Between 1939 and 1941, when Europe was at struggle and America wasn’t, Hollywood did one thing uncharacteristic: It produced a collection of movement footage with an overt political agenda. The films warned that the armies rolling over Poland, Belgium, France et al. would all the time be hungry for extra lebensraum. Defying the oft-quoted recommendation of producer Samuel Goldwyn (“If you want to send a message, use Western Union”), they telegraphed a blunt message, boldfaced, in all caps: Nazism was a transparent and current danger to the homeland.
Towards expectations, probably the most potent entry in Hollywood’s prewar anti-Nazi cycle (a cycle is a time-bound cluster of like-themed films too short-lived to be a genre) came from MGM, probably the most controversy-averse and conservative-minded of all the main Hollywood studios. Released in June 1940, The Mortal Storm dramatized the metamorphosis of Germany right into a gangster state by displaying the imprint of the Nazi jackboot on a single household. Though long in circulation and in regular rotation on TCM, the film has been restored lately by the UCLA Movie and Television Archive, which first unspooled the results final February at its Pageant of Preservation. On Might 7, the crisp new 35 mm print was screened on the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts, as a part of the National Middle for Jewish Film’s annual pageant.
The anti-Nazi cycle was jump-started by Warner Bros., probably the most politically engaged and unapologetically Jewish of the key studios, with Confessions of a Nazi Spy, released in April 1939, four months before the Nazi invasion of Poland. A ripped-from-the-headlines exposé of a Nazi espionage ring working out of New York, it was the first big-budget function film to showcase the imagery and iconography that might fill the motion picture reminiscence of the 20th century: sinister Nazi villains in slick SS uniforms, swastikas emblazoned on flags, armbands and banners, and genuine newsreel footage of swarms of robotic troopers precision marching to a martial drumbeat. The advertisements screamed, “The picture that calls a swastika a swastika!”
Though not the large hit Warner Bros. had hoped for, Confessions of a Nazi Spy opened the floodgates. Even earlier than American entry into WWII, all the main studios adopted anti-Nazism as official company coverage. Whether discount basement B-movies or prestige productions, the anti-Nazi thread related films as numerous because the exploitation quickie Hitler: Beast of Berlin (1939) and Charles Chaplin’s cri de coeur The Great Dictator (1940).
Having constructed its popularity on luxurious period romances, Technicolor musicals, and heartwarming fun for the complete household, MGM was an unlikely participant within the anti-Nazi cause. Its prototypical display fare was the Andy Hardy collection, through which Mickey Rooney, spunky scion of a middle-class family of unspecified Protestant roots, mounts terribly elaborate musical numbers in between high school hijinks and pet love. Studio chieftain Louis B. Mayer had two footage on his office wall that summed up his rock-ribbed Republican politics and assimilationist aspirations: newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and Roman Catholic prelate Francis Cardinal Spellman.
When Hitler got here to energy in 1933, MGM (in contrast to Warner Bros.) complied with the anti-Jewish edicts of the new regime, firing Jewish staff from its department workplaces in Germany and transferring its Jewish American staff to different sites in Europe. In personal, Mayer contributed generously to anti-Nazi causes in Los Angeles. He helped finance the efforts of native Jews to infiltrate the German American Bund and the Silver Shirts in Los Angeles, a story chronicled in Steven J. Ross’ illuminating research Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Towards Hollywood and America, revealed in 2016. Yet as late as June 1939, MGM was still giving Nazi newspaper editors VIP excursions of its soundstages in Culver Metropolis. Earlier, MGM had infuriated progressives by backing away from a movement image version of Sinclair Lewis’ dystopic novel It Can’t Happen Here, revealed in 1935, through which fascism comes house to roost in a Nice Melancholy America.
The Mortal Storm is predicated on the 1937 ebook (subtitle: A Novel of Dictatorship) by British writer Phyllis Bottome, who had lived in Germany in the early 1930s and witnessed firsthand the descent of the Weimar Republic into the Nazi abyss. A bestseller that was serialized in the New York Publish, the novel is a middlebrow mélange of political thriller, household melodrama, and feminist bildungsroman. Its heroine is Freya, an excellent medical scholar who spends her wardrobe allowance on a new model microscope (“My career comes first!”) and falls for a noble communist peasant (“our ideal is only to attack selfishness”). Historical past has different plans.
