Gaslight: Cukor Guiding Ingrid Bergman to her First Oscar

Upon release from hi short service in the army, George Cukor’s first assignment at Metro was Gaslight, based on the 1938 English hit play. On Broadway, it was called Angel Street, and also enjoyed a lengthy run of two years. MGM bought the rights to the 1940 British film, Angel Street, starring Anton Walbrook and Dianna Wynyard, and withdrew it from circulation for fear of competition.

Gaslight became one of Cukor’s best pictures. His version was 30 minutes longer than the British and, marked by rich detail, it had a more substantial narrative and greater psychological depth. The superbly crafted script was co-written by John Van Drutten, who was strong in dialogue, and Walter Reisch, who excelled in plot construction. Cukor met the challenge of moving the narrative out of the confines of the stage, which made Gaslight his most disguised adaptation of a play.

Set in 1885, the story chronicles Gregory Anton’s (Charles Boyer) wooing and wedding of Paula (Ingrid Bergman), who has inherited the mansion of Anton’s murder victim, singer Alice Alquest. Upon return from idyllic honeymoon, Anton sets about to drive his wife insane so that he can conveniently put her in an institution. The title derives from the gas jet in the bedroom, which ominously dims whenever Anton turns on the lamp in the attic, to search for the valuable jewels.

In the best Hitchcockian tradition, Cukor tips off the audience early on as to Anton’s duplicity and sordid scheme. By giving this vital information away, before the heroine finds out, the suspense in Gaslight is prolonged. The tension builds steadily to a climax in which Paula finds out that her husband has never had any genuine feelings for her. Cukor also hints at Anton’s perverse fetishism, a notion ahead of its time.

As Gaslight was an indoor film set mostly at night, Cukor used dark and claustrophobic sets. He successfully created a mood of paranoia, with the house becoming a trap of terror, menacing in all its clutter. Cukor requested that Huldchinsky, a German refugee, design the sets, and the latter’s imaginative sets are an example of the dazzling resources of the big studios. Cukor didn’t have to go out and get any of the period pieces; they were all there. “You just had to take a firm stand and get the right personnel to work with you,” Cukor told Lambert. “Once you made it clear what you wanted and how desperately you wanted it, the studio would go with it.”

Selznick didn’t interfere much in the making of the film, even though the two stars, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten, were under contract to him. Both actors complained to Cukor about Selznick’s rigid hand, perceiving themselves, as Cotten noted, as “slaves bound in golden chains.” Selznick actually praised Cukor’s meticulous attention to the film’s atmosphere. His one and only suggestion was a retake of the final sequence, to emphasize that the husband’s imprisonment meant Paula’s release from bondage.

Cukor had met Ingrid Bergman during her tests for Intermezzo, her first American film. Upon arrival in Hollywood, she sent flowers to her compatriot Garbo, whom she long admired but had not met. But Garbo’s thank-you note came only days before she left town, making it impossible for the two to meet. Knowing they were close friends, Bergman asked Cukor about Garbo’s strange behavior. But of course, Cukor told Bergman, “Greta wouldn’t have sent the telegram unless she were certain you were leaving.”

At the beginning of the shoot, to sustain tension on the set, Cukor constantly told Bergman the point of each scene. It was a habit of his to talk with actors between takes, to “keep them at a pitch, stimulate them for the next scene.” When he first approached Bergman with his talk, she froze him with a cold Swedish stare. “You know,” she said, “I’m not stupid, you told me that some time before.” “I’m sorry,” said Cukor and walked away. She had him so spooked that, later, when he had something important to say to her, he was afraid to do so.

A few days later, Margaret Booth, MGM’s cutter, complained to Cukor that Bergman was acting as though she were “underwater.” Cukor saw her point and before the next take, stormed into Bergman’s room and told her what he had been holding back. Moments after storming out, he came back and told her again. “Piss on that!” he said to himself, “Damn it, she’s going to get used to the way I work. Actors have to listen.”

Bergman did listen and won her first Oscar under Cukor’s guidance. “I am still in a haze about my Oscar,” she told Cukor. Bergman noted she could hardly express herself “in any language,” but she was grateful for his “help and understanding of my poor Paula.” Gaslight enhanced Bergman’s reputation as Hollywood’s most popular actress–Hitchcock was so taken with her performance under Cukor that he cast her in Spellbound and Notorious.