Between the late 1910s and the mid-1920s, Swedish films earned worldwide acclaim for their artistic production values, epic or literary themes, and spectacular imagery. Made by directors such as Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, these big-budget prestige pictures are the reason that the era became known as the “Golden Age of Swedish Cinema.” During the same period, Swedish studios also produced smaller films with modern settings and stories, often comedies or domestic dramas aimed at local audiences. The Girl in Tails is one of those “everyday” movies. It is one of four feature films directed by Karin Swanström in the 1920s, only two of which survive, along with a fragment of a third.
The Girl in Tails is based on a comic novel by Hjalmar Bergman, one of several he wrote about the denizens of Wadköping, a fictional town in central Sweden based on the writer’s hometown of Örebro. Critics have compared the detailed universe Bergman creates in the Wadköping stories—a prosperous small city with precise social strata—to the works of Balzac. Bergman, a tortured soul addicted to both drugs and alcohol, was one of Sweden’s leading novelists, and also a playwright and screenwriter who had collaborated on several films with Victor Sjöström. In 1924, he followed Sjöström to Hollywood, where he became involved in developing a new lighting technology, but returned home after less than four months. Bergman adapted his own novel for Girl in Tails. Perhaps reflecting its literary source, the movie is more dependent than most silent films on intertitles to deliver some of its zingers, such as referring to a group of female relatives living at a country estate as “a wild herd of learned women.”
But there is also plenty of physical comedy in the satire of small-town life, which makes some serious feminist points in the guise of a lighthearted comedy. Katja, played by Magda Holm, is the daughter of a widowed inventor who relies on her to run his household but pays little attention to her needs. Both Katja and her brother Curry are graduating, and there will be a dance to celebrate. Curry has a new tuxedo for the occasion, but their father sees no need to give his daughter money for a new dress. So Katja dresses up in Curry’s tux and attends the dance, smoking cigars, drinking brandy, and shocking the locals. Director Swanström gives herself a juicy role as the widow of a prominent minister, an imperious battle-ax who is the town’s social arbiter.
Today, Swanström is a footnote in film history, a Swedish studio talent scout who is credited with discovering Ingrid Bergman. But during the 1920s and ’30s, Swanström—a character actress, director, and studio executive—was one of the most powerful people in the Swedish film industry.
She entered films relatively late in life. Born in 1873, she graduated from the Royal Dramatic Theater School in 1892 and spent the next seven years with various theater companies before moving to Helsinki to develop the performing arts program at the Swedish Theater. Five years later, she returned to Sweden and formed her own touring company, which lasted into the 1920s. Swanström made her film acting debut in Mauritz Stiller’s De landsflyktige (In Self-Defense, 1921). One critic called her “the most beautiful middle-aged lady with acting ability one could hope to find.” In 1923, she became the production manager of the new film studio Bonnierfilm, launched by the publishing company Albert Bonniers Förlag primarily to make film versions of their literary properties. That first year, the studio produced four films, including Swanström’s directing debut, Boman på utställningen (Boman at the Exhibition), in which she played the female lead. She also acted in two others and oversaw all four of the studio’s productions.
The following year, Bonnierfilm released only one picture, and Swanström played a supporting role in it. She also had a supporting role in Mauritz Stiller’s Gösta Berlings saga, a Svensk Filmindustri production that brought Greta Garbo to the world’s attention. Bonnierfilm’s only 1925 production was Kalle Utter, directed by Swanström and adapted once again by Hjalmar Bergman. Even though the movie was a hit, Bonnierfilm went out of business. Swanström’s next directorial effort was Flygande höllarden (The Flying Dutchman, 1925), not the classic myth, but a romantic comedy, and it was a flop. Her final film as director was The Girl in Tails. Swedish critics called it “a sparkling comedy” and praised Swanström’s direction as “resourceful and effective.” Film critic for the London Daily Mail Iris Barry (the future founder of the film department of New York’s Museum of Modern Art) wrote, “Karin Swanström has directed a singularly human and sincere picture.”
In the 1920s and ’30s, Swanström remained busy as an actress, appearing in nearly 50 films. In 1933, she became artistic director and head of film production at Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden’s major studio, a position she held until shortly before her death in 1942. During that period, the studio was at its height of prestige and influence, and Swanström became one of the most powerful women in the Swedish film industry and is credited with discovering several future stars.
Several sources have told the story of Swanström’s discovery of Ingrid Bergman, including Bergman herself in her memoirs: how Swanström bought her flowers from a friend of Bergman’s late father, how the florist introduced the two women, and how Swanström urged director Gustav Molander to give Bergman a screen test. The two women acted together in the film that really launched Bergman’s career, Swedenhielms (1935), also based on a Hjalmar Bergman play. By then, the writer was dead of an overdose of morphine and alcohol. Swanström gave one of her best performances in that film as the good-hearted housekeeper. The two actresses made two more films together, including Juninatten (A Night in June, 1939), Bergman’s final Svensk Filmindustri picture before leaving for Hollywood.
It’s not clear what ended Swanström’s tenure at the studio in 1941. One source says she was forced to resign, “possibly because of some screenplay plagiarism.” Others refer to the memoirs of actress Birgit Tengroth, with its negative portrayal of Swanström as a “Machiavellian power figure.” For whatever reason, her career was over, and she died soon after leaving the studio. Swanström’s achievement as the first woman in a major leadership role in the Swedish film industry is little known outside of Sweden, and even there she is largely forgotten. No biographies have been written about her.
Over the years, several other Swedish actresses have become directors, from Mai Zetterling in the 1960s to Pernilla August in the 2010s. Today, about 20 percent of all feature films made in Sweden are by women directors, and the Swedish Film Institute has a policy that half of the feature films it funds will be directed by women. In 2014, Frida Westerberg became the chief operating officer at Svensk Filmindustri. Westerberg has another historical connection to Karin Swanström: she previously held leadership positions at the Bonnier Group. Sweden’s international media conglomerate and part owner of Svensk Filmindustri, Bonnier Group traces its history back 200 years and includes that short-lived film studio that put Swanström in charge.
Presented at SFSFF 2014 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra