After her comeback in “Anastasia” two years earlier, Ingrid Bergman was offered a five-picture contract with 20th Century Fox that pre-dated the high salary awarded to Elizabeth Taylor, in 1963, when she broke the $1 million mark with “Cleopatra.” At $1 million per picture, Bergman herself would have become the highest-paid actress in Hollywood at the time, but after a lengthy period of servitude with David O. Selznick during the 1940s, Bergman wanted the right to be selective, and have fun freelancing; so amazingly, she said ‘No, thank you.'
Bergman, however, recognized a good property when it came around, and she delivered another superb performance as Gladys Aylward, an English woman who became a missionary in China during the 1930s - a gutsy woman with an unwavering drive to help people.
For the film's premiere DVD release, Fox has gathered another excellent collection of commentators for the feature-length track: Donald Spoto, biographer, and friend of Ingrid Bergman during her final 10 years; Nick Redman, documentarian, and longtime film music producer; and Aubrey Solomon, co-writer of “The Films of 20th Century-Fox, with the late Tony Thomas.
Though Solomon's book was heavy on facts but rather dry on more personable and critical details for the film entries, it's clear from his DVD contribution that he spent extra time going through the production's history, and with 40-50 minutes of discussion time, he uses the space to give a broader examination of the studio.
Production head Buddy Adler is given some prime attention; interwoven comments from Spoto and Redman also function as an ideal venue to examine the production hierarchy within a major studio during the dynamic 1950s, when epic films were designed to woo TV viewers back to cinemas, and each studio touted it's own brand-name widescreen process.
More importantly, each commentator offers a lot of comparative details to help separate facts from fiction – a difficult chore since Aylward was repeatedly brutalized during her tenure in China, and in her later years evolved into a hardened person, with regular memory blackouts from her trauma; an accurate chronology is therefore not wholly possible.
Though 6-7 books on her life exist, Fox chose to adapt “The Small Woman” by Alan Burgess, since Burgess met her during the 1950s, and tried to balance Aylward's inability to recall precise dates and names by writing a more fanciful account of her life, focusing on the mountain trek with the orphans. Isobel Lennart's screenplay, in turn, upped the fanciful tone by stripping down harsh character traits, Aylward's emotional and physical suffering, and telescoping large yearly chunks into more concise narrative segments from the book's middle section.
Nick Redman's more personal association with Aylward began through his mother, who kept the Burgess biography on her night table for decades, and regaled Redman with stories of Aylward's incredible life. Years later, Redman sought out and met several people who knew and met his mother's idol, and his comments paint a vivid, sympathetic portrait of a woman who pretty much rejected any praise and attention for a life she characterized as unremarkable.
As a whole, this is one tightly edited commentary that weaves through a lot of material, and film buffs will get a good balance of production history and mini-bios on key cast members – including a young Burt Kwouk, and Robert Donat, in his final film role – plus good sections on composer Malcolm Arnold. As a fitting conclusion, Solomon reads the final chapter from the Burgess book, just before the huge CinemaScope logo pops up to finish the picture.
Fox' transfer looks very nice, with an aggressive surround track that booms with Arnold's rich score and lush Aylward theme. The Restoration Comparison offers a split-screen, demonstrating the enhancements done between the 1994 and 2002 video masters. The '94 master actually looks pretty good, but as explained in the commentary track, cinematographer Freddie (F.A.) Young switched to a different film stock, and the camera blimping affected the focal balance in certain shots. The split-screen shows the careful colour corrections, dirt & scratch removal, and boosted colours to offset fading that rendered the '94 exterior scenes as rather bland. The new transfer also removes harsher colour contrasts, and offers more stable frame-by-frame colour reproduction.
In addition to trailers from the Studio Classics line, Fox has included the film's original theatrical trailer (and a Spanish-subtitled version – both anamorphic), with Bergman addressing the camera before a stream of exciting money shots, set to her genial narration.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan