Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Mortal Storm (1940)

Directed by: Frank Borzage
Written by: George Froeschel, Andersen Ellis, Claudine West
Starring: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Frank Morgan

Black & White, 100 minutes

Grade: B+

Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm is an admirable little film released right before America's involvement in World War II. Today this film has been forgotten, but it's ripe for rediscovery seeing as how it's themes are still relevant today. Southern Germany in 1933, Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan, the title role in The Wizard of Oz) is celebrating his 60th birthday. His family throws a birthday dinner for him, and they invite two young men, Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) and Martin Breitner (Jimmy Stewart). Both of the men are in love with Roth's daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan), but it is Marberg that gets to her first, and they announce their engagement at the dinner table. Only a few moments later, the family gets another life altering announcement, this time over the radio: "Adolf Hitler has just been appointed Chancellor of Germany."

Roth's stepsons are elated, and so is Fritz. They see Hitler as the guiding light their country needs. Roth, however, realizes what is at stake. His wife and stepsons are of "Aryan" race, while the Professor and his daughter are not. The biggest troublemaker, though, is Breitner, a German (yes, Stewart's Pennsylvania accent is intact) who refuses to support Nazism. "I think peace is better than war," Breitner says to his friends, and his friends aren't happy to hear this. Freya still harbors feelings for Breitner, and tries to keep him around, but Fritz's increasing amount of loyalty to the Reich makes it dangerous. Freya finally realizes Fritz's ignorance and leaves him. When she reveals her feelings to Breitner, he reciprocates, but it's too late. He has to help a friend cross the border to Austria (on skis no less), and Freya's father is taken and put into a concentration camp. Realizing that time is running out, Freya must find a way to escape.

Now, as melodramatic as it may sound, this film is quite remarkable for it's time. It takes a clear, unwavering stance against Nazism, and was one of few Hollywood films at the time that did. The most amazing aspect is that not only does it take a stand, but it clearly shows the ignorance and naivety of Nazi supporters. The film depicts them as individuals who sincerely believe that Germany will be changed for the better, and they stand by that belief no matter what, even when their families are torn apart because of it.

Director Borzage has a keen grip on this production. There are many set pieces (a classroom, a pub, the dining room) that he stages with such great precision that the tension becomes nearly unbearable. The cinematography by William H. Daniels takes a few too many cues from Rudolph Mate's work in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc in certain scenes, but he really excels with the exteriors, especially on the slopes, and gives the whole thing a real sense of urgency.

As much as I respected The Mortal Storm, there are many faults that are hard to overlook. Honestly, Jimmy Stewart as a German?! The man is my favorite actor of all time, and I think his talent was unbelievable, but his accent is completely unmistakable. In fact, none of the other actors are believable as Germans either, but the acting in this film is so good, especially by Morgan and Stewart, that after about ten minutes you just go with it. The intentional ambiguity (Roth is never referred to as being Jewish, he is simply "non-Aryan") becomes laughable and makes the film feel more dated than it should be. The biggest complaint I have, however, comes from the climax. Turning an intelligent, mature, and touching story into a routine chase across the Alps reduces the film to high class soap opera.

While it may not be a masterpiece, The Mortal Storm is a so very solid film that still stands as a bit of an anomaly in Hollywood's history. It's a bold film that has a purpose, and that's always something rare, even in today's market. In fact, after seeing this film, Hitler banned all of MGM's films in Germany, which was quite a big deal since MGM had a big market in that country. The film also serves as a nice reminder of Stewart's awesome range as an actor. Right before this film he did Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and right after would be his Oscar winning performance in Cukor's The Philadelphia Story. These are three very different roles, and he excelled in them all, so for Stewart fans this film is essential, and that's a good enough reason for many people. Unfortunately, The Mortal Storm is not available on DVD. For some reason we can get twelve different versions of Saw II on disc, but not a classic Jimmy Stewart movie. However, if you do come across this film, whether it be on television (like me) or VHS, it is definitely worth your while.


H. Stewart said...

Hey, I never even heard of this movie, how about that? "Jewishness" was still a taboo topic in 1940 Hollywood, and it's probably better off they don't try to tackle it, lest the film turn into that insufferable Gentleman's Agreement.

H. Stewart said...

By the way, ever see a movie Rudolph Mate directed called D.O.A.? It was my grandfather's favorite (?), easy to track down on public domain DVDs. It's a B-picture and it shows, but still pretty darn good. I think they remade it as Crank.

Clayton L. White said...

D.O.A. is on my queue, and I'm looking forward to seeing it. Mate was a hell of a cinematographer, I'd imagine the talent would carry over to the director's chair. You really hated Gentleman's Agreement, didn't you? I've never watched it, I do my best to avoid Peck as much as possible.