Monday, February 6, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Mortal Storm" (1940)

"The Mortal Storm" contains often stilted acting, stiff dialogue that sounds written even as it's being delivered, topped off by a pseudo-religious opening monologue about god and men and fate that's supposed to sound portentous and important, but just comes off as ponderous and goofy.

And a shorthand description of the story -- Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan escape Nazis on skis -- sounds like a recipe for a really corny drama worthy of send-up a la "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Despite some legitimate flaws, though, "The Mortal Storm" is actually a top-notch thriller that has the distinction of being one of the few Hollywood films that explicitly criticized Nazi Germany prior to America's entrance into World War II. Large sections of the country supported staying out of "the war in Europe," and even when movies did take on Adolf Hitler and company, it was generally obliquely.

Although the film rarely refers to Germany specifically and uses carefully veiled wording -- Jews are never mentioned by that name -- there's no mistaking the film as a full-frontal assault on Nazism. MGM actually thought their slight vagueness would allow them to distribute the film in Germany, but the Third Reich took one look at "The Mortal Storm" and banned it, along with all other movies from the studio.

Forget about the brief skiing segments, which are indeed quite hokey -- long shots of figures slicing down pristine white mountain banks, intercut with ridiculously smooth two-shots of Stewart and Sullavan coasting along while talking in a conversational tone, their heads not even bobbing a fraction of an inch.

What really impressed about this movie was the way it depicted the insidious nature of groupthink, where everyone decides that their way is the only reasonable way. Previously admired people are derided and cast out of civil society, once-lifelong friends are shunned, and tolerance for others' ideas dissipates into a churning river of "progress."

Take Professor Viktor Roth, played by Frank Morgan. An adored teacher of medicine at the local university, he has just celebrated his 60th birthday surrounded by awed students, supportive colleagues and a large, loving family.

But things turn around almost overnight when Adolf Hitler is appointed chancellor in 1933. Soon his classrooms are filled with jack-booted thugs (Dan Dailey chillingly plays the sneering ringleader) who denounce his objective claims that non-Aryan blood is no different than Aryan. Before long he's sent to a concentration camp.

Stewart's character remains on the sidelines for awhile, comes to the fore, then disappears for most of the second act. He plays Martin Breitner, a local veterinarian-farmer and old friend of the Roth clan who secretly adores their daughter, Freya. The real star is Sullavan as Freya, a headstrong girl who has the courage to stand up to her own brothers when they morph into Nazi toadies.

A young Robert Stack has an impressive turn as Otto, the Roth's eldest child. While it's never specifically stated that Professor Roth is a Jew, the implication is pretty clear. It's one area where the script by Claudine West, Hans Rameau and George Froeschel rings false, since any child of one Jewish parent would be branded a Jew as well, and never allowed to join the Nazi party. The film is based on a book by Phyllis Bottome.

Director Frank Borzage had a long and busy career with more than 100 films behind the camera, one of the few filmmakers to successfully transition from silent to sound movies. He started out as a silent-era actor, with another 100-plus movies under his belt in front of the camera.

The cinematography by William H. Daniels is really rich and deep, lots of layers of visual landscape both indoors and out.

Stewart and Sullavan would make four films together, and "The Mortal Storm" was the final one. I didn't find their coupling particularly convincing -- Freya is intially engaged to another Roth family friend, Fritz Marberg, played by Robert Young. But he goes along with the Nazi crowd, they soon break up, and she's ready to fall into Martin's arms rather quickly.

But the terrible, almost claustrophobic feeling of being a champion of free thought in a herd of those intent on trampling those who stray is brought to vivid life.

3.5 stars out of four

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