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Warner Bros. had led Hollywood in criticizing fascism before the start of World War II with pictures like Confession of a Nazi Spy (1939). Once the U.S. entered the war, they supported the war effort with a series of films about the Nazi menace, including All Through the Night (1942), Desperate Journey (1942) and this adaptation of Lillian Hellman's daring 1939 play. In fact, Warner's seemed the only studio capable of doing justice to her condemnation of fascism, written at a time when many in the U.S. still supported Hitler's government.
Producer Hal B. Wallis wanted Hellman to adapt the play herself, but she already had a commitment to independent producer Samuel Goldwyn. Instead, she suggested her longtime companion, mystery novelist Dashiell Hammett, then offered to come in to write additional dialogue once his draft was completed. Many critics felt that they actually improved the play by shifting the focus from the main character, Kurt Muller, and his personal vendetta against the Nazis to show the effect the war had on his entire family.
To star as Muller, Wallis wanted Charles Boyer, but the French actor feared that he couldn't master a convincing German accent for the role. At the urging of Herman Shumlin, who had directed the Broadway production and would make his screen debut with the film version, Wallis gave the role to the play's original leading man, Paul Lukas.
The Hungarian-born Lukas had been a stage star in Europe when he was discovered by Paramount head Jesse Lasky and brought to Hollywood to star in silent films. He made a successful transition to talkies, but after 15 years in Hollywood had failed to establish a memorable image, mostly playing continental villains. So he left the screen for Broadway, where he had a major hit in Watch on the Rhine.
With the relatively little known Lukas in the male lead, Wallis needed a female star to sell the picture. The studio's biggest star, Bette Davis, would have been the logical choice, but she was tied up on Now Voyager (1942). Shumlin suggested either Helen Hayes or Margaret Sullavan, but the former wasn't a big screen name and the latter chose to return to the stage to star in The Voice of the Turtle. Wallis then offered the role to Irene Dunne, but she didn't think it important enough. Then Hammett broke his back, which delayed work on the screenplay. By the time he was done, Davis was almost finished with Now Voyager and jumped at the chance to star in such an important picture. Given her secondary role, she tried to convince Wallis to give Lukas star billing, but the publicity department was adamant-only her name at the top could sell the picture.
Her name helped to sell a lot of tickets and the film was one of Warner's biggest hits of the year. It also won amazing reviews, with critics hailing Lukas' performance as one of the greatest in film history. The film and Lukas captured New York Film Critics Awards, and seemed to be shoo-ins for the Oscars®. On the big night, Lukas picked up the coveted award, but the film was aced out by a lesser Warner's film that most people at the studio had forgotten about - Casablanca.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Herman Shumlin
Screenplay: Dashiell Hammett
Cinematography: Merrit B. Gerstad
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Film Editing: Rudi Fehr
Original Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Bette Davis (Sara Muller), Paul Lukas (Kurt Muller), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Marthe de Brancovis), Donald Woods (David Farrelly), George Coulouris (Teck Debrancovis), Lucile Watson (Fanny Farrelly)
BW-112m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller