January 23, 2014

Elisabeth Bergner, Escape Me Never

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I find it very interesting that Elisabeth Bergner forever has a spot in Oscar history. From what I gathered through a handful of articles, she was a hugely popular star of the German theater in the 1920's, and must have spoken English for only a handful of years prior to the making of Escape Me Never. The film itself is a completely British production, and she also won a fan vote as the Best Performance of 1935 from a British newspaper that year, so one wonders how she managed to get an Oscar nomination, given that her picture had no Hollywood influence (a la Fox distributed pictures Berkeley Square and Cavalcade) and the fact that I've yet to come across any information of Escape Me Never making a huge splash stateside (a la Laughton in The Private Lives of Henry VIII). Try and look up the 1935 version of Escape Me Never on IMDB or Wikipedia right now and you'll find that there's just about zero information available regarding the film. It's a movie that has all but completely disappeared, kind of swept under a rug within the vast annals of film history. So surely its star must have been fantastic, no?

 photo ScreenShot2014-01-17at91200PM.jpgBergner comes crashing into the film within the first five minutes. She has inserted herself within a large group of students who're all on a field trip to some rich family's mansion (must be a European thing, visiting the homes of the wealthy for educational purposes) in the hopes that afterwards once it's time for tea, she'll be able to tag along to whatever restaurant the students attend so she can snatch up some bread. She's caught by the guards of course, and thus begins her opening scene in which she runs around shrieking like a banshee, threatens to jump out the window, and runs and yells some more, all before calming down to tell these nosy rich people a bunch of sordid details from her personal life. So Bergner certainly gets points for making an interesting first impression, but I can't say I thought it was...particularly good. Her english is alright enough, though the tone of her voice is a little high, so when Gemma is "on" and gets excited Bergner can be a bit annoying. The character of Gemma is described in the play synopsis as a "young innocent", and seeing as Bergner was renown for playing the "woman-child" type of character, I suppose this was a good fit. The pitch of her speaking voice and her strange hybrid accent of German/English/Italian at times reminded me of Miss Swan--whether or not that's a good thing I'm unsure. She starts out pretty charming, and she nails some small cues in her dialogue (such as the matter-of-fact execution of "so when she was dead, I...") but her acting isn't consistent. Her subsequent scenes would prove to be a little dreadful and at times I cringed a bit watching her. What Bergner does have going for her is her innocuous charm, which makes her pretty likable throughout the film, but she swings from subtle to loudly awful more times than I would like, which I can only assume is a handicap she picked up from being a stage actor.

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I have complicated feelings towards Bergner overall. There are certain scenes in which I thought she was solid. A turning point for Gemma, when she suspects her husband to be having an affair with Fenella, is nicely done as Bergner pulls back her histrionic way of speaking. Further, I absolutely adored the scene in which Gemma confronts Fenella--it is all acted with sharp, calculating precision and the only time in the film when I was truly engaged. But curiously enough, Bergner gets rather uninteresting as the story gets more interesting. Her character falls victim to several unfortunate events near the end of the film and yet Bergner comes off as rather frigid instead of poignant--which in turn kind of messes up the entire tone of the material. It doesn't seem like she's digging deep enough as she could be in the last act, which is a shame because if she did she'd have completely ran away with the picture. But I can't get over how in one particular scene, where Gemma is leaving the hospital after having seen her dead infant, we're witness to Bergner walking away with a blank look on her face. It's frustrating that a profound moment like that received an almost-amateurish and bored treatment. But I suppose that's Bergner's entire performance in a nutshell--it's all over the place. It's frustrating and interesting and uninteresting and bad and good all at once.


  1. I really liked her work and thought she was very strong.

    1. Fritz--I was in a bit of a rush so I gave her the wrong rating!

      Nevertheless, I can't say I was very taken by her...in fact I haven't been very taken by any of the Best Actress nominees thus far.