In April 1939, MGM snapped up the movie rights for $25,000, however vacillated about putting the movie into production, skittish at being overtaken by the fast-moving news from overseas and fearing that the studio is perhaps accused of violating U.S. overseas coverage, which was, in any case, (officially) neutrality. When conflict broke out in Europe, sensing a change within the home weather and assured of a bull market in Great Britain, MGM greenlit the venture and commenced capturing in early February 1940. You’ll be shocked to listen to that little of the feminism and not one of the communism in Bottome’s novel made it via the blender of MGM’s adaptation process.
To helm the movie version, MGM turned to the reigning skilled on star-crossed love and emotionally fraught households, director Frank Borzage. In a profession that stretched from the multi-hankie tearjerker Humoresque (1920) to the apostolic biopic The Massive Fisherman (1959), by means of 25 silent options and 45 sound films, Borzage by no means lost his tender auteurist contact. He is typically referred to as—or dismissed as—a dreamy romantic, but The Mortal Storm was his third tour into tumultuous Weimar territory, after Little Man, What Now? (1934), a compromised version of the anti-Nazi novel by Hans Fallada, and Three Comrades (1938), a compromised version of anti-Nazi novel by Erich Maria Remarque. MGM accorded The Mortal Storm the complete A-picture remedy: huge stars, huge price range, and large publicity rollout. The graceful production course of encountered just one glitch: When Borzage tried to order a number of hundred Nazi flags for background decoration, no flag-making agency in Los Angeles would fill the order. MGM’s own prop division had to make up the required regalia.
Set in a small, unnamed college city nestled on the foot of the Alps, on the epochal date of Jan. 30, 1933, the film opens with a portentous narration that underscores the modern setting. “The tale we are about to tell is of the mortal storm in which man finds himself today,” booms a voice from the heavens. “Again, man is crying, `I must kill my fellow man!’”
But for the second no storm clouds rumble on the horizon. Professor Roth (Frank Morgan) is an esteemed scholar-scientist, not coincidentally turning 60 that very day, a man beloved by his family, worshipped by his students, and honored by his career. Arriving at college for his normal lecture, he is disillusioned that no one appears to have observed his birthday—till the whole lecture corridor rises and sings the varsity track in tribute to the esteemed Herr Professor Doktor, who can’t help however wipe a tear from his eye.
At residence professor Roth presides over a convivial extended family: a loving wife (Irene Wealthy) and a young son (Gene Reynolds); two grown boys (Robert Stack and William T. Orr) from his spouse’s earlier marriage; two favored students, blustery Fritz (Robert Young) and soft-spoken Martin (James Stewart); and his lovely, headstrong daughter Freya (the luminous Margaret Sullavan). Fritz is Freya’s fiancé, but the cozy two-shots framing alpha stars Sullavan and Stewart predict another coupling. Instantly, the maid bursts in, giddy with the fantastic information simply announced on the radio: “They have made Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany!”
Already fervent brownshirts, the elder stepsons rush to the radio and hear a hysterical broadcaster proclaim the dawn of a New Germany. The young men are ecstatic. Professor and Frau Roth—and Freya and Martin—not so much. They have good cause to be concerned: The professor is “non-Aryan.”
“Non-Aryan” is as shut because the film will come to designating what the new regime would call professor Roth’s racial sort. At no point is he explicitly recognized as a Jew; at no point is the phrase uttered on the soundtrack. Still, one must be a very dense spectator certainly to not perceive what makes him a born enemy of the Third Reich. Later, when Roth is hauled off and imprisoned in a focus camp, the sleeve of his prison uniform will bear a conspicuous “J.”
Because the Nazis consolidate energy, the world of the Roths, skilled and private, disintegrates. The elder boys depart house, friendships dissolve, and a mild previous man, clearly Jewish, is pummeled by brownshirts. A fiery nighttime sequence reenacts the famous newsreel footage of the Might 10, 1933, guide burning in Berlin, a foreshadowing of the conflagrations to return.
Probably the most chilling—and, lately, resonant—scenes in The Mortal Storm takes place within the college lecture hall where professor Roth’s students had so just lately raised their voices in his honor. He is educating what he has all the time taught: the organic unity of all mankind, “the scientific truth” that blood is blood. His once-admiring college students at the moment are a squad of menacing brownshirts who won’t tolerate his heretical rebuke to Nazi eugenics. They storm out of the lecture corridor and name for a boycott of his courses.
Its beloved patriarch lifeless, its sons in thrall to Hitler, the house of Roth has been hollowed out by the Nazis. The survivors plot a determined escape to Austria, Frau Roth and her young son by practice, Freya and Martin over the mountains on skis, with the Nazis in scorching pursuit.
The chase over the snow-capped Alps guarantees safety and liberation, however, shockingly, especially for the studio devoted to comfortable endings, The Mortal Storm delivers a demise blow to its lovable star: Lovely, vibrant Freya is shot lifeless by order of her former fiancé as she nears the Austrian border.
The awful topicality and downbeat tone of The Mortal Storm would have been a tough promote at any time, but the movie was thrust into a very risky prewar second: when isolationism and interventionism have been preventing for the hearts and minds of the American public, when FDR was struggling to rearm the army and launch a peacetime draft, and when home anti-Semites have been finding widespread cause with their Nazi fashions. As the very best profile of the anti-Nazi movies, the movie was a ripe target of opportunity for the acute edges of the political spectrum, right and left.
The Nazis and their domestic wing in the German American Bund have been predictably outraged. Within the wake of The Mortal Storm, Nazi officials tersely knowledgeable MGM that its footage would henceforth be banned within the Larger Reich and the occupied nations. Stateside, fifth columnists within the Bund sought to intimidate exhibitors enjoying anti-Nazi movies with bomb threats and vandalism. Thus, the heads-up about The Mortal Storm from Movement Image Every day: “The film is filled with potential audience impact,” the trade paper cautioned. “As such, it is subject to individual and community feeling prevalent at the actual moment of its playdate.”
Although often falling in need of precise violence, partisan outbursts typically disrupted screenings of the anti-Nazi cycle. In Los Angeles, pro-Nazi patrons greeted the appearances of the swastika in The Mortal Storm with rowdy applause. Taking over the problem, anti-Nazi patrons responded with jeers and catcalls. “Loud acrimony followed as the partisans of the two sides jibed at each other,” reported Every day Variety. “No serious trouble developed but the showing of the anti-Nazi film is serving to uncover numerous Hitler supporters in this area.”
The other finish of the political spectrum was no much less agitated. A lot of the anti-Nazi cycle was released smack in the midst of the interregnum between the Hitler-Stalin Pact (Aug. 23, 1939) and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941), when the Communist social gathering line mandated an accommodationist coverage toward Stalin’s new comrade in arms. Taking dictation from Moscow, the official organs of the Communist Celebration USA lambasted Hollywood’s anti-Nazi cycle as errant war-mongering by capitalist retailers of demise. “The Mortal Storm fails to be an important film,” scoffed David Platt, film critic for the Day by day Employee. “Sadly lacking in ideas. … The conception of the film is small, static.’” Reviewing the movie for the New Plenty, the literary-cultural mouthpiece for the CPUSA, Alvah Bessie, a future member of the Hollywood Ten, hewed obediently to the get together line. “Virulent hatred of everything that Hitler represents is being utilized to drive us into a war to protect a nascent home-grown brand of Hitlerism,” he wrote, someway distorting Hollywood’s anti-Nazism right into a shill for domestic fascism. (After the Nazi invasion of Mother Russia, communist critics experienced an ideological awakening. David Platt now referred to as upon good get together members to induce Hollywood to “fight the appeaser’s attack by producing more, not less, anti-Nazi films.”)
In the broad middle floor between the political fringes, the critiques for The Mortal Storm have been uniformly wonderful. Archer Winsten at the New York Publish welcomed “a serious picture dealing with the highest ideas of freedom and tolerance,” Cecelia Ager at the progressive day by day PM discovered it “gripping, skillfully assembled, filled with sympathy and suspense,” and Bosley Crowther at The New York Occasions hailed “the blistering anti-Nazi propaganda” of “a passionate drama, struck out of the deepest tragedy.” At the New York Sun, Eileen Creelman might have had probably the most discerning and prophetic remark. “The drama of a half-Jewish family caught in the hate and bewilderment of Nazi persecution” was an outstanding film, she acknowledged, however “with war and sudden death and misery poured forth from each press and newsreel and radio [it seems] unnecessary to use motion picture entertainment for such painful purposes. Five years from now, or ten, The Mortal Storm might be easier to see.” Properly, yes and no.
As ever, the suggestions Hollywood prized most got here at the ticket window—and right here, alas, Sam Goldwyn’s moneywise aphorism was proving true. People bombarded by the grim news from Europe sought to escape it at the native Bijou. “Anti-Nazi and other pictures dealing with the slaughter abroad are anything but the financial draws their producers had predicted,” reported Every day Variety. A gross sales manager for Twentieth Century Fox bluntly informed the home office that footage reminding audiences of “World War No. 2” have been “box office poison.” An unhappy exhibitor groused that “the public is getting all the war it wants in the newsreels.”
To lure in moviegoers immune to gloomy geopolitics, posters and newspaper promoting for the anti-Nazi cycle performed up the films as straight thrillers or romances. Advertisements for The Mortal Storm show Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in a clinch, with not a swastika in sight. “A story of love and sacrifice—not war!” insisted taglines. Similarly, two movies that originally highlighted their anti-Nazi colors of their very titles have been rebranded for theatrical launch: A deliberate anti-Nazi comedy referred to as Heil, Jennie! turned the Nazi-less Jennie (1940) and I Married a Nazi turned simply The Man I Married (1940).
But when many American moviegoers weren’t watching, their elected representatives have been. In Washington, a bipartisan cohort of isolationist U.S. senators eyed Hollywood’s anti-Nazi cycle and saw just what the Bundists and the Communists did: an insidious propaganda campaign designed to sucker America into the European maelstrom. From Sept. 9 to 26, 1941, a subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate Commerce chaired by Sen. D. Value Clark, D-Idaho, held hearings into “Propaganda in Motion Pictures” to research Hollywood’s sudden lurch into overseas policy. Variety—which regardless of the lineage shared by most of its masthead and readership seldom broached the Jewish angle—tagged the impulse behind the hearings as “the strongly anti-Semitic feeling of many members of Congress from small, homeland districts.” Among the moguls referred to as to testify was Fox’s Darryl Zanuck, Warner Bros.’ Harry M. Warner, and Nicholas M. Schenck, president of Loews Inc., MGM’s mum or dad firm.
Sen. Clark and his equally nativist colleague Sen, Gerald P. Nye, R-N.D., singled out The Mortal Storm for “special inquiry” and Schenck for a particular grilling. They charged that MGM was forcing exhibitors to guide The Mortal Storm; that Victor Saville, an assistant producer on the movie, was a British agent; and that Borzage had been taken off the image as a result of he “had not been sufficiently brutal [toward the Nazis] in directing the production.” Borzage vehemently denied the charge by telegram: “Senator Nye’s statement is incorrect as I started and finished direction of The Mortal Storm and was at no time removed from my directorial duties.”
Schenck, who had begun his profession within the thuggish world of New Jersey amusement parks, didn’t blink or again down.
Did Schenck assume The Mortal Storm was propaganda? requested Clark.
“Don’t use that word,” stated Schenck, defending the manufacturing as “a great picture. I loved it.”
Did Schenck assume The Mortal Storm contributed to concord and nationwide unity?
“I don’t think you want unity with Hitler,” Schenck replied evenly. Nevertheless, he admitted that “under normal circumstances, with the world at peace, we wouldn’t want to make” politically charged movies.
“We are at peace,” Clark identified.
“Not exactly,” shot back Schenck.
All through the hearings, the audience within the hearing room hissed at the politicians and applauded the moguls. Outmatched, the senators adjourned the hearings, promising to resume the inquiry by yr’s finish. By then, in fact, anti-Nazism was not just Hollywood’s coverage.
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