ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Bob vs. the Scandinavian Svengalis

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Erich Kuersten

"What you said, that's pretty racy, even for a Swede."

Sweden gets a Hollywood mid-60s sex comedy makeover in I'll Take Sweden, the film that dares to ask how far into the sexy Scandinavian darkness would Bob Holcomb--a California bourgeois widower played by Bob Hope--go to avoid acquiring a penniless pisher like Frankie Avalon as a son-in-law?

See I'll Take Sweden (1965) to find out!

Who can resist a film with such an unusual title--as if Hope was playing Risk with Hitler! What about the poster of Hope hailing us from his Volkswagen perch, bikini-clad Swedes a-flanking? Am I crazy or do his akimbo arms conjure Ahab beckoning from the deep, calling us North by Northeast to the land of blondes and honey, or perhaps beseeching us throw a life vest so he can get back to the protective censorship of early 60s L.A., so he can resume his 'brave on the leash' barking?

The always dependable American actress Tuesday Weld plays Bob's daughter, Jo-Jo as a virginal but busting out all over all-American sprite and Holcomb is well aware of what he'd losing to gain a 'son' of Avalon's suspicious age and energy. So while Frankie sings and bounces around trying to turn the film into a Beach Blanket movie, a chance to transfer to Stockholm opens up at Bob's oil company, where presumably there will be no 'young' goombah singers trying to infest his family tree. Bob grabs Jo-Jo and away they go.

By 1965, even in PG-rated California, they'd heard of sexual liberation and they knew Sweden was setting the bar high via their exported films like I, a Woman (released the same year). Unlike Hope's 60s America, sex isn't spot-welded inextricably to marriage and procreation in Sweden, but rather heimliche physicality. Sex is sport, and girls in bikinis doing calisthenics against a backdrop of firs are the norm, prompting Hope to exclaim, "What a lot of time I've been wasting playing golf." Skiing, sunbathing, and dancing all intertwine on the same vine as lovemaking, and why not? Americans, they are so needlessly prudish!

This kind of de-mystification is something someone who leers as vocally as Hope would presumably be keen to embrace, but in fact it's the opposite: immediately upon arriving Holcomb finds a willing, practical, age-appropriate bed partner in Karin (Dina Merrill) his firm's hired decorator, but spends the film stalling her sexual come-ons, lest he 'um... er' set a bad example for his daughter! Jo-Jo also gets her own Nordic consort, Erik (Jeremy Slate), who is tall, blonde and corporate --everything poor Frankie Avalon, pining at home with his guitar and gang of pals-- is not. Erik even wears a tie and greets them at the airport, with respect and calm self-assurance: "I love to hear Swedish spoken as it should be," Hope notes. "It's like a foreign movie!"

Erik takes Jo-Jo to swanky tea and cake spots, ostentatious concerts, the opera, and other things Frankie wouldn't know about, but when Erik gets tired of necking and soaking up bourgeois art then it's time to get get her away on a two week summer vacation at 'the youth festival' which is ... unchaperoned! According to Erik, the couples in love in Sweden go on a sort of pre-honeymoon before they are married, to test for sexual compatibility. "It's more sensible," he says. "That is why there is so little divorce in Sweden. We do not marry strangers." Something Holcomb would presumably understand, but since he holds out even at his age to his consort Karin, it's clear he does marry strangers... sort of like being unable to listen to an album before you buy it, and then being unable to take it back, or even get another one... ever.

Jo-Jo's, feeling for the first ime unprotected by the safety bars of Hollywood censorship, is horrified. But Erik keeps at it: "In Sweden, we are very tolerant of nature." His previously engaged friends Greta (Alice Frost) and Axel found out they are not compatible, after all. "Wasn't it fortunate they spent those two weeks together at the youth festival?"

Dealing with the dad is of course an issue since he is effectively Erik's boss: "Times have changed, Mr. Holcomb," Erik informs him. "Chaperones are primitive." Holcomb is wise to the rap: "'The low divorce rate in Sweden?' You Scandinavian Svengali, don't give me that 'old-fashioned' jazz!" But when Jo-Jo catches her dad and Karin (a divorcee) at the same Goombatten hotel of the youth festival, she decides to shack up with Erik just to punish her dad's hypocrisy

Realizing his daughter is there too, Hope freaks: "As Jo-Jo's future mother you can talk her out of this!" but Karin is turned off by Hope's Puritan ideals and his presumption that marriage between them is a given if sex is to be involved. Such things may exist as censor requirements for films in the US, but in Stockholm they seem merely like performance jitters - especially at their age. When Jo-Jo admonishes her dad for doing what he's telling her not to, she shouts, "you are trying to treat me like a child!" Bob snaps back, "I'm trying to stop you from having one," but he's really just stalling his own impending sex act with Karin - he's old, and insecure-- and this is long before the invention of Viagra.

