Branding Bergman — Part One: “Bad Girls” and “Naked Nights”
How the Swedish master was sold to North American audiences
In conjunction with the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Bergman 100: The Ingmar Bergman Centenary, we present this two-part exploration of how Bergman’s films first broke across the Atlantic.
When North American audiences think of a “foreign film,” it’s likely that they often conjure up an image of an Ingmar Bergman film — whether or not they’ve actually seen one. Thanks to generations of parodies, the Swedish filmmaker’s oeuvre has become synonymous with a certain kind of art cinema, and a certain kind of cinemagoing. As Jonathan Rosenbaum summed it up in a rather caustic New York Times obituary of the filmmaker in 2007, “the antiseptic, upscale look of Bergman’s interiors and his mainly blond, blue-eyed cast members became a brand to be adopted and emulated. (His artfully presented traumas became so respectable they could help to sell espresso in the lobby of the Fifth Avenue Cinema.)”
But when Bergman’s films first began to appear in the US, it was in surroundings far less tony than Fifth Avenue. Between 1946 and 1960 Bergman made roughly two films a year, but those few films of his that arrived in the States were recut, retitled, and appeared indiscriminately, often years after their initial European runs. Furthermore, Bergman’s name appeared in almost none of the advertising for these American releases — and why would it? The name Ingmar Bergman meant nothing to audiences; as late as 1957, the majority of US filmgoers were familiar with only one Bergman, and she was still persona non grata. So how did Ingmar Bergman go from not-worth-mentioning to archetypal arthouse director?
The story of Bergman’s eventual US success is also the story of the distributor Janus Films, whose calculated strategy to introduce Americans to the Swedish auteur succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. But it probably wouldn’t have happened without the mercenary mistreatment that Bergman’s films underwent in the US during the early ’50s.
The first taste US audiences got of Bergman was his very first screen credit. Bergman had written Alf Sjöberg’s Hets, which was released in the US in 1947 under the title Torment. Like many foreign films of the era, Torment was marketed as an “adult film,” a term that, until the introduction of the MPAA’s film rating system, could apply to anything from films about mature topics to out-and-out pornography, and cagey marketers exploited the ambiguity of the term to the utmost.
Torment was an anomaly: few Swedish films were released in the US in the late ’40s and early ’50s, given that audience taste for foreign films ran primarily towards the new and exciting Italian neorealism movement. The first of Bergman’s directorial efforts to appear on American screens was his third feature, A Ship Bound for India, which was released in a shortened version as Frustration by the distributor Film Classics in 1949.
It would be a full five years (during which time Bergman made eight more features) before another of the director’s films received a US release. Originally released in 1951, Summer Interlude — a tale of doomed love between a ballet dancer and a young college student — is now regarded as one of Bergman’s most important early films, but its US release in October 1954 had little to do with its artistic virtues. Rather, its US premiere is inextricably linked to the stateside success of another Swedish film, Arne Mattsson’s One Summer of Happiness, another story of illicit romance between two young lovers. Mattsson’s film had won the Golden Bear at the second Berlinale in 1952, but caught the attention of English-speaking audiences thanks to its brief moments of nudity, in scenes where the two young lovers skinny-dip together and enjoy a romp in the reeds. Snatched up by the New York-based Times Film Corporation, One Summer of Happiness did brisk business in cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Austin, though it was shuttered by overzealous vice squads in other places like San Antonio.
The surface similarities between the two Summers were enough that it prompted distributor Gaston Hakim to bring the Bergman film to the US. Hakim was the youngest of five brothers, all of whom worked in showbiz in some capacity: eldest brothers Robert and Raymond had produced classics like Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko and Jean Renoir’s The Southerner, and would go on to produce such films as René Clément’s Purple Noon and Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour; André worked for Twentieth-Century Fox, and Raphael staked his claim on Broadway.
For the US release of Summer Interlude, Hakim and his partners, Arthur and Helene Davis, set out to assure their investment by making the film resemble Mattsson’s as much as possible. After saddling the film with the specious new title Illicit Interlude, they inserted two nude scenes into the film — one of the film’s lead bathing, the other a love scene in a lake — both of which were shot in the US using stand-ins.
