The great mogul David O. Selznick had one of the finest-tuned senses for what people liked to watch of just about any producer in Hollywood in the 1930s, and in 1939 he decided that what the audience wanted were torrid melodramas about impossible love. The most famous of the three films he produced that year wouldn't come out until late December, and a highly anticipated thing it was too: perhaps you've heard of Gone with the Wind? But a producer like Selznick couldn't live on just one tentpole per year alone, and he released another film, far less prestigious but not without its own hint of must-see glamour. For with this picture, Intermezzo: A Love Story (Selznick insisted on the subtitle, fearing that your average U.S. moviegoer would otherwise assume it was some kind of posh foreign picture), the producer was introducing Hollywood to a young actress who'd already been quite a hit in Europe, assuring everyone that this was going to be the first step in a wonderful career for one of the great future stars of the screen. And while such breathless hyperbole is usually more sizzle than steak, it turned out that Selznick's promises really meant something, for the gorgeous 24-year-old woman who thus made her first appearance in an English-language film did in fact go on to become one of the great movie stars of all time: perhaps you've heard of Ingrid Bergman?

Intermezzo: ALS was based upon a 1936 Swedish film titled simply Intermezzo, which also starred Bergman; indeed, it was that film that made her a continental star, making her perhaps the only person to become famous twice for different version of the same performance. Selznick's man in Europe caught the picture, instantly recognised that the story and the actress would be ideal for America, and the rest, as they say, is history. These days, that's pretty much all that the movie is remembered for: this isn't completely fair, as it is a more than serviceable soap opera, if a '30s melodrama should be what you have a hankering for (it reminds me superficially of 1934 Best Picture nominee One Night of Love, though it is a great deal better). Certainly, though, it is first and best an Ingrid Bergman delivery system, and you can never really have too much of that, wouldn't you agree?

The story, however, does not focus on Bergman's character at all: rather, the protagonist is Holger Brandt (Leslie Howard), one of the world's great violinists, who is returning to his home in Stockholm after a lengthy world tour, to visit his family for the first time in ages. Such a charming family he has, too: a bright teenage son Eric (Douglas Scott), an effervescent eight-year-old daughter Ann Marie (Ann Todd), and a doting, harried wife, Margit (Edna Best). Initially, Holger is so pleased to be back home that he only vaguely notices that his daughter is taking piano lessons at the knee of the very beautiful and exquisitely talented Anita Hoffman (Bergman), but he starts to attend to the young woman soon enough. First it's her talents that he recognises, finding in her piano playing the perfect match for him, and he asks her to go on tour when he leaves next - an offer she is reluctant to accept, given that she's in the running for an extremely prestigious scholarship that will all but guarantee her a great career. But they end up spending a lot of time together, and Holger starts to notice her... talents. Fast-forward to a passionate love affair, a broken marriage, and a year-long tour that takes Holger and Anita across Europe as they fall deeper and deeper in love; though Holger can never quite shake the sense that he's abandoned something precious, especially in the form of his beloved Ann Marie; and there comes a point when Holger's friend and Anita's teacher, Thomas Stenborg (John Halliday), confronts the young woman with the morality of her situation, and demands that she make the choice as to whether her blissful life of constantly running away from responsibility and the future with her lover is right for her, for Holger, or indeed for anybody.

I'm sure you can guess what she decides: it was 1939, and there was a Hayes Office on. But Intermezzo does still manage to get away with quite a lot of lustiness that was ordinarily not so much okay. For starters, Anita and Holger are clearly having sex, and they're clearly doing so while he is still legally married to Margit. Adultery wasn't unheard of in the cinema of the late '30s, of course, but it was not usually so unambiguously expressed. That was Selznick for you, though, always giving audiences what they wanted: and what have audiences ever wanted more than dirty, dirty screwing?

Perhaps to make up for this, the movie is quite conservative in all other ways. It is unusually obvious throughout that Anita and Holger aren't going to end up together, and that the warmth and stability of the nuclear, normative family is going to triumph above all. Unfortunately, this means the film much also give short shrift to its single finest element, Bergman's wonderful performance: after a few moments of being waffling and indeterminate, Anita decides to do what is right, and then she walks out of Holger's life and the movie without a trace. It's hard to consider the tossed-off way in which she is removed from the plot without concluding that Anita is little more than a walking, talking, sentient plot point, and all of her own suffering is so much window dressing, hardly as important to the movie as Holger's misery at her departure. Without Bergman, I don't know that this would be at all acceptable; but she does a magnificent job of giving Anita's sketchy interior self full life before the cameras: I do not hesitate to say that we see and feel more of her suffering than Holger's, presented in much longer and fuller detail, simply because Bergman pitched herself into the role with all the skills she could muster, while Leslie Howard plays Leslie Howard, as usual. I really do get a kick out of Leslie Howard - you can't like '30s melodramas if you don't - but he didn't have a whole lot of crayons that he liked to work with, and while he is more convincing as a Swedish violinist than he has any right to be, projecting the depth of Holger's torment just wasn't among his goals. Where Bergman's pain melts the screen, Howard's pain... does not do that thing.

So it really is all about Bergman; insofar as the melodrama soars, it is because of her, in all her youthful luminescence. The mighty Gregg Toland shot the film, and according to rumor and legend it was he who observed that she looked far better to the camera without much make-up than with it, and thus she was left mostly natural, at least compared to the standards of such things in 1939. This was a big part of her legend in the early part of her career, and I think it is a partial explanation for why she remains so gorgeous all these years later: while many of the '30s glamour queens have had their distinctive looks seem dated as trends in make-up and style have changed through the years, Ingrid Bergman still as always looks like Ingrid Bergman.

And, for my money, she never looked better than when Toland was shooting her (this was their only collaboration, damn it). Of course, he was a genius, arguably the best American cinematographer in history, despite a brief career that ended with his horribly premature death at 44.* No matter what he was shooting, he probably made it look better than anybody else in Hollywood could imagine, and Ingrid Bergman's face made a particularly welcoming canvas for his particularly graceful manipulation of light. Which isn't to say that the rest of the movie isn't a glory to behold, for it is marked by a brilliant contrast between shadow-dominant scenes and lighter scenes, driving home the idea better than any screenplay ever could that Holger and Anita's love affair is only a temporary moment of bright joy, and that dark clouds are gathering around them, no matter how much they want their idyll throughout Europe to be pure delight. Life will catch up with them, darkness bursting into their beautiful, glamorous world (Hm, a metaphor for the political situation in 1939? Perhaps. And perhaps not - I don't know that I trust Selznick to be that clever, and I don't know who the hell this director Gregory Ratoff is).

So anyway, the reasons to see Intermezzo: it is beautiful as all get-out, because of Gregg Toland, and because of Ingrid Bergman; and it is torrid and maudlin, thanks to Ingrid Bergman. Hard to make that into the stuff of a rave review, but it does actually hold up better than I've probably made it sound. It is a pleasure, not at all a guilty one, but certainly a shallow one; but in 1939 or 2009, shallow pleasures are nonetheless satisfying.