It Happened Here


Robert Young is a Nazi!

Robert Stack is a Nazi!

Dan Dailey (Jr.) is a Nazi!

What the hell is going on?

If the casting seems incongruous, there’s a higher wisdom at work. Frank Borzage is one source of that wisdom, with his restrained direction which manages to be ruthlessly emotive without ever seeming to strain for tears. “He always seemed to back away from the emotion,” said Fiona, wonderingly.


Our tale takes place in a little German town near the Austrian border (important later). The town is in fact a painting, the church is a miniature, and people go skiing in front of a convenient rear-projection screen, like Roger Moore. This artificial world has the cosiness of the movie of OUR TOWN, or an ANDY HARDY feature (it’s an M.G.M. production). And the town is populated by a disparate group of movie actors — very disparate: the little hamlet contains both the Slavic vocalisations of Maria Ouspenskaya and the mid-western drawl of Jimmy Stewart, who plays her son. None of this is particularly naturalistic, but it’s very familiar and reassuring to a viewer of Hollywood movies from this era. It’s 1940, you see.

We meet Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz, here playing loveable absent-minded Professor Roth, and his lovely family including daughter Freya, played by Margaret Sullavan. Now, at this point (fifteen minutes in) I’m already close to tears, because I know what’s coming, sort of. The maid interrupts Prof Roth’s 60th birthday celebration with “Wonderful news!” Hitler has been made chancellor.

Now we know that this folksy edifice of back-lot sets and matte shots and comfortable actors is going to be destroyed. Things are going to get worse, and worse. It’s not going to be OK.

This is such powerful stuff. The Hollywood studios are often accused of having had nothing to say before the U.S.A. entered the war, but this is a courageous film. It takes a massive commercial risk by tackling a bleak story — Borzage provides uplift, but it’s a poetic, fragile thing compared to the emotional and physical devastation wrought by the story’s (and history’s) antagonists. For a film to go on the offensive about a regime the country wasn’t yet at war with, when the studios were to some extent hoping to keep their films screening in Europe, that takes a certain amount of guts. I’d like to shake the hand of the executive responsible. Although if that proves to be Louis B. Mayer, I reserve the right to wipe it on my trousers afterwards. 

(David Wingrove points out that by 1940 the European market would have been basically gone anyway, so MGM’s stand isn’t quite so bold.)

It’s worth remembering that while MRS. MINIVER, a fine film, extended the hand of friendship — symbolically — to beleagured Britain, director William Wyler had to struggle with his paymasters to present a nasty Nazi on the screen. A few years before at Universal, James Whale’s THE ROAD BACK was gutted of political content for fear of offending the German leader. But Borzage goes on the offensive, attacking the Hitler regime in all its anti-semitism, brutality and idiocy (it’s particularly strong on the idiocy, like the defiance of medical science, which sees no difference between Aryan and Jewish blood).


“People are always making little choked sobs,” remarks Fiona, pointing out how much more effective this is than hysterical histrionics. She particularly admires Mrs. Roth’s reaction to the news of the tragic fate that befalls the Professor. “It’s like a sound of disgust.” As well it might be.

While THE MORTAL STORM, like other films of the era like THE GREAT DICTATOR, can’t really show anything like the full horror of fascism, it’s tremendously effective because it goes in the other direction. Evoking the goodness and innocence of the victims of fascism, it produces a strong revulsion at anything which might threaten these people. That the threat’s true awfulness is concealed doesn’t matter, and in fact this avoidance of depravity is a strength: if the film isn’t subtle when it layers on the sweetness and light, it’s very restrained in its portrayal of violence.


Will James Stewart escape to Austria? Will Bonita Granville betray him, when tortured by Ward Bond? Will Robert Taylor refuse an order? Will Margaret Sullavan make it to the end of a Borzage film without dying of consumption? The question marks pile up in a tangle of hooks — once enmeshed, the only way to freedom is across the border into reality, past the end credits. It’s an often agonizing journey.

Certain aspects of the story may be designed to appeal to German-Americans and to those who are uncertain how they feel about Germany in 1940. James Stewart is firmly established as being from an old German family, with at least as much reason to love his country as his fascistic opponents. Frank Morgan is described as being “above politics”, so that we can see that neutrality is not an option. These elements are deployed with tact, but they are central to the film’s argument. What lifts the movie above propaganda is the poetic hand of its maker, seen most brilliantly in Robert Stack’s epiphany at the end.

Robert Stack is not an actor I associate with epiphanies. He hasn’t got the face for it somehow. Although I’ve always admired him (the only funny man in Spielberg’s 1941, he had obviously sized up the chaos around him and decided to play it quiet and measured). But Borzage hands him the ending, then takes it away from him and does it all with camera work: we drift through the now-empty Roth household, looking at an empty chair, and then the shadow of that chair… Frank Morgan’s lines from earlier in the film come back to haunt the soundtrack. We see an open gate, and footsteps in the snow, and more snow erasing those footsteps.


The script adapts Phyllis Bottome’s novel, and is the work of Englishwoman Claudine West, who also worked on MRS MINIVER, with German Hans Rameau & Austrian George Froeschel. But the final words are a quotation from Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem The Gate of the Year, famously quoted by Britain’s King George VI in a radio address to the nation at the outbreak of WWII:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand
Of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.

The end credits appear… in silence.

21 Responses to “It Happened Here”

  1. Robert Stack did okay in Sirk’s films.

    Borzage was against Nazism right from the time of ”Little Man, What Now” that was in 1934. Of course that film got hampered by what you said, about not wanting to offend Nazis(since they had good business dealings with the corporate masters who held shares in the movie business) but that’s still commendable on Borzage’s part. The world’s first anti-Nazi film was Lang’s ”The Testament of Dr. Mabuse”(and possibly two years previous…Pabst’s take on the ”Threepenny Opera”, not to mention ”M”) and that was in 1933.

    What makes ”The Mortal Storm” so timeless is the sense of emotional sincerity in the film. The love story between Stewart and Sullavan is very tender and believable(Stewart having a real-life unrequited crush for Sullavan adds immsensely) and the last shot of the film is devastating. And also it shows how suddenly the whole world crushes on you, a common feeling with many people in the 30’s whether in wartorn China or late-colonial India, fascist Europe, Depression USA. And Borzage was able to capture that beautifully. The desperation of it.

    ”The Mortal Storm” is among the best of the agit-prop WW2 films, it starts that brief wave of films that leads to Sirk’s ”Hitler’s Madmen”, Renoir’s ”This Land Is Mine!”, Hitchcock’s ”Lifeboat” and Lang’s ”Hangmen Also Die!”. Borzage unlike these above directors wasn’t an emigre or exile so that makes it very commendable.

  2. More than OK. He’s incredbile in Written on the Wind.

    Very apt description of The Mortal Storm. Borzage shows how restraint can be overwhelming.

  3. That makes him sixty-six years old. I hope he continues to make the films he wants. He hasn’t made a masterpiece since ”Kundun”(although the films he made after that are interesting). ”Shine A Light” though was a nice return to form, almost as great as ”The Last Waltz”

  4. His next, Shelter Island, is a murder mystery thriller.

  5. Wish Scorsese would make Silence. The fact that he wants to do it but is apparently afraid to makes it very intriguing to me. But I’m very interested to see what winning the Oscar does for him: there was a fear that a desire to finally get one under his belt was distorting his film choices slightly, especially in the way The Aviator softened Hughes’ character.

    The difference between Borzage and the emigres’ anti-Nazi films may lie in precisely the way he makes Germany just like small-town America. It’s a brilliant idea, easy to mistake for Hollywood incompetence I guess, if not for the fact that it’s so obviously effective. I still have to watch that Renoir, which ought to be very interesting. Of the others, I like the Lang best, espcially for the weird way the Nazi framed by the resistance becomes a strangely sympathetic figure (a Lang-substitute, since Lang had traumatically been suspected of his own wife’s murder [which he may well have been guilty of]).

    Margaret Sullavan cast quite a spell! Henry Fonda and William Wyler both fell for her too. The Mortal Storm might be her best work, although I think she’s always great. I’m trying to remember what her Rebecca audition was like: bad, I seem to recall. That might be her only false moment on celluloid.

    Those auditions are utterly fascinating: it’s rare that you get to see that level of talent missing the mark completely. Loretta Young and Vivian Leigh saying “I’m shy” has to be seen to be believed.

  6. Marty has wanted to make Silence for years. It’s a very difficult and extremely non-commercial project.

  7. That may be part of why he’s shy of doing it. Because I think if he really really wanted to, he could. As I recall, Gangs of New York got made because his British backer asked him what he’d like to make, ideally.

    Scorsese experienced genuine difficulty making projects in the 80s and even 90s, but I can’t believe it’s so hard for him now. But I can believe the idea of making a really risky film might not appeal, since it could land him back in that position.

  8. In the 90’s, when Scorsese wanted to do ”The Age of Innocence”, it was only after ”Cape Fear” became a box-office success that he found it safe to make that film. ”Kundun” likewise came only after ”Casino” became a success(although that, unlike Cape Fear, was a genuine masterpiece). Scorsese has also expressed interest in doing ”Nostromo” by Conrad, I hear. Scorsese talked in ”A Personal Journey” about having a split personality in Hollywood, “making one for them and one for you.” So it’s part of that. ”The Departed” was one for them, obviously. It’s a very good film and one of the best from mainstream Hollywood in the last few years but it’s nowhere near his best. But even after winning those Oscars, it’s not enough. ”Ashecliffe”(the title changed from ”Shutter Island”) sounds a bit like ”Shock Corridor” from what I read of it’s premise and also like ”Green For Danger” from what Ben Kingsley mentioned in a recent interview.

    By the way, Lang being guilty for his first-wife’s supposed murder is rumours, which have been debunked by people at the German Kinemathek. It was inspired by McGilligan’s faulty biography of Lang. I can never understand what possessed McGilligan(whose book on Hitchcock by contrast is excellent) to write that book. Taking an unsympathetic view on Lang is a sitting duck and totally uncreative.

    ”This Land is Mine!” by Renoir is my favourite of the wartime propaganda films. It has one of Charles Laughton’s greatest and most moving performances(his facial resemblance to Renoir making him a stand-in somewhat), Maureen O’Hara is also excellent in her best non-Ford performance. And Walter Slezak plays a great role as a Nazi. He has a great scene, he quotes from Shakespeare and then says, “Ah Shakespeare, we love him in Germany, the English don’t understand him.” It’s also one of the very few films at that time that explicitly shows the level of anti-semitism participated and collaborated by the French.

  9. McGilligan resists actually offering an opinion as to Lang’s guilt… but the circumstances were pretty strange, no?

    Of course it is easy to show Lang as a bastard… but there’s plenty of evidence to support that view. McGilligan does find some warmer stories too.

    Is there anywhere I can read the German Kinemathek debunking? The case fascinates me. I’ve even contemplated cutting together an account of the events using shots from Lang movies. Multiple accounts would make it even better.

    This Land is Mine will be the next Renoir I watch.

  10. Did you mean Robert Young, and not Robert Taylor? Though Borzage worked with Taylor that same year, in the rather good Flight Command.

    I like the way the emotional space of The Mortal Storm gets emptied out gradually. A really desolate film.

  11. There are a lot of errors in McGilligan’s documentation. There is very little evidence in the official files about it. Like McGilligan claiming that the wife found Lang and von Harbou in bed or something isn’t backed up by any facts. The source for Lang supposedly killing his first wife comes from Karl Freund who hated Lang(Freund also said that it was ”He” who did the tracking shots of ”Der letzte Mann” and that Murnau just directed traffic…no Mr. Reliable he…). McGilligan admits that he wasn’t a good source but the fact that he spent so many pages stretching it out and then not offering an opinion is plainly two-faced. Maybe McGilligan’s editor asked him to stretch that for commercial reasons, in either case it’s uncalled for.