Despite this crude ploy, Illicit Interlude’s initial newspaper ads were rather conservative, playing up the ballet aspect of the film and in some cases even deigning to mention the film’s “prize-winning director” Ingmar Bergman. Though these ads frequently cited a positive review of the film by Bosley Crowther, the New York Times critic’s full article took direct aim at Hakim and the Davises’ marketing strategy, stating “There is something cheap and unpleasant about the title Illicit Interlude as applied to the handsome Swedish picture,” and warning that “this picture should not be confused with One Summer's Happiness [sic], another Swedish picture of which much has been reported.”
Irrespective of Crowther’s stern cautioning, by the second week of the film’s run the ads had been redesigned to make comparisons (and confusions) with One Summer of Happiness all the more likely. The new versions now included a pull-quote from syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell — who singled out one of the newly shot scenes, “in which the leading lady out-Hedy Lamarr’s nude swimming” in the infamous 1933 film Ecstasy — and a sketch of a nude bather that bore a marked similarity to the one featured in many advertisements for the Mattsson film.
While it may have been “cheap and unpleasant,” by targeting ads at both low- and highbrow crowds Hakim and his partners had hit upon a strategy that would be employed by even the most distinguished of Bergman’s American distributors in the future.
In August 1955, Hakim’s partners Arthur and Helene Davis independently released Bergman’s 1949 film Thirst, billing it as “the most provocative adult film ever shown in this country!” The film premiered in Miami, where it lasted all of four days. A Miami News headline declared “Thirst Such A Turkey It’s Being Yanked,” and the accompanying article expanded on the fiasco, citing theatre owners who had been “deceived by the trailers which gave the impression it was a daring sex feature.”
Perhaps wary after the Thirst experience, Hakim and the Davises elected not to release their next Bergman acquisition themselves. Instead, they opted to sell Summer with Monika — one of Bergman’s most acclaimed films, about a young couple (Harriet Andersson and Lars Ekborg) who flee their drab city life for an idyllic but ultimately untenable summer of love in the Stockholm archipelago — for $10,000 to notorious exploitation guru Kroger Babb. Babb’s Hallmark Films had made a small fortune in the ’40s by roadshowing the censorship-skirting “hygiene film” Mom and Dad for adults-only, gender-segregated screenings, which were accompanied by a lecture from “Hygiene Commentator Elliot Forbes” (a house byline for the numerous local actors hired to play the part).
Hallmark spent $50,000 trimming Monika down to 62 minutes, dubbing it in “American English” (which excised some of the film’s anti-capitalist sentiment), and introducing a new soundtrack by Les Baxter. Despite long-circulating rumours, Hallmark’s edit of Monika added no new content to the film, as Hakim had for Interlude. In fact, in a detailed study of the “Hallmark Version,” film scholar Daniel Humphrey shows that Babb’s cut actually removed one scene of nudity from the original release, relocating it to the end of the film:
This particular footage of Monika, seen from behind walking into the sea, appears twice in Bergman's cut, once midway through the film and then again later, as a flashback in the film’s concluding moments. Viewers of the Hallmark version see only the latter instance. In effect, this forces viewers to sit through the film to the very end to see the much-ballyhooed imagery of Harriet Andersson’s naked body.
The Hallmark version of Monika premiered in Los Angeles, where it was promptly shut down by the vice squad. Babb then tasked young PR man Dave Friedman with getting the film into cinemas and drive-ins across the Midwest, offering him in 25% of the take. Friedman, who would go on to become a renowned sleaze-peddler in his own right, did his job with gusto, while Hallmark whipped up a robust advertising campaign filled with provocative photos of Andersson (who was baptized “Sweden’s Answer to Marilyn Monroe”) and a new subtitle, “The Story of a Bad Girl.”