Meanwhile Frankie's back in California, singing ballads to some gathered youths. Bob wires him airplane fare when it looks like his daughter's going to be seduced by Erik. "She didn't forget you," he says to Frankie over the phone, "she talks to Erik about you all the time!"

The big difference in the film between Swedes and Americans is that the former have accepted sex as a given, no big deal, not much different than other physical activities. Americans carry the repression of reactionary censors and small town prudes, which means they are also, conversely, sex maniacs. They argue against sex before marriage but when they realize they're gonna 'get some' they're like eager little children over some new toy or candy. In fact, candy would make a good analogy: In Sweden if they want candy, they have one piece and move on, forget about it, while the Americans don't allow themselves any --they're on a diet, anyway, they shouldn't--well, wait, no-- their Swede friends have already moved on from the candy tray but the American hems and haws and lingers guilty over the sweets he wants to take but can't and finally, in a guilty rush, devours the entire tray, then feels horrifically guilty, and nauseous, goes to the bathroom to throw up, instead looks at himself in the mirror and says "I hate you!" In this lies the clue to America's tendency to overdo it and then go running back to the oppressive moral laws of their forefathers for safety. Hope's anguish over his daughter's virginity masks his anxiety of going to bed with a very liberated Swede, and Karin seems smart enough to know it. "If I can't trust me, how can I trust her?" he says, but Karin's tolerant smile indicates she's wise to the fact that there's no need for 'trust' at all, in either case. A roll in the hay doesn't always have to be accompanied by legal documents and parental approval for it to be a violation. Like the archetypal American tourist, Holcomb brings his own moral straitjacket prison with him wherever he goes. He drools over the idea of free love but still insists on a receipt.

Kudos to the film though, that Hope's terror of sex is allowed to be so obvious and unflattering. Ordering steak, rare, at the hotel restaurant, in order to "get the blood up," he seems as frightened of what's happening in Goombatten as his daughter. Again it becomes a matter of what Zizek calls the dual nature of social reality - the fantasmatic undercurrent: "I was seeing pink Jo-Jos again!" Holcomb says, spotting his daughter in the hotel (he thinks she's back in Stockholm, studying). Thus the parameters of the Hollywood sex comedy hold Bob and Jo-Jo in a glacial hallucinatory fog, allowing them to burlesque their sexual desire while doing all in their power to avoid the deed, as it will effectively sever their connection to the Big Other and mire them in the fantasmatic plastic flytrap. A fulfilling 'taking' of Sweden would strand Hope's schtick in a moral twiligt. His whole style of humor depended--as in the Road movies he made with Crosby, on his not getting the girl, getting close but then having Bing steal her away with a song. He'd have to change his whole act if he started actually obtaining his desire. So without a Bing or a censor around, Hope needs to find an excuse and fast, so goes racing around the hotel looking for Jo-Jo, projecting his sexual anxiety behind and in front of him like a ghost stick and carrot while Karin watches, too hip to psychology not to recognize repressed stalling when she sees it.

And so a queasy compromise with virginity is made: American couples are allowed to depart from convention as long as they suffer in guilt over what their fathers will think, and vice versa. Swedes shall (at least in this film) come to respect our gentle decency as their Goombatten-style of casual sex lifestyle devolves inevitably into debauched ennui (Erik turns out to be a date-rapist; Frankie's new date was Erik's previous victim). In other words, Hope will not take "Sweden" -- one look at Erik and you know he'd be awesome breeding stock for Jo-Jo. Hope's choosing mutt Frankie to come in instead and save the day is typical of America's preference for socially instilled mores vs. natural selection. He finally respects Frankie because, like him, Frankie is terrified of sex and would never dream of mating with Jo-Jo unless there were rings and certificates and demands from in-laws for grandchildren guaranteed. In short, Frankie is American as defined by Hollywood under the production code, which operated from 1934-1967. There were still some states where hotel detectives came to your room and looked under beds for evidence of 'mixed parties' and women's dorm room matrons making sure the no men edict is obeyed. So we understand how college kids back then would marry each other after only a few dates (like my own parents did!) and go racing for their new room in married couples housing like their pants were on fire. Only later do (some of them) find out they are not so compatible... wasn't it unfortunate they never had those Swedish two weeks at the youth festival in Goombatten.

