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.