Saturday, January 12, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Watch on the Rhine (1943)

WATCH ON THE RHINE is a well-done adaptation of Lillian Hellman's 1941 anti-fascist play, with an Oscar-winning lead performance by Paul Lukas.

The setting is a year or so prior to the United States' entrance into World War II. Lukas plays German-born Kurt Muller, first seen crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. with his American-born wife Sarah (Bette Davis) and their three children. The Mullers are visiting Sarah's family near Washington, D.C., for the first time in nearly 18 years, and they are hoping the exhausted Kurt can rest from his experiences as a leader in the anti-Nazi movment in war-torn Europe.

Sarah's mother (Lucile Watson) is hosting another pair of European refugees, Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald), the daughter of an old friend, and her husband Tek (George Coulouris), a rather unpleasant Roumanian count who spends a lot of time playing poker at the German embassy.

The Mullers soon realize that the Count represents a very real danger right in the family home. As Sarah's mother and brother (Donald Woods) gradually awaken to that fact, Kurt must quickly take radical steps to deal with the Count and decide his -- and the entire family's -- future.

This was an excellent, very absorbing film with superb lead performances by Lukas, Davis, and Watson; Lukas and Watson repeat their Broadway roles, while Davis was cast to give the film some box office star power. Lukas in particular is so completely immersed into his character that it's hard to believe he's acting; it's a rich, deeply felt performance.

Davis, playing Sarah in an appropriately quiet fashion, is particularly touching in the scene where she re-enters her family home for the first time in years; she walks around touching beloved, half-forgotten objects, hardly able to believe she's really there. She conveys a world of emotion without a single word.

Lukas and Davis are very effective conveying both their well-worn, true love and their willingness to put aside their family's needs for the greater good, fighting the evil of fascism. In real life there was an age gap of nearly 17 years between the two actors, but that isn't apparent on film, especially as their characters are both so believably world-weary.

Watson, who was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress, is also excellent as a woman who is kind -- she delights in planning to buy her never-seen grandchildren candy, and then proceeds to eat some herself! -- but also quite bossy and very used to having her own way. The visit of her daughter's family provides an unexpected wakeup call as to what is going on in the world outside her cozy enclave. In that regard it reminded me somewhat of the Fay Bainter film THE WAR AGAINST MRS. HADLEY (1942).

I saw Geraldine Fitzgerald in several films last year, so this was an opportunity for me to see another of her performances. She's quite lovely and creates a memorable impression in a small role, although truth to tell I'm not certain just how much purpose her character served, other than to help illustrate her husband's cruel nature.

The film's weakest link may be in the direction and performances of the children, played by Donald Buka, Janis Wilson, and Eric Roberts (repeating his stage performance as the youngest child). The viewer understands that these children are more formal, multilingual Europeans who have suffered a fair amount of trauma, but I found their stilted, too-adult dialogue delivery detracted from the film's realism.

It also must be said that while Dashiell Hammett's Oscar-nominated screenplay opens up the play somewhat -- it's the third film I've seen this week which was set in or had location filming in Pasadena! -- at times one is very aware one is watching a filmed play, inasmuch as it's very "talky," with the majority of the action set in the family living room. Some unexpected action near the end of the film provides a needed jolt of energy after all the discussion of the evils of Nazis. The more positive aspect of this angle is that we are fortunate to have a production relatively close to the play preserved on film, with many of the original actors.

WATCH ON THE RHINE was one of just two films directed by Herman Shumlin, who had directed the original Broadway production. The directors of this current year's Best Picture nominees who weren't nominated for Best Director can take some comfort in knowing that Shumlin also had the experience of having his film nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, but not being nominated himself! IMDb notes that one of the film's two cinematographers, Hal Mohr, also did uncredited directing work on the film.

In addition to Lukas, Watson, Coulouris and Roberts, Frank Wilson repeated his original Broadway role for the film version. Ann Blyth, incidentally, had her first acting role in the stage version, portraying the Muller daughter, Babette.

The supporting cast includes Beulah Bondi, Henry Daniell, and Anthony Caruso. The ubiquitous movie party guest Bess Flowers can be spotted as one of the first to leave a party at the German embassy.

WATCH ON THE RHINE is available on DVD in the Bette Davis Collection, Vol. 3 or in a single-title release. The extras include a trailer and a commentary by historian Bernard F. Dick. (December 2018 Update: WATCH ON THE RHINE has been reissued on DVD by the Warner Archive.)

This movie has also had a release on VHS.

This film is also available at Turner Classic Movies. The trailer is at the TCM website.

For more thoughts on this film by fellow bloggers, please visit Lasso the Movies and Mentor's Camper.


Blogger Silver Screenings said...

Ah, so this director was snubbed as well at the Oscars. Who knew!

11:26 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Like this movie very much. Saw the play many years ago with Kim Hunter in the Lucille Watson role, and Sharon Gless (in I think her first stage venture) in the Bette Davis role. Compelling story.

5:04 AM  

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