(a fake love story)



v.s. Hollywood

I. Introduction

In Postwar era, with great development in business and military industry in World War II, American faced a promising future in a general sense, however, some fatal challenges were presented in front of Hollywood moguls – in one sense, as television became the most popular entertainment for new suburbia communities, fewer and fewer people went to movie theatres to watch Hollywood’s over-productive big hits; In another vein, as a result of the “Paramount decision”, the monopoly in the Hollywood big studios’ filmmaking “production-distribution-exhibition” flow-line broke down, and theatres sat no more in a passive position where they had to endure the unequal trade with Hollywood big fives. Hollywood had to make its new move to keep on the business. One of the big five companies, RKO, was even facing a bigger challenge that Howard Hughes, the maverick industrialist, the “mad man” of aviation, took over the company in 1948. According to Richard B. Jewell’s book on RKO, Howard transformed the structure of company board, moved the manage office away from studio and seldom met his employees, not to mention the vanishing of routine meetings in shooting studio. He was surely a smart business man, whereas he was too meticulous to catch up with the rapidness in film industry, resulting the massive delays in film shooting. As a result of all mentioned above, RKO seemed to meet its doom in late 1940s. Every story has its turning point, and the story of RKO is of no exception.

Howard Hughes finally showed his outstanding sense of business in a scandal case of Robert Mitchum’s drug use by offering him the best lawyer and taking this case as a propaganda for Mitchum’s next film, and he made it, Mitchum’s new picture Rachel and the stranger (1948) became that year’s biggest hit for RKO. After this, RKO kinds of got used to using the scandals and rumors to arouse attention from audience, and Stromboli (1950), is one of the case.

Stromboli, directed by Italian director Rossellini, lead performed by Ingrid Bergman, produced by RKO and Berit Production (founded by Rossellini and Ingrid), tells a story about a literate woman married a fisherman in refugee and followed him to a marginal island called Stromboli, then she tried to escape from the unbearable uncivilization and banality in the island to somewhere else. The film is controversial in many aspects. Firstly, it is co-produced by a Hollywood big studio and a European indie studio, and the film was edited in two distinct ways aiming for American and European markets. And the conflict between two producing companies is so dramatic that Howard again used this opposition as a propagation. The first controversy lies in the two quite opposite aesthetic style and the parted ideology that grounded in styles. Secondly, Ingrid Bergman devoted her debut for Art films in this picture and what she faced was a wide across gap between Hollywood stardom system and a crew without any performance experience, so the question of whether she should escape from Hollywood to neorealism has always been heated discussed in worldwide attention. Finally, the film has been debated on for years because the motif of the film is not a direct reflection for the people at bottom of society fighting back fascism during the war, which is presumably the symbol of neorealism in that specific period, but is questions of how people get back into real living from war and where is the balance between new and old, men and women, nature and human. The scholars condemned Rossellini for his betrayal on neorealism, and even claimed that the film is nothing but a customized picture about Ingrid Bergman.

For me, I take great interest in this film, mostly because I reckon the differences between the two versions could act as a mirror, reflecting clearly the major disagreements of Hollywood style and Italian neorealism, and these disagreements are significant because in later decades after Stromboli, the tension between so-called commercial films and art films might just be developed from these early distinctions. So, in this paper I would put the analysis of the differences as my main focus. Besides, in term of Ingrid Bergman, I would like to explore the transformation of Hollywood’s favorite actress. By analyzing these two aspects, I would trying to find some coherence from the story to film form, and to Rossellini’s thematic pursue in the Stromboli.

II. Mirroring Stromboli – a product of Hollywood / a question of Rossellini

The two versions of Stromboli differ in many ways, like opening scenes, the voice- overs, the length of specific shots, the ending plots and so on. Fortunately, I find both versions of it, and also find some information from Peter Brunette’s critic book on Roberto Rossellini, where he points out the distinction in detail. (I believe there’s another early English version because the differences in two pictures I found are much less than the book tells.) Here I select four main differences for discussion.

