Victor Seastrom — The Sombreness of Seastrom (1925) 🇬🇧

February 19, 2024

Seastrom is one of the greatest producers in the world. His genius is unquestionable, even though he has, to a certain extent, prostituted it to American dollars. But it is our firm belief that, when he has made enough money, he will return to Sweden and give us more masterpieces.

Not so very long ago there was a Man in Sweden who made a Film, the Name of which was Mortal Clay, and this film had the misfortune to find its way to America, where it suffered complete metamorphosis.

In Sweden, the heroine was a murderess — in America, she became an innocent young thing wrongfully accused, and the sun made a halo of her vindicated curls before the final “fade-out.” Consequently, as this picture was distinguished by qualities that were altered beyond recognition in America, that country wanted the producer.

The producer was Victor Seastrom and the company that roped him in was the Goldwyn Company of America. He was to be shown the way he should go, and under American skies and for American eyes, his “Anna Christies” were to become Pollyannas, and his graveyards were to flower into orchards.

But Victor Seastrom thought differently — he would be serious even if his thunderstorms were to become sunsets — and serious he was.

In Sweden he was given carte blanche. His actors were all “born to the trade” and his themes were simple stories. carried logically to a happy or unhappy appeal — perhaps because they had no box-office appeal.

Even the titles of his Swedish films give hint as to their character, principally the beautifully impressive Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness, a very Christmassy affair with ghosts and graveyards, that, though austere was not morbid, chiefly through the excellence of the director — Victor Seastrom— and the leading actor — Victor Seastrom.

Then Seastrom went to America, and had to please not only himself as he had done in Sweden, but the public, the box-office, the film magnates, the censors, the financial experts, etc., etc., etc.; but beneath his artistic simplicity, Seastrom hides an iron will and his choice of films shows it.

His three American releases are all based on European stories: Name the Man, from Hall Caine’s Master of Men; He Who Gets Slapped, from Leonid Andreyer’s The Painted Laugh; and Confessions of a Queen, from Alphonse Daudet’s Kings in Exile. You may notice that Seastrom has changed the titles — this, however, is not an example of vandalism; he changed the stories too, and, if I may say so, with all deference to the authors, has changed them for the better.

As they stood, all three were perfectly good literary stories; when Seastrom had finished with them they were not only good literary stories, but they were also good film stories, and that is undoubtedly an achievement of great artistic genius.

But not one of the three could be called exactly cheerful. Name the Man, was the story of a judge who passed sentence on a girl he himself had betrayed; but the whole was lightened by touches of irony, like lightning flashing through a thunder-cloud. The judge in his Rolls-Royce passes the girl in her prison van; the shot showing a girl saying good-night to a photograph of her lover is followed by one showing the original thereof flirting with another girl. The timing is perfect.

He Who Gets Slapped, a discourse on the cruelty of the human laugh, is the hackneyed theme of the broken-hearted clown which absolutely bristles with original subtlety, and the shot showing the deserted circus-ring in which He is standing is not only subtle but a wonderful piece of artistry.

“The lights are switched off, one by one, till only the clown’s white painted face stands out in impenetrable blackness — an epitome of Seastrom’s genius — light touches standing out amid general gloom.

Confessions of a Queen is a Ruritanian theme with a long-suffering Queen — Alice Terry, and a dissolute King — Lewis Stone; and here the acting of the principals lifts Seastrom’s production shoulder-high above the ordinary.

So although one can lead a horse to water, one cannot make him drink unless he wants to. Victor Seastrom has conformed in the main to the American standards of movie-making, he has mastered their superior technique and photography, but he has retained his originality. His films now have box-office appeal. This is proven by the praise bestowed on He Who Gets Slapped by a leading American reviewer — “Most of the glory of the picture goes to Seastrom who directed the picture with so much feeling and intelligence that you wonder why all movies can’t be as good — especially when the poor old public seems so deeply appreciative of the boon.” Yes, they have box-office appeal, but they are still and sober, artistic and — sombre.

Collection: Picturegoer Magazine, September 1925


see also Victor Seastrom — New Hope for the American Photoplay (1923)