My post today is for the Great Villain Blogathon and it is hosted by 3 wonderful bloggers who also love, love, love classic movies: Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy. Be sure to visit these blog sites to read about all of the great movie villains written about by other movie loving bloggers.
A Woman’s Face, made by MGM in 1941, was not MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer’s cup of tea. Joan Crawford had learned of the Swedish movie version of the stage play. The play had been written by Francis de Croisset and a screenplay for MGM’s version was to be written by Donald Ogden Stewart. Ingrid Bergman had starred in the 1938 Swedish film and now Crawford wanted to star in an American version. Mayer didn’t like the fact that one of his beautiful stars would have to be “uglied” up for the role since the movie’s plot is about a disfigured woman who turns to a life of crime since society has rejected her because of her deformity. Anna Holm(Crawford) was burned on one side of her face when she was a child. Her widowed, drunken father accidentally set the house on fire while Anna was asleep. She was rescued but her father died in the flames. Throughout her growing up years she felt rejected by society as people would stare at her face or try to avoid her altogether. Upon reaching adulthood, Anna decides to make money off of the weak and foolish of the world so she becomes a very good blackmailer. Simultaneously owning a tavern/restaurant in a secluded, wooded area outside of Stockholm proper, she draws in a rich clientele who like to meet at her business for rendezvous away from prying eyes. It is to this clientele that she finds customers to blackmail. She is aided by 3 con artists who are under her employ: Bernard Dalvik(Reginald Owen), his wife Christina Dalvik(Connie Gilchrist), and Herman Rundvik(Donald Meek).
One evening as a loud party of 10 people are preparing to leave, the host of the party wants to put the bill on his tab. He is told that he’ll have to discuss that with the proprietess. When this fellow saunters into Anna’s office, he is polite, charming, and very suave. It is this man, Torsten Barring(Conrad Veidt) who is the main villain of A Woman’s Face and his character will soon have the vulnerable Anna under his spell! Through my reading about this movie, I came across a snippet that when Veidt was asked to describe his character, Torsten Barring, Veidt smiled and replied that he was playing Satan in a tuxedo!
In Torsten’s party is Vera Segert(Osa Massen), the young and beautiful wife of Dr. Segert(Melvyn Douglas). Dr. Segert wasn’t at Torsten’s party which is how Vera wanted it. She used the party to flirt with another man the entire evening, and it is soon noticed by Torsten that Vera and this other man have a thing going on. All of this potential for blackmail is on Torsten’s mind when he meets Anna in her office. He surprises her as he doesn’t flinch in horror when he sees her face but treats her gallantly, kisses her hand, and her reaction is one of utter shock, that a man would treat her so kindly.
Torsten soon has Anna working for him in the blackmailing game. She goes to his lavish apartment at first just for business and assignments but soon Torsten pours on more charm and Anna finds herself falling in love with him. Veidt, in real life, had piercing blue eyes and he used them to great effect in his acting. Crawford was so impressed by his skills that she said in her later years that she had rarely met another actor who had shown such dramatic skills and depth as Veidt. Torsten next tells Anna that a big prize awaits them. He has the love letters that Vera Segert had foolishly sent to the man at the party Torsten hosted. Torsten arranges for Vera Segert to go to Anna’s 3 con artist employees to beg for the letters and to get an idea of how much money it will cost her to get them back. Anna then goes to Vera’s home at an agreed to time that evening with the letters. Anna demands more money from Vera for the letters. Vera hotly refuses and then cruelly shines a light on Anna’s face, exposing her deformity. Anna then unloads a slapfest on Vera’s face and unexpectedly, Dr. Segert arrives home. He thinks Anna is an intruder, intent on swiping his wife’s jewels and Vera begs him to just let Anna go. He notices Anna’s scars and tells her that he is a skilled plastic surgeon and he thinks he could take her scars away. He shows her books of successfully treated patients and Anna does agree to and does have the surgery. It is a long, two year process but Anna and Dr. Segert persevere and develop an admiration for one another. He for her survival skills in a cruel world and she for his compassion for his fellow man.
Anna delights in showing Torsten her new face. She feels like a brand new woman as she is now beautiful. Torsten seems happy for her but then he tells her about his extended family. His aged Uncle Magnus Barring(Albert Bassermann) is very wealthy and has sadly decided to leave all of his fortune to a 4 year old grandson, Lars-Erik(Richard Nichols). It is at this point in the film where Veidt’s Torsten becomes truly mad, in a stealthily, quiet way. No screaming or tantrums are thrown. He just sidles up to Anna and quietly explains to her his plan. He tells Anna that he will recommend her to his Uncle Magnus for a governess job for little Lars-Erik. Then, after a time, Anna will kill Lars-Erik and he, Torsten, will be the only one to inherit his uncle’s fortune. Anna is in shock over this information, but doesn’t react hastily. She seems to know that her love for this man is now over, but that if she lets on that it is, he’ll probably try to kill her. too. So, reluctantly, Anna agrees to being a new governess for Lars-Erik.
