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Based on a popular 1939 novel by Ethel Vance, Escape (1940) was one of MGM's first anti-Nazi films. American Mark Preysing (Robert Taylor) goes to Germany to rescue his mother, who had returned to her native country to sell her late husband's estate. While there, she was arrested for trying to take money out of the country. With the aide of Countess von Treck (Norma Shearer), Preysing learns his mother is in a concentration camp scheduled for execution. Both the Countess and Preysing risk their lives to free her.
Critics raved about the film's suspense. Well-known film critic Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, "this is far and away the most dramatic and hair-raising picture yet made on the sinister subject of persecution in a totalitarian land, and the suspense which it manages to compress in its moments of greatest intensity would almost seem enough to blow sizable holes in the screen." Modern Screen called it a "gripping and spine-tingling melodrama. Both Norma Shearer and Robert Taylor are excellent."
Some Shearer fans consider Escape one of her best performances, but the actress would only make two more films before retiring. Lawrence J. Quirk in Norma: The Story of Norma Shearer states, "The late Anita Louise, who had appeared with Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938) and who later came to know her well, told me years ago that she felt that after 1939 Shearer essentially lost interest in her career, and regarded the six-picture contract (with three films yet to go) as something of a burden." She turned down lead roles in Gone With the Wind (1939) and Mrs. Miniver (1942). Shearer was the widow of MGM studio executive Irving Thalberg, who had died suddenly of pneumonia in 1936. After Escape, Shearer completed her contract with Her Cardboard Lover and We Were Dancing (both 1942), then remarried and retired from filmmaking.
According to Gavin Lambert in Norma Shearer, producer Lawrence Weingarten first offered Escape to director Alfred Hitchcock "who was intrigued by the subject and the idea of working with Norma but feared M-G-M would supervise him too closely. Weingarten then turned to Mervyn LeRoy, impressed by the melodramas he had made while under contract to Warners." LeRoy directed such films as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) and They Won Forget (1937).
For Escape, director LeRoy originally wanted the German actor Conrad Veidt in the role of General Kurt von Kolb, but he was unavailable. Paul Lukas was cast instead. But a week after filming began, LeRoy had to recast the part. LeRoy states in his autobiography Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, "he was the only person I ever had to take out of a picture and it wasn because he was untalented, but he simply was misinterpreting the part. I was lucky; when I had to make the change, Veidt was available."
Several members of the cast of Escape were German natives who fled the country when Hitler came to power. Conrad Veidt, who starred in the silent German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), went into exile in England with his Jewish wife in the early 1930s. Veidt became a British citizen in 1939. He made his American film debut in Escape and soon after appeared in Casablanca (1942). Other cast members Felix Bressart and Albert Bassermann also fled Germany in 1933 and arrived in Hollywood by 1939.
LeRoy was pleased when he learned Bassermann was in Hollywood, but MGM's casting director doubted the German star would want the small role LeRoy had in mind. LeRoy met with Bassermann anyway, who read the script and immediately agreed to do the part saying, "It isn't how long the part is, but how good it is."
Hitler banned Escape in Germany for its critical depiction of the country. When MGM continued making anti-Nazi films, Hitler eventually banned all MGM films.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producer: Mervyn LeRoy, Lawrence Weingarten
Screenplay: Arch Oboler and Marguerite Roberts. Based on a novel by Ethel Vance.
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof, Franz Waxman, Eugene Zador
Cast: Norma Shearer (Countess von Treck), Robert Taylor (Mark Preysing), Conrad Veidt (Gen. Kurt von Kolb), Alla Nazimova (Emmy Ritter), Felix Bressart (Fritz Keller), Albert Bassermann (Dr. Arthur Henning).
By Deborah L. Johnson