    I have read a fair about Lang and while there is no doubt that he was difficult and highly self-righteous there’s also a great deal of complexity and richness to his character. Besides that, he was a great artist, one of the great giants of cinema(second in influence only to Griffith).

    Wim Wenders wrote a piece on Lang after his death and noted how in Germany people have ignored or misunderstood him. He mentioned that he talked to Sam Fuller about Lang and Fuller said, “I liked him” and Fuller also added that he and some of the former members of Lang’s crew were doing an Irish-style wake for him. That shows that he was a special person in some way. There are many other cases. I mean if someone were going to do a biography on Sternberg and keep talking about how big a peacock he was, would that be any kind of a book worth reading?

    ”This Land is Mine!” is perhaps Renoir’s best Hollywood film(although the film feels very French like ”Diary of a Chambermaid”) although I hold out for ”The Woman on the Beach” as his best. ”The Southerner” is fine as well.

  12. Dan, you’re right about the Roberts. I have corrected. I always get those two mixed up, even though I like Robert Young (I think) quite a bit more than Robert Taylor (I think).

    Very interesting re Lang — I’ll have to reread those passages to see where he might be bodging the facts and sources.

    I still value the McGilligan book for some of it’s research — disposing of the Goebbels story is worth doing. Although people still cite it, or misquote it as Hitler, etc.

    I think it would be hard to IGNORE Sternberg’s peacockery if you wrote a biography of him. A critical study ought to avoid it, of course.

    I loved The Southerner and found Woman on the Beach interesting… maybe next week for some more Renoir.

  13. Re. Marty’s “one for them and one for you”, I’m reminded of Coppola’s ability to make “The Conversation” thanks to the success of the Godfather films, the former as small and intimate as the latter is grand and sprawling.

    I’ve had the McGilligan book for years, and addressed the matter of his first wife’s death in another blog a few months back. I took the account pretty much on its face, but then my knowledge of Lang both as a man and an artist may be a little sketchy by comparison. McGilligan did make a compelling argument, though, about how most if not all of Lang’s films thereafter possessed thematic elements that could be traced back to the gravity of that incident. Interesting to me how difficult a time Lang had making films once he was stateside, as compared to say Wilder, but then Billy’s career was just beginning, whereas Lang’s had been pretty well established by that time. Wilder had a somewhat difficult time as well, at least early on, but he did flourish once he found his stride. Plus I think Wilder was able to more readily embrace being an American, his love of slang for instance, whereas Lang had a harder time because of his innate nature, didn’t possess the vitality of charm that Billy had.

    The Mortal Storm: I seem to recall seeing most if not all of this film on TCM a while back, though I can’t say for certain. Love that final frame of the home and the snow. It has yet to become available on DVD here in the States, and of course it’s because of that that sellers want ridiculous money for a VHS copy. To hell with that. I’ve yet to see Renoir’s The Southerner or This Land is Mine!, but I have seen Woman on the Beach, I agree that it’s interesting, if somewhat static. I’m thinking that it may have been the only time Robert Ryan and Joan Bennett worked onscreen together, in fact I’m pretty sure of it. I have a female friend who doesn’t think much of Bennett as an actress, but I beg to differ. While she’s not Bette Davis or Ida Lupino, she was memorable in a healthy number of films I find to be of interest, most of all of them noir of course. Love that scene in Scarlet Street, where she asks Edward G.’s Sunday painter Chris Cross to “paint me”, whereupon he does just that, her toenails.

