I’ve seen other film blogs compare versions of a single film to choose a favorite, and I love the idea. After screening two versions of a film in a single sitting yesterday, I decided there is no time like the present to create a new (occasional) feature for my blog:
The film for this first face-off is A Woman’s Face. For those interested, the 1938 version is available free with Amazon Prime, while the 1941 version must be rented.
Both the original Swedish En Kvinnas Ansikte (A Woman’s Face) and the Hollywood remake tell the tale of Anna Holm, a woman emotionally and physically scarred by a childhood fire that left both of her parents dead. 22 years later, she’s the criminal leader of a blackmail operation at an out-of-the-way restaurant where adulterers meet their lovers and soon end up paying thousands to keep their secrets from their spouses. Anna’s life changes forever after she goes to the home of a doctor to collect her hush money from his unfaithful wife and is caught by the husband as she tries to flee with a purse full of jewels. The doctor, it turns out, is a plastic surgeon who can fix her face and give her the possibility of a new life (because a scarred face debars women from love and happiness, didn’t you know?).
When the operation — 1 in the 1938 film and 12(!) in the 1941 remake — proves successful, Anna takes a post as a governess for the family of Torsten Barring, a slimy young man who wants to use her to kill his 4-year-old nephew Lars-Erik and thereby guarantee him the Barring family fortune after his uncle Magnus dies.
In the original, Anna simply wants to get away from her old life, so she takes the job when Torsten offers it but changes her name and pretends she is someone else. Because Torsten has scarcely looked at her, she gets away with it…for a time. By contrast, in the 1941 version, Anna is in love with Torsten, who sees her as a kindred spirit and a partner. She accepts the governess position with full murderous intent.
Of course, Lars-Erik and the warm Barring family welcome Anna (now calling herself Paulsson not Holm) with open arms, and she soon loves the little boy and just can’t throw him over the falls to his death. When Torsten comes for a visit, he demands she act immediately, and when she refuses, he takes off on a speeding sleigh with Lars-Erik to do away with the boy himself. The effort fails when Anna comes to his rescue, and it is Torsten not the child who ends up dead.
The film ends with Anna having confessed all and leaving the Barring family. She must move on with her life. In the original, this means giving up the love of Harald, who works for the Barrings; knowing he will always resent her for who she was, Anna heads instead for America on a steamliner to become governess for another family. She accepts that she must find happiness where she can now. By contrast, in the remake, Anna ends up with the doctor who has left his unfaithful wife and loves his creation, who has proved herself his “Galatea” and not a “Frankenstein” (misnomer for the monster).
And now for the face-off, divided into what I found to be the most important elements of the film:
Ingrid Bergman is by far the better actress, so I’m not sure a lot more needs to be said here. She plays Anna as young, defensive, and determined. The scar prosthetic actually distorts her expression and Bergman uses this in her performance to great effect. Her change of heart comes quickly, as soon as she feels she can see and be seen without the scar. And I love how she handles her gesture for hiding her face (her forefinger on the bridge of her nose and the rest of her hand over the scar). When she sees her face for the first time, she sobs and takes the doctor’s hand, thanking him with such sincerity you feel every ounce of it. In comparison, Crawford plays Anna with less inner strength and more outer brittleness. She mimics Bergman’s gesture to less effect as well, in part because the scar pulls down her eye but does not distort her expression. When it comes time for the romance subplot, I will say Crawford does a great job of showing how desperately she wants Torsten’s love, whereas Bergman’s affection for Harald in the original is underwritten and unconvincing. (That said, so is the sudden expression of love Crawford has for the doctor at the end of the remake.)
The Winner: 1938 original
Torsten Barring: In the Swedish picture, Torsten is a slimy, insecure brat who lives beyond his means. He has no appeal for Anna or even her criminal gang. By contrast, Conrad Veidt in the remake is gloriously manipulative and evil, an over-the-top villain who manipulates others with ease and fully earns his ignominious death. Yes, it’s ridiculous when he starts talking about taking over the world with the Barring millions, but it’s part of the noir anti-fascism of the film and I kinda love it for its excess.
Doctor Wegert/Segert: The difference in this character is probably the most significant to the film’s differences. I love that in the original, the doctor’s plastic surgery experience is tied to work on the faces of scarred soldiers. This makes him a noble character. And he is developed later in the film to show his strength and fatherly affection for Anna, helping her to move on — as he will, having separated from his cheating wife — in the film’s conclusion. The doctor of the 1941 version is more self-serving; he is proud of his record and looks up on Anna as a test of his skills, even giving her a speech before he takes off her bandages letting her know he is worried: “If this operation’s a success, I’ve created a monster. A beautiful face and no heart.” In the end, I’ve no idea why he has fallen in love with Anna except for the Pygmalion overtones, though he hasn’t taught her, he’s operated on her. Frankly, Douglas seems to be going through the motions…but he often seems that way to me.
As for the rest of the supporting cast, I pretty much enjoy both films’ choices. Lars-Erik gets too many overly saccharine smiling moments in the 1941 version, but both kids are cute and both version of Grandpa Magnus are endearing enough. The only other noticeable difference to me is in the casting of housekeeper Emma Kristiansdotter in the remake: Marjorie Main is a wonderful character actress, but she can’t quite pull off the dour Swedish thing.
The Winner: call it a draw
It makes perfect sense that En Kvinnas Ansikte is set in Sweden and that the characters names are Swedish. Not so much for A Woman’s Face, in which the actors’ accents are as varied as can be, regardless of character name. The remake would have done better to set the film in the US in a snowy, wintertime setting for the Barrings and tailor the rest of the details around it. (It’s downright ridiculous, for example, that Melvyn Douglas’s clearly American character is named Dr. Gustaf Segert, changed by only one letter from Wegert and perhaps called Gustaf to honor the director of the original film.)
The Winner: 1938 original
The original tells the story chronologically, beginning as Anna plans that fateful blackmail job that will end up changing her life. The 1941 version opts for a clunky framing device, a trial in which witnesses tell their stories and the plot develops via flashback. The film toys with expectations as we don’t get to see Joan Crawford’s full face for a good while. But I had a hell of a time figuring out who was who among the witnesses, and though that was likely intended, it was also frustrating, as was the sudden reveal of doctor-patient love and the dismissal of the case implied by the ending. Anna shoots Torsten to save Lars-Erik in the remake; it’s an obvious if complicated case of murder. Anna’s letter to Magnus, stating that she is going to kill herself because she was originally going to kill Lars-Erik but had a change of heart, saves her once the judges read it. (This is not to say that the original didn’t have a belabored ending, where Anna must break off with a wounded Harald, go back to the doctor, and then be put on a boat to America. But still.)
The Winner: 1938 original
STYLE AND DIRECTION
Both films partake in noirish elements of style, though in different ways. The credits and soundtrack of the original introduce the audience to the film as a thriller and keep up a dark tone throughout. The remake, by comparison, opens with overt romance in its music and credits. The font looks almost like a romantic western, and I don’t get the choice at all. Once the 1941 film begins, we can see far more noirish influence than in the original, including characteristic contrast of light and shadow and depictions of dark corners, long hallways, and latticework gates. While I enjoy pointing out the noir in the remakes’ style, I have to credit the direction of Gustaf Molander for his production of greater subtlety and dramatic effect. It is odd that George Cukor directed this film, but then, he was a man of all genres, after all. He was, as I see it, hampered by Crawford’s overacting and Douglas’s flatness alongside Hollywood’s demands for romance to boost a film’s box office. I am surprised and impressed that he infused the film with so many elements of style that would come to define noir in later years (including the opportunity to read Crawford’s Anna as a prototypical femme fatale, several years before Double Indemnity and Detour would set the bar). Yet the original is done with a far more confident hand.
The Winner: 1938 original
Clearly, the winner of this face-off is 1938’s En Kvinnas Ansikte. Had Cukor distanced the remake more fully and purposefully from the original and featured more subtle talent in his lead actors, I can imagine having a different opinion than I do. As it is, however, I must crown Molander’s engaging and moving study of the impact of beauty on a woman’s life the winner over Cukor’s noirish thriller with a happy ending.
Thanks for reading, and please let me know what you think of this feature and how I’ve handled it. Even better, watch both films and let me know your preferences!