THE MORTAL STORM—-following Little Man,What Now? and Three Comrades, this 1940 tragedy is the last of director Franz Borzage’ trio of movies set in Germany, all starring the unique Margaret Sullavan, and one of the few explicitly anti-Nazi films made before the US entered WW2. Well-reviewed, with grosses of $3,310,000, it came in 41st place for the year, and would likely have garnered more attention and afterlife had not 1940 been so jam-packed with excellent fare. In today’s ominous, worsening climate of political bullying, bar-room nationalism and threats to logic and civil discourse, the scenes of callous groupthink behavior and disintegrating bonds of friendship and family strike more than lingering memory; they hit eerie notes of warning. It can’t happen here….
Small-town Bavaria, 1933. Through the lens of one middle-class family (the father a professor) and their close friends, the rift between traditional life and the New Germany is mirrored, as the once-warm group splits along irreconcilable ideological lines. The parents, daughter and best friend are humanists, the adopted sons and the daughter’s suitor are ardent Nazis. Arguments escalate into estrangement, betrayal, imprisonment and finally attempted escape across the Alps to Austria (good for a while). Decency and heartbreak confront bigotry and brutality: what became full-fledged WW2 was churning into its 10th month as the movie was released; the story and script eschew a conventional happy ending for one as sad and sombre as that anonymous millions were undergoing. Actual hostilities with the United States were 18 months away, but an enraged Reich, already irked by various levels of disfavor, banned American movies as a result. ‘Mongrel swine, how dare you show us as we are!’ *
“May we not believe as we choose and allow others to do the same?”
Frank Morgan is the kindly father (he’s perfect), a glowing Sullavan the stricken daughter, an assured James Stewart the steadfastly noble friend: zealous Robert Young and Robert Stack (at 21) enthusiastically wear the swastika, with other believably threatening brownshirt thugs played by a hulking Ward Bond and a sneering 24-year-old Dan Dailey (Jr.) in his first billed role. At 32, it was Stewart’s breakthrough year, winning an Oscar for The Philadelphia Story, co-starring with Sullavan in the charmer The Shop Around The Corner (the following year he had a new temp-job, dropping bombs on Nazis). With what would be discovered about the extent of Nazi cruelty, the portrait of descending tyranny is all the more poignant. Using homegrown all-American actors playing Germans seems odd at first, but they’re all excellent, and the shared humanity (and lack of it) in the situations embrace nationalities and manner regardless of geography or culture. Given current circumstances the casting feels prescient.
100 minutes, with Maria Ouspensakaya, Bonita Granville, Irene Rich, William T. Orr and Russell Hicks. The screenplay, shared by veterans Claudine West, Anderson Ellis and George Froeschel, was adapted from the 1937 novel by Phyllis Bottome. The authoress based her work on first-hand knowledge: her husband worked undercover for Britain’s MI-6. Based in Austria, they opened a language school in the Alpine village of Kitzbühel. One of their students was Ian Fleming, whose eventual espionage work and 007 writing was influenced by the couple.
“Scientific truth is scientific truth, unchangeable and eternal. It cannot be altered to suit the politics of the hour or the clamor of immature hoodlums.”
* Courting political controversy was not a trait the studio moguls shared. Apart from Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox, they did share Jewish heritage, and the Nazi persecution of Jews put them in an awkward position. Under official American neutrality and strong isolationist sentiment among the populace (let alone native anti-Semitism), brotherhood clashed with bottom line as Germany had the largest number of theaters in Europe, a big market for American movies. Director Borzage (not Jewish) bravely trod where perishing few went before Pearl Harbor’s explosions spilled blood and fused will. Little Man,What Now? came out in 1934. The superb tearjerker Three Comrades was a success in 1938. Warner’s added Confessions Of A Nazi Spy in ’39. 1940, with the war underway (and going in the wrong direction), finally saw Escape, Waterloo Bridge, Foreign Correspondent, The Long Voyage Home and Night Train To Munich, all topped by the Chaplin box-office hit The Great Dictator—one that gave Hitler, as Charlie intended, a real carpet-chewing fit. In the script of The Mortal Storm, the father, mother and daughter are described as “non-Aryans”, so the punches are still pulled a tad, but you have to be pretty dense not to figure out the intimation. Since the Reich’s persecution swept up much more than Jewish victims, the safely couched “non-Aryan” gets a pass. The pain and wrong comes across, irrespective of religion, as does director Borzage’ recurrent theme of the strength and value of love in the face of adversity, sometimes the only strings that bind against the brute nature of those who always lurk among us. You didn’t write the Bible, Joe USA!, and you didn’t sew the flag (someone in China did that), so we’d like them back—and take your wall-job and shove it…