I’ve already written about disability in and compared the two versions of A Woman’s Face, the original Swedish film starring a young, talented Ingrid Bergman (Gustaf Molander, 1938) and the George Cukor remake starring Joan Crawford (1941). But when Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews announced a “Medicine in the Movies” blogathon, I was drawn to write once more about the two versions of the film, this time through the figure of the plastic surgeon character in each.
A Woman’s Face, in both versions, is a tale of a woman with a scarred face who goes from fear, anger, and a criminal lifestyle to a renewed sense of purpose and happiness when a doctor steps into her life and removes her scar through plastic surgery. In both films, the surgery is miraculous, leaving no trace of a scar or distortion on the woman’s face, and in both films the change results in a change of worldview. Our protagonist comes to care for others, primarily personified in a bond with a child and his family, for whom she plays governess. I say “plays” because in both films she is assigned to kill the child so that his uncle may inherit the family’s estate. But she rejects the plan once placement in a the family setting warms her heart. The bourgeois status quo wins.
One major difference between the two versions of the film, however, is the introduction of a romance subplot. As you can no doubt guess, it’s the Hollywood not the Swedish production that includes this element. And here is where the doctor comes in.
In the 1938 film, Bergman’s character, Anna Holm, is operated on by Dr. Wegert (Anders Henrikson). While he begins as a blackmail victim, he ends as a firm, assertive mentor to his patient. Through Dr. Wegert, Anna sees herself differently — in physical and emotional terms. Like Anna, we respect this older, wise man, even as she must leave him and the loving family behind once the plot to kill the child is unveiled. The role is a relatively small but vital one in Anna’s life.
By contrast, Melvyn Douglas has a much larger role as Dr. Gustaf Segert (perhaps named for the director of the original but no idea why Wegert becomes Segert — unless perhaps Wegert sounded too German?) in the 1941 remake. This doctor, too, begins as a blackmail victim — or at least his wife, an adulteress, is. But Dr. Segert is instantly fascinated by Anna’s scar, thinking its removal will advance his already significant status as a plastic surgeon. From the start, he is neither the dispassionate doctor of the original film nor the older mentor figure. He goes from self-aggrandizing to sympathetic as we learn of his unhappy marriage. When Anna is healed, he does lecture her on the difference between being beautiful on the outside and being beautiful on the inside, and we can tell part of his judgment rests in his own failed homelife. Like the original, this version of A Woman’s Face has Anna involved in a plot to kill a child so his uncle may inherit the family fortune; however, this time it is not only about a criminal lifestyle coming back to haunt the healed woman. She has fallen for the nefarious uncle, played with expressionist glee by Conrad Veidt. The film’s romantic happy ending comes when Anna refuses to murder the child and feels the love of family life all around her. She rescues the child, but the uncle is killed in the effort. Truly, we can see she is a changed woman, and when a court finds her innocent of the murder (a film noirish addition to the original film), we see she is finally worthy of the love of a good man, Dr. Segert.
Although I’ve devoted more words to the latter film than the former, it is the original that I find more moving and powerful. Despite the efforts of Dr. Wegert, Bergman’s Anna must live with the consequences of her actions. In this, I would argue the film presents a plausible if painful portrayal. Just because she has a beautiful face, she does not get a free pass into the good life — however defined. The film ends with Anna on a ship to another land, where she can start her life anew, albeit entirely alone. By contrast, in the Cukor/Hollywood update, Anna’s transformation, thanks to Dr. Wegert, is one that validates her worthiness for happiness, which in the film’s terms is no more and no less than the love of a “good” man.
As a conclusion, let me note finally that I also prefer the original because Dr. Wegert has no deep investment in controlling his “creation.” By contrast, Douglas’s Dr. Segert is to me a variant on Dr. Frankenstein, or perhaps more precisely on Pygmalion, as he falls for the woman he has sculpted. Anna will forever be in his debt, and he will admire the woman he has helped her to become. In romantic relationships with doctors in classic film, there is rarely an opportunity for true equality; in the Crawford/Douglas bond, there is none.