Ingrid Bergman Remembers How Ernest Hemingway Helped Her Get the Part in For Whom the Bell Tolls

Ernest Hem­ing­way took a dim view of Hol­ly­wood. He once said that the best way for a writer to deal with the movie busi­ness was to arrange a quick meet­ing at the Cal­i­for­nia state line. “You throw them your book, they throw you the mon­ey,” he said.“Then you jump into your car and dri­ve like hell back the way you came.”

But Hem­ing­way became a lit­tle more involved when it was time to film his 1940 nov­el For Whom the Bell Tolls, as this 1971 CBC inter­view with Ingrid Bergman reveals. Hem­ing­way sold the film rights to Para­mount Pic­tures in part because he want­ed his good friend Gary Coop­er, who had starred in A Farewell to Arms (which you can find in our col­lec­tion of 500 Free Movies Online), to play the lead role of Robert Jor­dan, an Amer­i­can vol­un­teer in the Span­ish Civ­il War who is giv­en a dan­ger­ous mis­sion to blow up a bridge. Coop­er was under con­tract with Para­mount.

Bergman first came to Hem­ing­way’s atten­tion when he saw the young Swedish actress in the 1939 Hol­ly­wood remake of Inter­mez­zo. Despite her Nordic appear­ance, Hem­ing­way thought Bergman would be per­fect for the role of the young Span­ish woman Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls. As Bergman explains in the inter­view, Hem­ing­way sent her a copy of the book with the inscrip­tion, “You are the Maria in this book.”

The prob­lem was that Bergman was under con­tract with anoth­er stu­dio, Selznick Inter­na­tion­al Pic­tures. But stu­dios occa­sion­al­ly made arrange­ments with one anoth­er to share actors, and David O. Selznick became con­vinced that the high-pro­file Hem­ing­way project would be great for his young pro­tégé’s career. So in typ­i­cal fash­ion, Selznick pulled out all the stops. On Jan­u­ary 31, 1941 Selznick sent a note to Kay Brown, his tal­ent scout who had dis­cov­ered Bergman in Swe­den, describ­ing his efforts to win Bergman the part. In a pas­sage quot­ed by Don­ald Spo­to in Noto­ri­ous: The Life of Ingrid Bergman, Selznick writes:

I pinned Hem­ing­way down today and he told me clear­ly and frankly that he would like to see her play the part. He also said this to the press today. How­ev­er, he tells me also that at Para­mount he was told she was wood­en, untal­ent­ed, and var­i­ous oth­er things. Need­less to say, I answered these var­i­ous charges.… I am also per­son­al­ly super­vis­ing a pub­lic­i­ty cam­paign to try to jock­ey Para­mount into a posi­tion where they will almost have to use her. You will be see­ing these items from time to time. Inci­den­tal­ly, Ingrid was­n’t in town today, or I could have brought her togeth­er with Hem­ing­way. How­ev­er, we are arrang­ing for her to fly today to see Hem­ing­way in San Fran­cis­co before he sails for Chi­na. If he likes her, I am ask­ing him to go to town with Para­mount on it. If she does­n’t get the part, it won’t be because there has­n’t been a sys­tem­at­ic cam­paign to get it for her!

As part of Selznick­’s sys­tem­at­ic cam­paign, he invit­ed Life mag­a­zine to pho­to­graph Bergman’s lunch with Hem­ing­way and his wife, Martha Gell­horn, at Jack­’s Restau­rant in San Fran­cis­co. The mag­a­zine pub­lished a series of pho­tos along with a cap­tion quot­ing Hem­ing­way as say­ing, “If you don’t act in the pic­ture, Ingrid, I won’t work on it.”

Despite Selznick­’s machi­na­tions, Para­mount gave the part to one of its own con­tract actress­es, the bal­let dancer Vera Zori­na. Bergman had to con­tent her­self with the female lead in a lit­tle black-and-white film called Casablan­ca. But after sev­er­al weeks of shoot­ing the Hem­ing­way film in the Sier­ra Neva­da, Para­mount became unhap­py with Zori­na’s per­for­mance. Just as Bergman was wrap­ping up Casablan­ca, her wish came through and she was giv­en the role of Maria. For Whom the Bell Tolls became the block­buster hit of 1943, and Bergman received an Oscar nom­i­na­tion for her per­for­mance. Iron­i­cal­ly, though, it was her role in the low-pro­file Casablan­ca that sealed Bergman’s fate as a film icon.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Six Post­cards From Famous Writ­ers: Hem­ing­way, Kaf­ka, Ker­ouac & More

Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea Ani­mat­ed Not Once, But Twice

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  • Tahoedirt says:

    As a boy, I nev­er under­stood my father’s dis­dain for Hol­ly­wood and all the stars with their awards shows. Now as I look back, with some age and I hope a lit­tle wis­dom, I under­stand his feel­ings. Like most young men, he was in the Pacif­ic fight­ing the war, while all these peo­ple stayed home hav­ing their ace lick­ing con­test.

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