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Throughout the 1930's, before the outbreak of World War II, concerned anti-fascists tried to expose the racism which was the basis of the Nazi philosophy, and the atrocities committed in the cause of Aryan supremacy. Phyllis Bottome's best-selling 1938 novel, The Mortal Storm, was a plea for people of conscience to fight the menace of fascism. The film version of The Mortal Storm (1940) was MGM's first feature film to openly criticize Germany's Nazi regime. Set in 1933, the film unflinchingly looked at the rise of Nazism, and helped explain why Jews stayed in Germany in the face of the rising Nazi persecution.
Professor Roth (Frank Morgan) is a "non-Aryan" (MGM's circumlocution for Jew) teaching medicine in a Bavarian university. The Mortal Storm opens as Hitler becomes Chancellor, but Roth believes he is safe because he is non-political, a scholar. Roth's two stepsons join the Nazis, as does Fritz (Robert Young), who is engaged to Roth's daughter, Freya, (Margaret Sullavan). Repelled by what's happening, Freya turns to pacifist Martin (James Stewart) as her family is torn apart by the Nazis.
Stewart and Sullavan had been friends for years, and The Mortal Storm was their fourth and final film together. Sullavan was high-strung and could be temperamental, which made things difficult on the set. But the easygoing Stewart found her unpredictability charming, understood her moods, and knew how to get around them. Yes, she was difficult, but he thought the results were worth it. "She had you just a little bit off guard...she could do moments that would hit you, maybe a look or a line or two, but they would hit like flashes or earthquakes."
The rest of the large cast, made up of veterans like Morgan, Young, and Irene Rich, along with some talented newcomers, was equally strong. The Mortal Storm was the second film for Robert Stack, who was impressive in the pivotal role of the stepson whose family tragedy leads him to question his commitment to Nazism. This was the film debut of Dan Dailey (billed as "Dan Dailey, Jr.") who had been a vaudeville and Broadway song-and-dance man, and would go on to have a major career in movie musicals. In The Mortal Storm, however, Dailey is chilling in a dramatic role as a rabid Nazi ideologue.
By the time The Mortal Storm opened in the summer of 1940, all of Europe was at war. What had seemed prescient in the 1930's was grim reality by 1940. In spite of fine acting and the sensitive direction of Frank Borzage, many critics found the film dated, its subject grim and depressing. Howard Barnes' review in the New York Herald Tribune was typical: "less than a year ago, it would have had far more dramatic and emotional impact than it has at this time....It is not MGM's fault, but the timing on the making of The Mortal Storm has been extremely bad." The film was a failure at the box office.
American critics and audiences weren't the only ones who didn't like The Mortal Storm. Its powerful anti-Nazi message led Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to shut down the Berlin office of MGM's parent company, Loew's, and to ban the showing of all MGM films in German territories. The flood of anti-fascist American films had begun, and a year and a half later, the U.S. entered the war.
Director: Frank Borzage
Producer: Sidney Franklin, Victor Saville (uncredited)
Screenplay: Claudine West, Andersen Ellis, George Froeschel, based on the novel by Phyllis Bottome
Editor: Elmo Veron
Cinematography: William Daniels
Costume Design: Adrian, Gile Steele
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Wade Rubottom; set designer Edwin B. Willis
Music: Edward Kane, Eugene Zador
Principal Cast: Margaret Sullavan (Freya Roth), James Stewart (Martin Breitner), Robert Young (Fritz Marlberg), Frank Morgan (Prof. Roth), Robert Stack (Otto von Roth), Bonita Granville (Elsa), Irene Rich (Mrs. Roth), William T. Orr (Erich von Rohn), Maria Ouspenskaya (Mrs. Breitner), Gene Reynolds (Rudi), Dan Dailey, Jr. (Holl)
BW-101m. Closed captioning.
By Margarita Landazuri