to see that layer of effort in a way that Fenella absolutely mustn't, and Bergner organizes and choreographs all of those vectors of self-management like a skilled pro.
Indeed, we may have underestimated the actress in advance of this scene, just as Gemma has played as an amiable gal but not quite a substantial personage. Escape Me Never continues to feel like too qualified and contrived a vehicle for Bergner to achieve a full exercise of her gifts, and there are moments here and there where she is demonstrably too stage-bound, or is working out Gemma's potential depths a bit less rigorously than she might. She'd have been a great contender for a lot of Margaret Sullavan's roles, especially in cases where Sullavan seems just a bit too plaintive or numinous than she needs tosay, in The Shop Around the Corner, where Bergner's accented English would even have been an idiomatic asset. Even in the finale, which, as I've said, leads Bergner too far down a path of stiffly-played bereavement, she finds room to shift the terms of the script. Coming home to Sebastian amid the absolute nadir of her sorrow, Bergner makes the intriguing choice of playing their last scene with an eerie, quotidian neutrality, almost a lightness. Only when Sebastian acknowledges the truth of what she's just been throughwhat he, in some sense, has put her throughdoes she reveal how hard she's working to preserve her balance. This signal instance of playing both with and against the grain of a fairly stock scene leaves us with a potent parting impression of Bergner's creative intelligence, and of the top-level career she might have achieved in the U.S., even though things didn't work out that way. Good thing that, on the basis of her thick-skinned Gemma Jones, she seems to have a strong handle on how to make do in the face of disappointment.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 19 to Go