Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Mortal Storm (1940)

Director: Frank Borzage                                    Writers: Claudine West & Hans Rameau
Film Score: Bronislau Kaper                              Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan and Robert Young

Prior to the U.S. entrance into World War Two with the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was felt in bad taste to take sides in the European war that was raging on the continent. It was thought that negative portrayals of Germans or their allies by Hollywood would provoke them while America was still clinging to the illusion of neutrality. It’s ironic then that MGM, the most romantic and “American” of the movie studios, was on the forefront of criticism of Hitler and his Nazi regime with films like The Mortal Storm. Of course these films are often called propaganda and, as a result, all MGM films were banned in Germany at the time. But as I’ve said many times before, when it comes to the Nazis there is very little that can be called propaganda after all that came out about their activities after the war.

The story begins on January 30th, 1933, with the birthday of Professor Roth, played by Frank Morgan. When it is announced that Hitler has been made chancellor during his birthday party, his stepsons as well as his soon to be son-in-law Robert Young are thrilled. Jimmy Stewart and the rest of the Roth family are not so delighted, wondering if the racial prejudices Hitler holds will become national policy. Stewart begins to pull away from his former friends as the weeks pass and Morgan’s daughter, Margaret Sullavan, does as well, knowing that Young’s politics will eventually pit him against her father. Eventually Stewart has to leave Germany to help an old teacher escape to Austria, while Sullavan’s father is arrested by the SS and is held in captivity. In the middle of it all, however, is the love story between Stewart and Sullavan, but even that isn’t enough to warm the chill of Nazi racism that permeates the film.

The film could almost be titled The Moral Storm, dealing as it does with the marginalization and murder of people deemed degenerate by the Nazi state. And, as if a thing were possible, director Frank Borzage was accused in the fifties of being pro-Communist simply because of this one anti-Nazi film. The irony of the American “State” becoming as conservative as the Nazi State has been well documented in history books, and makes it all too clear that the lessons of the past continue to be ignored by people in the present. Borzage was an Oscar winning director who had won honors for the silent classic 7th Heaven from 1927 and Bad Girl from 1931. He does a solid, if not particularly artistic, job here assisted by cinematographer William H. Daniels who had manned the camera on the previous three Stewart-Sullavan MGM films, including their most popular, The Shop Around the Corner.

This would be the last of the four films that Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan would star in, with World War Two interrupting their partnership. Frank Morgan would also return from The Shop Around the Corner. Robert Young appears in one of his early films, and the venerable Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya delivers another brilliant performance. Critics were impressed with the film and found the message powerful. It was an adaptation of the novel by Phyllis Bottome and MGM compared the film to other literary adaptations they had done. But with the German occupation of France coming just two days after the film’s release, fans were a bit more disturbed by its realism than entertained by the love story. The Mortal Storm remains a curiosity in the MGM library but is actually a quite powerful film that dared to tell the world what was really going on in Germany. I can’t recommend it enough.

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