A litany of hoopla was used to promote Monika, ranging from the fishy (“Filmed in Uninhibited Sweden!”) to the misleading (“Stark naked realism!”) to the downright fictitious (many ads claimed the movie based was based on a Time Magazine story that it definitely was not). Monika herself was described as “dynamite” and “naughty and 19,” and, in perhaps the most 1950s tagline ever, one poster claimed that “The Devil Controls Her By Radar.”
In another era-perfect move, Friedman contributed a line of copy brimming with entendres, claiming that Monika was “Filmed EXTRA-WIDE for Broad Screens! Filmed EXTRA BOLD for Broad Minds!” (Widescreen enthusiasts who fell for this pitch would have discovered that Monika doesn’t deliver on at least one of those claims: it was shot in the standard Academy ratio.) Many of those claims can be seen in the NSFW trailer (courtesy of the Criterion Collection), which gives an idea of the Hallmark version’s absurd American dubbing.
When industry trade papers began reporting on Monika’s American success, Bergman’s studio Svensk Filmindustri sent a cease and desist order to Hallmark, asserting that Hakim had no right to sell the film; during an in-person tête-à-tête with Friedman, the studio’s attorney declared that Hallmark’s edit had “mutilate[ed] a masterpiece” and likened it to “some vandal paint[ing] a moustache on the Mona Lisa.” Despite these harsh words, and knowing that Babb had sunk a considerable amount of money into the film, the studio offered Hallmark the rights to screen its version of Monika for another five years, while Svensk would re-license the original cut to a new distributor. Hallmark accepted, and, as Friedman tells it, “In the ensuing five years, we played Monika until the sprocket holes fell of the prints […] I’ll bet the farm that more Americans saw it than any other Bergman film ever imported.”
The success of films like Monika, Illlicit Interlude, and One Summer of Happiness ingrained the idea in American minds that Sweden was a sexually liberated country, and “Swedish Films” came to be a euphemism for erotica.
Hoping to repeat their success with One Summer of Happiness, US distributor Times Film Corp. acquired Bergman’s circus melodrama Sawdust and Tinsel, which they retitled The Naked Night and called “as frank and realistic a drama as ever managed to slip by the censor’s scissors.”
The ads quoted reviews using double-edged words like “stark” and “passion,” and thanks to Hallmark’s efforts to introduce Americans to Harriet Andersson and her alter ego Monika, they often put both names above the title.
As Andersson’s previous collaborations with Bergman enjoyed unlikely success in the Land of the Free, the actress’ latest outing with the director, Smiles of a Summer Night, was receiving some more prestigious success overseas. At the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, Smiles took home the Prix de l'humour poétique (Best Comedy Award), much to the surprise of Bergman and his studio, both of whom had serious misgivings about the film and had submitted it to Cannes purely as a matter of routine. On the heels of the Cannes win, Smiles was quickly picked up by a number of prestige distributors, and premiered in the US in December 1957 under the auspices of Rank Film Distributors, the American arm of the British conglomerate founded by J. Arthur Rank.
In his heyday, Rank was a giant in the British film industry: he owned half of the country’s studios, two-thirds of its cinema chains, and produced classics by the likes of Lawrence Olivier (Henry V, Hamlet), David Lean (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist) and Powell and Pressburger (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus). For a brief postwar moment, the Rank name was synonymous with a certain calibre of film. Although Rank himself had flamed out of the film business by 1957, the Rank Organisation carried on, as did the prestige associated with the name.
Although Smiles of a Summer Night was represented as an award-winning comedy in the press for the Rank release, the ads told a different story. Rank’s ads didn’t go the full bait-and-switch route of Hakim or Times Film, but were still ripe with suggestion that Smiles might stimulate more than the viewer’s funny bone. Posters combined a skimpy sketch with the bold claim that Smiles starred “Sweden’s four most beautiful women” and a Walter Winchell quote declaring the film “Bawdy, nawdy enough to be French!” Later ads described the film as “Better Than Bardot” and (my personal favourite), “SPICY INDEED!”
Smiles of a Summer Night was Bergman’s international breakthrough, but it would take the concerted effort of an upstart independent distributor to turn the still-obscure Swedish director into a household name.
In Part Two, discover how Janus Films became the company to truly break Bergman in the United States.