Sunday, February 17, 2019

Tonight's Movie: The Mortal Storm (1940) at the UCLA Festival of Preservation

On Friday our most enjoyable day in Los Angeles concluded with the UCLA Festival of Preservation screening of THE MORTAL STORM (1940).

Earlier in the day, as I wrote about here, we had enjoyed a 35mm screening of THE CROOKED WAY (1949), a film I originally reviewed here in 2013.

The 35mm screening of THE MORTAL STORM was preceded by the short WINGS OVER EVEREST (1935), about the first-ever flights over Mount Everest in 1933 to film the summit. The film's presentation was quite hokey at times, but as someone with a longstanding interest in Mount Everest I found the footage fascinating. It would be another two decades after the aerial footage was shot before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit and successfully returned.

THE MORTAL STORM, released 18 months before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, begins as Hitler has become Chancellor of Germany and shows the effects of the rise of the Nazis on a single family.

Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) is a "non-Aryan" (i.e., Jewish) science professor at a university at the foot of the Alps. Honored by his students and family on his birthday as the film opens, he soon finds himself ostracized for being non-Aryan and for teaching the scientific fact that all blood is alike.

Roth's stepsons (Robert Stack and William T. Orr) from his marriage to Emilia (Irene Rich) become Nazi stormtroopers, as does Fritz (Robert Young), who is engaged to Roth's daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan). Freya, dismayed with Fritz's militarism and increasingly unkind temperament, breaks the engagement and falls in love with her childhood friend Martin (James Stewart), who resists Nazi conformity and must remain in Austria after helping a Jewish friend escape over the Alps. (Incidentally, although it's never said, wouldn't Fritz have eventually seen the need to break the engagement, as Freya -- Professor Roth's oldest child -- must have been "non-Aryan" herself?)

The Roths find themselves increasingly isolated, with the stepsons even moving out of the house and separating themselves from the family. The professor is jailed, and when Emilia and Freya attempt to leave the country with youngest son Rudi (Gene Reynolds), Freya is pulled off the train at the border after one of her father's notebooks is found in her luggage. Martin returns for her, and they make one last desperate attempt to flee the country.

THE MORTAL STORM is an interesting and powerful film showing what happens when good people remain silent and allow evil to flourish. Emilia's sons and Fritz are all convinced there is only one correct view of Hitler and German politics and that those who disagree are traitors to the country. Those who aren't part of the Aryan "club" are viewed as worthless outsiders, and Fritz is thus willing to look the other way when a man is beaten merely for being Jewish. A university colleague (Russell Hicks) won't help the professor because he fears for his own family, and the longtime maid (Esther Dale) leaves so that she won't be tainted by working for the Roths. And on it goes, as the Nazis become more and more entrenched.

The professor and Martin simply want to be able to quietly continue their lives as they see fit, but their non-conformity is a threat which must be extinguished.

The performances are all excellent, with Morgan's final scene with Rich in the prison a particular standout. What a fine actor!

A young Dan Dailey (billed Dan Dailey Jr.) and Ward Bond are effective as lead villains of the piece; Bond tended to be a bit over the top at times, but Dailey was quite chilling.

Maria Ouspenskaya plays Martin's mother, with Bonita Granville an emotional young local girl targeted by Bond to supply information. I did think Granville's character could have used a little more back story to help viewers better understand her.

A young Tom Drake can be easily spotted in a non-speaking role as a student. It was his second film credit. Brad Dexter and James Millican are also billed as students, but I didn't spot them.

The production has the typical MGM polish. One of my only critical comments was thinking it strange that Sullavan's character skis by moonlight with no coat or hat -- wasn't it cold?!

THE MORTAL STORM was directed by Frank Borzage, who also directed Sullavan in another film about the Nazi rise to power, LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? (1934). The film runs 100 minutes.

The film was based on a novel by Phyllis Bottome; the screenplay was by Claudine West, Hans Rameau, and George Froeschel. The latter two men were actually refugees from Nazi Germany.

The movie was filmed in black and white by William Daniels, with uncredited work by Lloyd Knechtel and Leonard Smith.

THE MORTAL STORM is available on DVD from the Warner Archive. It's also been released on VHS and is shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer is on the TCM website.

Two footnotes. One is that the UCLA program notes, quoted by UCLA's Jan-Christopher Horak in his introduction, state THE MORTAL STORM "is only one of two films made in Hollywood during the war that actually explicitly identifies the victims of Nazism as Jews, the other being Andre de Toth’s NONE SHALL ESCAPE (1944)." I'm not sure what prompted this statement, as at least two other films tackling this issue come easily to mind; 20th Century-Fox's THE MAN I MARRIED (1940), released just weeks after THE MORTAL STORM, and Columbia Pictures' ADDRESS UNKNOWN (1944) both make clear the plight of Jews at the hands of Nazis. The ending of THE MAN I MARRIED, in which a fervently pro-Nazi character learns he is "non-Aryan," is a memorable stunner.

As a further footnote, given that one of the film's significant themes was about the ways in which Nazis imposed conformity of thought, I found it more than a bit ironic that Horak's introduction clearly assumed there is only One Right Way to view current U.S. politics. I otherwise admire Mr. Horak, but I run into these types of political remarks fairly often at screenings, which leave no room for the possibility that things might be seen by reasonable people through another prism, and the clear view of "correct thinking" and the unspoken expectation of agreement from a friendly "L.A. audience" honestly seemed a little...fascistic...in and of itself. It reminded me eerily of the film, which I'm sure was the last thing which crossed his mind. Food for thought?

THE MORTAL STORM is a well-acted and beautifully produced film which is engrossing and interesting on many levels. Recommended.

10 Comments:

Blogger barrylane said...

A great film, and a delicate postscript, Laura. As I am sure you know, I applaud your courage and view.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Beth Ann Gallagher said...

Hahaha! I wondered the same thing about Freya making such a perilous trip without wearing much protective winter gear! Someone with pull must have insisted her coiffure not be hidden by a protective hat?

My understanding of Freya's situation was that she was given a momentary pass for having an Aryan mother and being fair. There was a line in the latter half of the film about her actions proving whose side she took after. Sorry I can't quote it!

6:24 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

It really is a wonderful film, Barrylane. So glad I finally caught up with it. Thank you.

Beth Ann, I was also wondering in the final sequence why Martin had a hat and Freya didn't. I was thinking maybe since she hadn't expected to leave there wasn't time to find one...LOL. I suspect your thought on her hair not being messed up may well be the truth!!

Great insight into Freya being able to "pass." I wondered who her mother was, in fact -- I wasn't clear whether or not her mother was Jewish so that's an interesting line I missed about taking after a side. (If I pieced it together correctly, it seemed as though she might have been the professor's daughter by a first marriage since her last name is Roth and then the youngest son was the professor and Emilia's child together?)

Best wishes,
Laura

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always enjoyed this film, and it's warning. Thank you too, for your final comment. Amazing how so many just assume there is only one correct way of thinking.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Beth Ann Gallagher said...

From my viewing, I thought Mrs Roth was the German mother of all the children of the household and that Professor Roth was the biological father to Freya and Rudi and the step-father to Erich and Otto.

Visually all the boys look younger than Sullavan to me, which the actors were in real life, but I thought Freya was supposed to be Erich and Otto's younger sister. They referred to her as "little Freya" in the movie.

I looked up a description of the novel, and I found the answer:

"Freya and her younger brother, Rudi, are the children of their mother’s second marriage, to the Jewish professor; her older half-brothers, Emil and Olaf, are the products of Frau Roth’s first marriage, to a German aristocrat who died young."

In the train sequence, Mrs Roth's passport is quickly given a pass, but the soldiers check Freya's suitcase after one soldier gives her passport a longer look. My suspicion was that her passport listed her Jewish heritage while her mother's listed her full German heritage.

It's when Freya is questioned about her father's manuscript that officer mention's her half and half status. I thought it was symbolized by her full name--Roth for the Jewish side of the family and Freya the Nordic goddess's name for the Aryan side.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I love all this, Beth Ann! Sullavan has always had an "older" look to me -- so much so that I actually looked up her age afterwards to see how it compared to Stewart and Young and found they were all comparable, within a couple years of each other -- so I completely "misread" where she fell in the family age-wise. (I'm glad you thought the boys all looked younger than her as well!) That is terrific information from the novel, and it also makes additional sense now why she was checked so carefully on the train. I love information like this as it will enrich future viewings. Thank you so much!

Best wishes,
Laura

7:25 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Anonymous, it's definitely a thought-provoking film on many levels, I'm glad you enjoyed it as well.

Best wishes,
Laura

7:26 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

So glad you found it the powerful and enjoyable film that I do, Laura. I found Frank Morgan very good in it too.
Fancy William T. Orr turning up in the film as an actor. His name became very well-known many years later as executive producer of all my favourite Warner TV western series.

I found your raised point about assumptions of One Right Way to view politics very interesting. It being presented in California, I can probably guess what Mr. Horak was hinting at and whilst I might personally share that opinion it is indicative of the current tendency to not want to listen to other people's view in a balanced and tolerant way. We are seeing this tendency increasingly sadly.

11:49 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

BTW, Laura, your interest in Mount Everest was a nice surprise too. As a 5-year old I was swept up in all the excitement generated by the scaling of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing. It was the same year as the coronation of our beautiful young queen and newspapers talked excitedly of a new 'Elizabethan Age'. Hopeful and encouraging times then!

11:55 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for all your comments, Jerry!

I thought it rather interesting that not only was future TV producer (MAVERICK) William T. Orr in the cast, but one of his brothers was played by Gene Reynolds, who was one of the creative forces behind the M*A*S*H TV series.

How wonderful you have those memories of Mount Everest (not to mention the Coronation!). I've been interested in Mount Everest history for the last 25 years or so and have read many books on the topic; I particularly treasure a signed special edition of Jon Krakauer's INTO THE AIR. I loved the 1998 IMAX documentary. I have the 2015 dramatic film but haven't seen it yet...

Best wishes,
Laura

4:42 PM  

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