  • Opening Scenes:
  • The Italian version starts with credit upon some flowing foggy clouds ( some illustrate the clouds as the dust from Stromboli volcano); while in English version the credit runs against the map of Mediterranean area, and camera zooms in focusing on the word “Stromboli”. This opening scene sets the tone of narration for the film. In Italian version, the dust is in fluid, and that forms a tone of ambivalence and intangibility, just as Rossellini told, the film is not an answer but a question, it is made for some reflection on postwar identity of Italian people. However, the English version is somewhat practical, specific, and it sets audience in an omniscient perspective from the very beginning. In another word, as the introduction for the film, the English opening scene works to serve the audience than to loyally adhere to director’s thematic imply.

  • The Twenty-Minute Cut-Off
  • The Italian version of film lasts for 106 minutes while the English version lasts for 88 minutes. The missing parts in English version mostly are Karin’s (the heroin) troublesome daily life, for example, the long trip from refugee to Stromboli is mostly cut off except for some images of the lighthouse keeper because this character has his narrative part in the last act of escaping , and also the detail in Karin’s decorating house is partly missing. From where I stand, I can see the Hollywood studio tried to keep the most dramatic parts in film, or to say keep some logically useful plots to maintain the film’s narration in its conventional stream-line, and the best way to highlights these “narrative plots” is to diminish the non-narrative ones. While I think the missing parts are exactly the soul of neo-realistic film. In these detailed portraits, our heroin accumulates her sadness, disappointment and despair and these partial changes in emotion will finally burst out in the last act as well as the burst of volcano. Here is one example of missing realism: after she argues and fights with her husband, she cries to runaway, and without any narrative intention, she meets a boy and yells at the boy “talk to me!”, from which we could see the Karin’s desperation in inability of communication, this inability will continue on and keep adding on the final decision to leave.

  • The Voice-Over
  • English version has its special voice-over. The voice-over connects the primary plots and highlights them with direct explanation. For instance, when light house keeper fishes and plays with Karin, a line of women are looking down at them from behind the wall. The voice-over in this scene goes “the tongues will wag over this simple, thoughtless act”, again implying the later narrative part for light house keeper. I figure the existence of voice-over has its advantages in guiding the film, however, is also the disturb in watching experience. What’s more, it is like the map in opening scene, setting audience in a distantly omniscient view.

  • Finale
  • Endings in two versions are quite opposite: just like the final climax in the story, the tension of different film narrative styles finally come to the climax in the last plot. After the outburst of volcano at night, Karin wakes up to see the sun climbing from the other side of mountain. From here two versions separate. The English version shows her coming back to village, while the Italian version shows her bursting into tears, saying “my lord, my god!”, with no sign of her coming back. Different choices of plot, especially the ending plot, show clearly the thematic pursue and moral value of this film. The choice for English version is clear, she comes back to the life she struggles in, because she is no longer captured in her unrealistic pursue for a better life, that is to say, she has given up on the pursue and decides to come down to the ground to live a peaceful life. The ideology of this version, in my viewpoint, is religious and conventional, it is kind of the propaganda of American postwar politics, suggesting people to be settled in the peaceful life. While the English version is like a closed circle, the Italian version looks like a line with no ends. In an interview of Rossellini, he talked about the ending of Stromboli, he mentioned that the final outcry for lord is actually what the film tried to capture, that is the real emotion with comparison to the numbness in postwar Italy, and besides that, if there is a proper solution to the problem the film presents is of no importance, the turning point of rebirth in real emotion is all that matters, and what happens after the turning point is just another story. I believe such ideology suited the situation in postwar Italy, to live again, and to find the realness in heart.

In conclusion, these differences are the reflection of different ideology, and of different position in the postwar era, after all, the American and Italian were hurt by fascist in quite different ways. In cinematic convention, English version tries to set the audience in an overall perspective, and tries to make the film look like Hollywood melodrama, with logical plots, glamorous heroin, and a moral lesson to tell. At the same while, Rossellini sets audience in shoes of the people living in Stromboli, with many detailed descriptions, you observe this non-love-story in a realistic way. Besides that, Rossellini seems care more about the wholeness in his thematic pursue, raising question about binary dualities in real world and dilemmas in communication, that he cares less about the acceptance of audience.

III. Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini’s window

It is hard to say whether Stromboli made Ingrid or Ingrid made Stromboli, however, Rossellini managed to find potential possibility in Ingrid’s image. Back in Hollywood, Ingrid was a face that set into alike pattern of storytelling. She is an attraction, a visual pleasure, and the insurance for box office harvest. While Rossellini sees her in a more ambitious way. In Stromboli, Ingrid is no longer a persona without deep emotion, because Karin is not a girl trapped in the love story waiting for her prince to save her, she stands for so many abstract titles, like the civil, the displaced, the sexual attraction, the newcomer, the cold-blooded and so on. Ingrid needs to integrate these facets into a living woman, and with so many long takes, she has to act out her complex feelings in one shot.