A final bow to the Big Other comes at the end, as both Frankie and Jo-Jo, and Karin and Bob have been married and are on the boat home to America, each couple finally in their separate beds and all out of excuses. Everyone but Karin is anxious and stalling, still; so seize the life preserve thrown at the last minute in the form a phone call from the ship's captain: the priest who conducted their double wedding didn't yet have his license, so technically neither couple is married! G-G-GULP! And they're on a cruise back home to the USA... where such things matter! Karin can only gape in horror as Bob frantically calls the ship's captain for a quick boat side ceremony before any 'damage' is done (though any damage done was and is strictly done by his own insecure deal-seal-stalling). Karin's horror is the realization that Hope's delaying tactics may never end, for they are decades away from the 'cure' of erectile dysfunction and he has all the time in the world to quip and evade, and wonder where his daughter is now, so he can mask unconsciously incestuous leering/jealousy with coded concern.

To back up a bit, let's revisit Goombatten. On the drive up, Marti (Rosemarie Frankland, above), the girl Frankie's been dating while Jo-Jo holds out, informs him that Erik slept with her the week before, and is a bit of a wolf. Her admissions of the subterfuge carried on for Erik's behalf come with a sense of world weary despair. She feels the ugly side effect of sexual freedom, i.e. regardless of the socially acceptable practice of loose sexuality, she still feels used, forced to be Eirk's wingman for a new conquest instead of a steady lover. Just as Hope must hide his lust under petty morality, she hides her morality under petty sexual gamesmanship, playing along with Erik's sleazy game, whether she really wants to or not, for is it not the national pastime of her country?

On that note, we move to Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974), aka They Call Her One Eye, Sweden's most instantly recognizable exploitation film (thanks to that eye patch). A real labor of insane ambition from first-time feature director Bo Arne Vibenius, it's the story of Madeline (Christina Lindberg), a milkmaid--mute since being raped as a child-- who winds up a drug-addicted victim of a white slavery ring in the big empty house of a clammy swinger named Tony (Heinz Hopf). He's rather robotic as he slips Madeline a roofie at dinner; gets her hooked on heroin while she's passed out for 'weeks', then lays out the means by which she will earn future shots, though in this alternate universe heroin seems to do little else than make you sleep and stare vacantly through the endless Swedish dusk. Since Madeline seems a rather dull and zombie-like character to begin with it's hard to tell what she feels about it all beyond her immediate desire to bolt out the door, but Tony makes a mistake in giving her a cut of the profits, as she uses the money to hire trainers in martial arts, marksmanship, and high-speed driving on her days off...

I mention her in relation to I'll Take Sweden's Marti as a segue into the underside of Nordic free love, but the real interesting comparison is with bubbly Jo-Jo, as a contrast in imperiled daughter characters: each threatened by a violent, adult Swede, each thrust into sexuality before they are quite ready (in Sweden, Erik turns into a deus ex machina date rapist, making Hope's embarrassingly provincial intervention suddenly heroic instead of ridiculous). Considering they were made a mere nine years apart, Thriller could be said to be I'll Take Sweden's post-apocalyptic sequel, set after Hope's oil company has turned Stockholm into a Red Desert-style wasteland, and permissive sexual freedom has destroyed any sense of human value, just as Hope's brand of 50s small town morality predicted!

We might also compare the One-Eye 'twist' of Madeline's provincial parents killing themselves, heartbroken, thanks to nasty forged letters that Tony wrote to them, to Sweden's Bob Holcomb (Hope) nearly killing himself in his effort to keep Jo-Jo a virgin, racing around the Goombatten hotel, barging in on people like a maniac. His over-protection is clearly making her woefully unprepared for the full experience of the 'youth festival.' Similarly, the neglect Madeline suffers at home in the early scenes of Thriller, with elderly parents who seem incapable of protecting her from local scuzzes, says a lot about the importance of preparedness and the teaching of self-reliance, especially when your daughter can't or won't yell for help.

