Elisabeth Bergner | Screen Queen

Screen capture of Elisabeth Bergner as Catherine in “The Rise of Catherine The Great” (1934).

By David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out

Cinephiles of classic cinema relish the old movie myths about long-lost works, finding niche films, or making personal rediscoveries of forgotten actresses like Elisabeth Bergner. Bergner was largely known as a stage actress in the Shakespearean style in the 1920s and 30s, but she also played roles in 13 films, in a career that spanned from 1927 to 1982. She played Ophelia in “Hamlet” on the Zürich stage at the Stadttheater. She even quit a job, through odd circumstances, as the character Anna in the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1941 classic film, “49th Parallel”. You can still see long-shots of her in the film, but the role was later given to actress Glynis Johns. She played Rosalind in a 1936 film version of “As You Like It”, which starred a young chap named Lawrence Olivier. Bergner even provided the inspiration for the 1950 Joseph L. Mankiewicz film, “All About Eve”, starring Bette Davis. For a time in the 1930s, Bergner was thought of as having no equal in the British theatre, despite being a transplant originally born in 1897 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She had been one of the more popular stage and screen actresses in pre-World War II Germany, before moving to London in 1932 after the rise of Naziism.

A still photograph of actress Elisabeth Bergner.

In an article written by Kathlyn Hayden for the fan magazine Photoplay (“Elisabeth Bergner: Puppet or Genius?”, June 1934), the writer describes the numerous times she tried and failed to get an interview with the presumably shy, self-conscious and reluctant actress. Hayden can’t quite decide the answer to her own question. She describes an actress who disliked speaking in public, who looked at the ground as if she was afraid to make eye contact, and who wasn’t able to work on a film set without the presence of her husband-director Paul Czinner. The piece begins with Hayden being given access to the set of Czinner’s 1934 film, “The Rise of Catherine the Great”, a movie produced by legendary director Alexander Korda. It’s a story set in 1745 Russia, about the diminutive Catherine, who is set to marry the rakish, cruel, and eventually bonkers Grand Duke Peter (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), in the hopes of producing an heir if his aunt, the Empress Elisabeth (played beautifully by Flora Robson) doesn’t make one of her boy-toys a lucky man. The film begins like a romantic screwball comedy. Catherine overhears that Peter has declined the marriage, despite never having met her. She voices her frustration with a new courtly acquaintance, unaware that he is in fact the duke himself. It’s a wonderful meet-cute, and Fairbanks Jr. delivers some well-written self-depreciating lines about the duke being selfish and mean.

But the film takes a turn toward the serious, dumping the comedy after the first quarter set-up, becoming a sort of feminist picture about the potential of women when they’re without men. It’s quite remarkable in that respect for the time period. One of the best scenes in the film begins after the virgin Catherine is finally married to the duke. On their honeymoon night, he wrongly believes that their meeting may not have been so cute and innocent, and that Catherine cleverly set it all up. So he jilts his new bride for another woman. Catherine decides that the way to seduce the duke again is to make him jealous. She tells him she’s had 17 lovers and the duke pretends he doesn’t care. (Coincidentally, the 1931 film “Ariane” is a film in which Bergner plays a character who makes up stories about having numerous lovers to win over a Don Juan.) At one point, over tea, Catherine describes one of her make-believe love-making sessions to the duke, suggesting a suitor came to her bedroom, they drank and read Voltaire. The duke responds, “And then what happened?” She gives a wry smile, and replies, “Well, one does get bored with reading.” It’s a beautiful line, gracefully delivered.

Hayden writes an interesting observation about Bergner during the writer’s on-set film experience: “Fairbanks was onstage. But there was no Miss Bergner … When everything was set to Dr. Czinner’s satisfaction, he hurried off to a distant part of the stage. A specially-built dressing-room stood there. Dr. Czinner entered it. A moment later he reappeared. He was leading Elisabeth Bergner by the hand. She looked a colorless, unimpressive little thing … And here is a strange thing. Not once in the slow walk to the cameras did the woman raise her eyes from the floor! … A raucous-voiced assistant bellowed for silence. The shooting of the scene began. Instantly Miss Bergner was transformed. From that colorless, unimpressive little thing she changed into a vibrant, magnificent, fearless woman — a woman of royal birth. She was Catherine.” Fairbanks Jr. went on to explain to the writer that no one on the set ever rehearsed with Bergner, and he suspected that all her rehearsal time was with her husband, and that at no time did he ever see her do more than one take for each scene. A 1939 article in Picturegoer also described a minimalist on-set approach between husband and wife: “Hardly a word is spoken during the shooting of a scene on a Bergner film. Each knows what the other is trying to achieve.”

It must have been something to watch this mousy little Catherine transform from pupa to butterfly. It’s easy to sense in the article, both Hayden’s amazement and trepidation about whether Bergner was indeed just that good, or just that practiced. When first watching “The Rise of Catherine The Great”, the initial surprise is just how petite Bergner is, like a German-accented Claudette Colbert or woman-child like Mary Pickford. And yes, some of her acting seems a bit closer to the stage or silent pictures, like her role in Czinner’s less-seen 1929 German-film “Fräulein Else”, based on a novella by famed Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler. (The author whose 1926 novella, “Traumnovelle”, was the inspiration for director Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film “Eyes Wide Shut”.) But there’s something difficult to describe about the quality of her screen presence, despite playwright George Bernard Shaw’s dismissal of her acting skills. She’s not overwhelmingly beautiful like Greta Garbo or Norma Shearer, but it’s her physical allure, facial charm, her tininess, her hand movements, and the way she moves her mouth that keeps you transfixed. (Something in her face suggests Kristin Scott Thomas.) Bergner uses some stagey silent-acting elements, like bringing her hands up to her face to show shock and surprise. But she also had good comedic timing, early in the picture, like the way Carole Lombard used to let rip on a good riposte. Perhaps it’s Shakespeare that best summarizes Bergner as an actress: “… And, though she be but little, she is fierce.”

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