Sunday 1 January 2023

The Blizzard (1923)

Director: Mauritz Stiller
Writer: Mauritz Stiller, based on the novel The Tale of a Manor by Selma Lagerlöf
Stars: Einar Hansson, Mary Johnsson, Pauline Brunius, Hugo Björne, Thecia Åhlander, Adolf Olchanski and Stina Berg

As soon as I started researching movies that first saw release in 1923, I started to find films that are lost, especially from abroad but with plenty of British and American titles included in that number. The Blizzard isn’t lost, but the extant version is missing half an hour and it’s pretty clear that this would run smoother had that footage not vanished into the mist.

It’s a Swedish film, originally titled Gunnar Hedes saga, loosely based on En herrgårdssägen, a book by Selma Lagerlöf published in English as The Tale of a Manor, and directed by one of the legends of Swedish film, though Mauritz Stiller was actually a Finn by birth.

He had been a name in Sweden since 1912 making short films and one of his many claims to fame was discovering a young actress, Greta Gustafsson. He cast her in Gösta Berlings saga, a 1924 film also based on a Selma Lagerlöf novel, then took her to Hollywood and renamed her to Greta Garbo. He was the initial director on her 1926 film, The Temptress, before Fred Niblo replaced him, and he wrapped up his career in the U.S. making films with Pola Negri and Fay Wray. He returned to Sweden in 1927, hardly a fan of the studio structure, and he died a year later of pleurisy.

The star of Gösta Berlings saga was a popular Swedish actor named Lars Hanson, who would play opposite Lillian Gish in 1926’s The Scarlet Letter, at her request. He was supposed to take the lead here too but Einer Hansson was cast instead, in his first lead role, after a bit part in 1919’s Hemsöborna.

It established him as a major actor and, like so many others, made the leap from Swedish film to Hollywood, arriving there in 1925 after making The Joyless Street in Germany for G. W. Pabst, a film set in Austria but with a Dane and a Swede as stars, Asta Nielsen and Garbo. He was a romantic lead in Hollywood, opposite a bevy of beauties: Pola Negri, Laura La Plante, Corinne Griffith, Clara Bow, Anna Q. Nilsson and Esther Ralston. His final film was a Stiller, The Woman on Trial, and it was after meeting him and Garbo, either for dinner or at a party, that he drove away drunk, skidding off of the Pacific Coast Highway to his death. He’d made eighteen features in only five years.

And he’s decent here, in a role that has his character run the gamut from wealthy heir to madman, with a strong final act in which he’s brought back to sanity by a young lady called Ingrid who is completely in love with him.

To be fair, she looks like the star here, a waif of the silent era credited as Mary Johnsson but was really named Astrid Carlsson. She wasn’t new here, having debuted in 1912 and acted in an earlier Stiller adaptation of a Lagerlöf book, Sir Arne’s Treasure in 1919. She looks radiant in her wild hair and expressive face and we know immediately that she’s going to play a much bigger part in this film than her introduction might suggest, as an orphan taken in by a pair of circus acrobats, Mr. and Mrs. Blomgren.

While the film moves on in a rather matter of fact fashion, probably because about a third of it is lost, there are good scenes early on and they grow with the story.

The first comes right at the beginning, with Miss Stava, an old servant, regaling the young Gunnar of his grandfather’s exploits, which he laps up eagerly.

Grandpa was a pedlar, who wandered about the country playing his fiddle for tips, but he figured out a way to drive reindeer from the north to the south where they’re worth twice as much. He got rich, married a noblewoman and bought the Munkhyttan estate. There’s a painting of his grandfather that comes to life when Gunnar dreamily gazes at it, so painted grandpa plays his fiddle while the wall he’s on gives way to a herd of reindeer on the horizon. It’s a worthy shot, though things are about to go a little downhill for our lead.

You see, Gunnar wants to be just like good old grandpa and play the violin, which his dad is more than happy to support, but his mum is totally against the idea. Grandad was nothing but a peasant, she thinks, and she needs a man who can manage Munkhyttan, a practical sort who doesn’t waste his time on the arts. And so he grows up and studies mining, but secretly masters the violin too.

Enter the acrobats, because Gunnar sees a lot more of himself in them than his mother. It doesn’t hurt that Ingrid arrives with them and plays a violin right outside his window as the Blomgrens spin plates and walk tightropes in front of the house. He races outside and plays Ingrid’s fiddle to her, which his mother hears and promptly stamps into fragments, thinking it was his. Needing to replace it, she naturally hands her Gunnar’s grandfather’s violin.

So she’s pissed and he’s pissed. And, leaving Ingrid with the former Munkhyttan steward, because she’s weak and faints a lot, off he goes to make something of his life. It should not be too surprising to find that he stumbles into a plan just like his grandpa’s to drive a reindeer herd south to double his money.

And here’s where the most striking scenes of the film show up, because the herd always follows the lead reindeer’s bell and so we see a vast herd swimming across a wide river with Gunnar’s boat in front of them. But a spring storm hits, the landscape freezes and disaster strikes. Gunnar, tied to the lead reindeer, finds himself dragged for miles and stuck in a drift for a night. His party find him but he’s now as mad as a hatter, scared stiff of animals and in a hallucinatory state. Eventually he arrives back at Munkhattan, collected by his mother from an asylum, and he doesn’t recognise anyone.

These final scenes make the whole feature worth it, as Stiller sells us tragedies, Hansson excels at playing confused and Johnsson has a gift being quiet but beautiful support, both to us watching and to Gunnar. While this is going on, Stina Berg steals a number of scenes with masterful little details, as Mrs. Blomgren, the surprisingly large tightrope walker.

This is melodrama, pure and simple, and it’s fair to say that it drags often but it’s wrapped up wonderfully and there are plenty of strong scenes to keep us engaged. It’s a decent start to this new year of 1923.

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