  14. Joan Bennett’s performance in ”The Reckless Moment” is better than anything Bette Davis ever did.

    Coppola’s ”The Conversation” actually was developed after the first Godfather became a success. ”The Godfather Part II” was actually a partly personal partly commercial project since Coppola always wanted to tell a story of a father and son side-by-side without direct narrative correspondence. And he did that in that film. It’s also more harsh than the first film. In any case Coppola’s situation can’t be compared to Scorsese’s now since in the 70’s it was possible for projects like that to be made in the mainstream. A film like ”The Long Goodbye” or Scorsese’s ”Taxi Driver” was funded with Hollywood money. Today these films would have to get financing internationally.

    McGilligan’s hatchet job on Lang is a huge pain for Lang scholars who now have to spend much words debunking the book(the amount of space McGilligan gave to Spoto in the Hitchcock for instance). Even his big claim that Lang’s passport says he left months after the Goebbels meeting has been known for years. The worst part is that McGilligan doesn’t understand what Lang is about, what his films are about. And that ruins the book much more than the slander.

  15. By the way, McGilligan plans to do a biography on Nicholas Ray next. Brace yourself.

  16. One last thing…I found this online interview of McGilligan where he talks about his Lang book.

    I have to say it confirms precisely why that book failed. Like when he says that he dislikes watching films over and over again(a must for Lang) and saying that Lang only did “three or four masterful films”(I count at least 15 masterpieces) and listing “Metropolis”(this isn’t even among Lang’s best silent films) as being one of his two best.

    His book on Eastwood is also disparaged though I haven’t read it. Still the book on Hitchcock is great. I don’t know about the Cukor and Altman books though. And his work on screenwriters is commendable.

  17. I find the present Ray biography pretty satisfying. No doubt there’s MORE — in fact, Gavin Lambert opens up a whole can of worms with his Mainly About Lindsay Anderson. I guess a book that united those would be worthwhile. If McGilligan can do that.

    That Cukor book! I remember a line about gay directors in Hollywood: “The others, strictly second-rank, included James Whale…” I suspect Mitchell Leisen is the other but couldn’t swear to it. Now, while Whale’s output was small compared to Cukor’s, he was top man at Universal for a while, and he has two or three films that belong in any Hollywood top 100 — arguably more than Cukor.

    Joan Bennett rocks. You can’t see the wheels going round as you often can with Crawford and Davis. I like those two as well but they can’t do understated like Joan.

    The thing about the “one for me, one for them” thing is, it never worked. When Scorsese made his personal film it was Taxi Driver, a big success. His attempt at a commercial film was New York New York!

  18. God, McGilligan does sound like a hack in that interview. Tender Comrades is terrific though.

  19. fascinating thread!

    glad I never read the McGilligan Lang–the idea that Lang’s Hollywood stuff doesn’t measure up (also advanced by the awful PBS documentary on “The Exiles”) to his German work sounds insane to me–I don’t think Lang grew up as an artist UNTIL he had to confront the modern world on its own terms (rather than retreating from it into myth and science fiction) during the 1930s…

    James Whale is a much more interesting artist than Cukor (a huge part of the reason that I love early 30s Universal–and not just the horror–the Mae Clarke melodramas are even better–and Remember Last Night? is insanely interesting).
    So is Mitchell Leisen. And Edmund Goulding. I like Cukor’s 30s stuff (especially Holiday), but I don’t think I’ll ever forgive him for presiding over the domestication of Katharine Hepburn (beginning with The Philadelphia Story–which is good until you think about the pattern it establishes)

    I love Joan Bennett

  20. Joan Bennett is ace!

    I don’t object to Lang’s use of myth, and don’t see ut particularly as a retreat, and it’s hard to see how he could have truthfully addressed society head-on in Nazi Germany. M was problematic enough. In fact, those films are incredibly zeitgeist-y. The first Mabuse arguably gives more of a sense of its period than many of the later noirs. But using one end of his career to bash the other seems unproductive anyhow — there’s a constant evolution, which is important for an artist.

    My current thinking places Leisen higher than Cukor and even Whale, although Whale’s great moments are very great indeed. Need to see more Goulding, but Nightmare Alley is a definite favourite.

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