After several months have gone by working in Uncle Magnus’s household, Anna has grown to be quite fond of the old man and her charge, Lars-Erik. A birthday celebration has been planned for Uncle Magnus, a weekend-long event and to Anna’s dread, Torsten arrives at the party in time to scoop her into his arms on the dance floor, to kindly snarl in her ear his questions as to why Lars-Erik is still alive? To add to the stress Anna is now under, Dr. Segert also arrives for the party. He is delighted to see Anna again and they share a dance or two. She discovers that he is in the process of divorcing his unfaithful wife, Vera. Anna and the doctor have a growing attraction to one another which adds to the noirish aspects of this drama: does Anna tell the man she is falling in love with about her life as a blackmailer, about her relationship with Torsten, and also reveal the evil plan to kill a child in order to inherit a fortune? Would that new man even want to be around her if he knew about anything from her past? Will Torsten keep reminding Anna to kill the child and if she doesn’t, will he take the matter into his own hands?
I won’t reveal the answers to these questions as I want you, the readers of this blog, to seek this film out! It has aired from time to time on TCM so keep your eyes alert to their monthly schedules to see if it will be airing sometime this year. A Woman’s Face is availabe to buy at Amazon, but it is in a Joan Crawford 5-dvd set and it’s pricey. It is available in a European dvd that is lower-priced and in VHS format, which is even lower in cost, but VHS? I want to add that in the cast is the always awesome Marjorie Main as a grumpy housekeeper, so watch for her when you do see the movie.
The villain of the film, Conrad Veidt, had a successful and interesting acting career. He died too young, at the age of 50, suffering a heart attack on a golf course in Los Angeles in 1943. Born and raised in Germany, he served in the German Army in WWI, rising to the rank of NCO. Becoming very ill during the war, he was sent to a war hospital on the Baltic coast and received a letter from a girlfriend, Lucie Mannheim. She had just been hired to work with an acting company based in Libau, Latvia. Intrigued, he put in for a transfer to Libau and the Army agreed, stipulating that he work to entertain the troops. When the war ended, Veidt moved to Berlin to study acting in earnest. His skills paid off as he became a popular and busy actor in the German silent movie industry. Probably his most famous role at that time was as the sleepwalking Cesare in 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. With his success in Germany, it was time to make a try in Hollywood, and he did, famously appearing in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs. Some even believe that Veidt’s “look” for this film inspired the look for one of Batman’s villains, The Joker.
As talking movies came into the forefront and silents went away, Veidt had trouble learning to speak English and his accent was deemed too heavy so it was time to return to Germany. Veidt’s career continued there until he and his second wife, Illona Prager, a Jewish woman, moved to England to avoid the grasp of the rising Nazis. In England, Veidt continued his acting career and improved his ability to speak the English language. I have seen some of the films he made in England and he got to play the heroes, which was a refreshing view of Veidt. He played a Jewish man in 1934’s Power, playing Josef Oppenheimer, who in 1730’s Germany, helped a duke rise in power, and in the process made a way for himself to leave the Jewish ghetto behind. Then, when the duke tries to harm a member of Oppenheimer’s family, it’s revenge time. In 1935 he starred in Passing of the Third Floor Back, which some kind soul has put on Youtube! Veidt plays a mysterious and yet kind man, almost a messianic figure, who only wants to help the fellow boarders at a rooming house he has moved to. In 1939, he was the lead in The Spy in Black. It was called U-Boat 29 for U.S. audiences. Veidt plays U-Boat Captain Hardt , WWI is the time frame. He is to meet a spy on the Orkney Islands, who turns out not to be what she seems. Veidt is a conflicted man in this piece, not an out and out villain, falling in love with the spy who isn’t who she is pretending to be. Valerie Hobson plays the spy and this was an early Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger creation. It was back to playing a villain in 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad. A technicolor masterpiece from the Korda brothers. Veidt plays the evil Jafar and I really think the Disney animators used his image in creating the Jafar for their version of the story. Veidt was very tall and slendor which seems to be the inspiration for the animated Jafar.
After this film, Veidt tried Hollywood again. With WWII raging, he stipulated that if he played Nazis, that he play baddies, no conflicted Nazis with a hint of goodness. His most famous Hollywood film is 1942’s Casablanca, where he plays with great relish the villainous Major Strasser, out to catch any freedom fighters trying to leave Casablanca.
It has been quite fun for me to read about Conrad Veidt for this blogathon. He was a very skilled actor who could play the villain with the best of them, using his piercing gaze and his voice to smoothly convey his manipulative form of evil that his characters just seemed to wear like an aura around them. In closing, I’ll post this neat video tribute to Veidt as Torsten Barring in A Woman’s Face, found on Youtube. In fact, there are a ton of clips of Veidt’s work over the years, both silent movie scenes as well as talkies, so plan on putting your feet up and getting comfortable if you decided to view all that Youtube has for viewing Veidt’s scenes.