We learn in interviews with Lindberg that she refused to do XXX sex scenes for the movie and the director tried repeatedly to trick her into them, and then promised no inserts would be added, then went and shot inserts, and added them for some markets. All of which is a meta mirror to the film's tale of an innocent girl and her manipulative pimp. Add to that the feeling that the film itself seems 'missing' a lot of pieces, as if created as a skeleton framework for just about anything sexually perturbing (I'm deliberately discussing the non-X insert version as I've seen no other) and filling in the dead space are weird musics and bizarre super slow motion effects; desolate, windy outdoor spaces, spartan set decorations and a mood of existential despair that can only come from a place where the sun seldom rises. There's a 'nihilistic awakening' going on, the feeling that no one is around for miles except the cast who are all slowly succumbing to a zombie swinger plague.

The scenes of Tony at his desk ordering various hit men after Madeline after she goes ballistic are priceless in their poverty, reminding me of stuff we'd shoot in my little gang of kids in the 1980s on super 8mm. And Lindberg is hilariously 'out' of step with most action stars -- she walks like she's walking in heels for the first time--her hat and coat and guns looking all the world (intentionally?) like she's going trick or treating as Female Convict Scorpion (Thriller came out a year after, and made Lindberg a huge star in Japan and she shot several pinku-style movies there).

Madeline's muteness is perhaps a way to duplicate the language barrier which is allegedly instrumental in white slavery rackets. (Matsu in the Female Convict Scorpion series can talk, but never does). This is also a way to get around problems with translations, subtitles, dubbing, and so forth. But if done right, it's also eloquence itself. In not speaking, Madeline speaks the language of nature, becoming a blank slate through which others encounter the frustrating spectral ugliness of their own enjoyment. The film around her is similarly quiet, its skeletal structure made to fit seemingly nearly any type of re-edit like a big empty haunted house awaiting furniture. Most scenes are set in Tony's foyer and the dark empty room assigned to Madeline (the bed is on the floor and covered in black sheets, making it practically invisible against the dark wood). There's never moments where anyone feels connected to anyone else - or indeed that there is anyone else. Or even furnishings.

In one memorable sequence, Madeline thrashes a couple of cops and steals their squad car. Racing down the highway with sirens flashing she runs every vehicle she passes off the road; most of them explode the moment they hit the ditch. There's no attempt to separate the innocent drivers from the bad and the scene is never explained. One of the shoot-outs takes place at a restaurant connected to a huge empty raceway/stadium. We follow Madeline as she drives into the vast, empty parking lot - the sky gray and lifeless - and it feels like she's fighting through a special gray-and-grayer Swedish gravity as she putters into a mostly empty adjacent bar-restaurant with her guns slow mo blazing. In trying to kill the only few people left alive in this vast space, she's like a pint-sized black-garbed eraser, trying to undo the whole first half of the film, via slow motion bloodletting until no one is alive in all of Sweden but herself and a single horse.

In the States, relaxed censorship would eventually lead to inflammatory rape-revenge films like Last House on the Left and Death Wish 2, while sweet-natured Swedish exports like Let the Right One In have been overshadowed by the runaway success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which brings the rapes up close and personal, lavishing brutal detail until you can't imagine your ancestral homeland any other way than as a prison of flesh where the Youth Festival's gaudy lights, and robust health are just a few midnight sun-drenched months a year, followed by an eternity of endless, cold, dark, bleak, violent, desolate, drug-addicted, sexual enslavement. With nights that last months and a landscape more desolate than the moon, two packets a day and a place to sleep it off in seems a modern carny geek ecstasy.

But lo! Here comes One-Eye's spiritual father, Bob Hope, scrambling through the windblown ruins of what was once Goombatten's nicest and only summer lodge...armed only with a preacher, a snappy bit of semi-blue patter, and an instilled moral code so unshakable as to cut any Scandinavian Svengali to the quick, he'll rescue you, One-Eye! So roll the credits and let's move silently back to the safely censor-coded land of control and morality, before the shooting (in all three senses of the term) starts again and the camera shudders to a bloody slow motion crawl across the broken glass age of the 1980s slasher movie, there to bleed unobtrusively until Tarantino finally unloads both barrels upon the ghostly pimp moonscape of the abandoned drive-in, and all wrongs at last corrected, and all corrections wronged.

To: The Social More-Probing Finger of Essy Persson

STOCKHOLMSNATT and the Battle of the Swedish Telephone Booths

Acidemic Journal of Film and Media #7 - 2011

c. Acidemic 2011

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244