For example, the shot after Karin fought with her husband, there is a 2-minute long take of her crying. It starts with her looking outside the window, weeping in sadness; then probably when she sees off her husband from window, she turns around hearing a baby cry from outside, and some of her sadness fluids to curiosity, she keeps crying but with lower voice; suddenly when she comes back from curiosity, she starts to cry even louder, burying herself into a deeper layer of desperation, when she leans on the pillar of bed she sees her coat in dust, she stops crying for a bit while and cleans her coat by shaking, and soon turns back into crying; then she focuses on the money on bed, she walks over to collect them into her purse and hides it under the pillow, all the while she keeps weeping; the long take ends in her crying and moving towards the baby cry from outside. Crying is no longer a breath-taking scene to show the vulnerable beauty in heroin, but a complex mixture of many emotions.

In this scene, Ingrid has to cry for whole two seconds, and to show curiosity for baby’s cry for twice, the desperate disappointment in money for once, and also the fear of her husband. Her emotion shifts quickly from one to another, just like in real life, people not only cry but cry with the process of many more feelings flowing in the sadness. More than the challenges of acting out multiple emotions, Ingrid for the first time acts a role who is standing on the edge of black and white. Karin is a woman in vanity, she looks upon the islanders for their “uncivilization”, also she is a woman of bravery and independence that she takes responsibility to carry her unborn baby to a better livelihood.

If the performance of Karin in village shows only the changes of Ingrid’s acting style, the finale, from climbing up the volcano to her outcry for God, forces her to accomplish her transformation from a Hollywood figure to a realist actress that devotes all her soul into the role. In this sequence, Karin breaks down for twice. First breakdown takes place when she is too tired to walk on, she whispers to herself, “I cannot do it anymore.” Then she curls up herself, tears coming out, she burst into crying the words “I don't have the courage!”. In Rossellini’s intention, the scene is to show how the numbness of people in postwar era turns into the realness, comparing to the crying long take, the fluid of emotion in this scene is stilled, now with the crying of realizing the inability of human being, she cries for herself, for the vulnerable soul inside, and that is just how Rossellini tries to convey in this picture: the sin of war is the sin of making people forget/hide true feelings. The second breakdown comes after she wakes up to enjoy and worship the beauty of nature. Karin looks at the village down below, and looks at the misty winding road towards the other side, she starts to cry, asking God to offer her courage and mercy, echoing the opening words of Bible. I reckon this outcry as the representation of the human in their self dilemma. It is not an answer to fixing this dilemma, but just a portrait of desperation.

As we all know, there is never a perfect solution for this dilemma. Ingrid devoted her professional performance for the three “cries”, including the cry in that long-take mentioned above. And by finishing her performance in volcano Stromboli, she is now a window for Rossellini, no more a persona for Hollywood melodrama.

IV. Conclusion : Crossing over Hollywood

With the analysis above, we could draw a conclusion that the main difference between Hollywood’s 1950 product and Neo-realism is actually in their narration, and narration is a mirror reflecting their ideology and position in postwar circumstances. Hollywood film style intends to serve the audience, while Neo-realism film keep loyal in presenting the ideology of its director. Also, the realistic films offer the actors and actress challenges that they need to present shifts in emotion, they need to work with unprofessional crew and with director whose idea could be so complicated and deep. In a word, the Neo-realism films are almost the counterparts for Hollywood pictures.

The whole invasion from European art film to Hollywood took place in 1960s, with global new wave movements and flourishing art theatres. However, as the pioneer of art films, Stromboli has left a quite astonishing impression in Hollywood’s 1950s.

  • Peter Brunette. Roberto Rossellini[M]. Univ of California Press, 1996.
  •  Jewell R B. Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures[M]. Univ of California Press,2016.
  • Gelley O. Ingrid Bergman's star persona and the alien space of Stromboli[J]. Cinema Journal, 2008, 47(2): 26-51.
  • Lewis J. American film: A history[M]. WW Norton & Company, 2007.