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The Master Race

The Master Race(1944)

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teaser The Master Race (1944)

The U.S. and its allies were only about seven months short of total victory in Europe when this picture was released, proving that, despite Allied advances, the Hollywood war machine wasn't letting up on the Nazi threat. Acknowledging the inevitable defeat of the Third Reich's plan for world domination, the plot has a fanatical hard-core band of Germans preparing for the rise of a Fourth Reich by infiltrating a rural Belgian village to foment racial hatred and pave the way for a "master race" supremacy over the lesser "mongrel" races.

Producer Robert Golden gave the production its rather incendiary title in order to capitalize on the success of his earlier anti-Nazi film, Hitler's Children (1943). The story was the brainchild of Herbert J. Biberman (1900-1971), the progressive producer, director and screenwriter now best known as one of the Hollywood Ten, who were blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In 1950, Biberman was sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of Congress. His wife, the actress Gale Sondergaard, was also blacklisted.

At this point, however, Biberman was showing promise in his film career. With only 3 other screenplays under his belt, and two previous films as director, he was chosen by Golden to flesh out his story into a working script and given the directorial reins. Although an item in Hollywood Citizen-News reported that Golden hired a total of nine different writers to work on the script, the only ones credited on screen and in the RKO Archives Script Files at the UCLA Arts Library-Special Collection are Biberman, Anne Froelick and Rowland Leigh.

A War Department memo from the time noted that the film was originally set in Czechoslovakia. That idea was scrapped, along with planned usage of actual footage of the October 1943 bombing of the French port of St. Nazaire. Although the picture was mostly shot in the studio and back lots, a Hollywood Reporter news item said some exterior background scenes were shot in New York.

Besides Biberman, the other notable name on this project is Russell Metty, the cinematographer who also shot Golden's Hitler's Children for RKO. Metty had been working in the industry for about 10 years at this point, mostly in B pictures, although he broke through into the major leagues with the Henry Fonda-Lucille Ball vehicle The Big Street (1942) and Tender Comrade (1943), starring Ginger Rogers as the lynchpin of a group of women who pool their resources to survive on the American homefront. That story's emphasis on the women's "share and share alike" philosophy was one of the films that landed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in hot water as a suspected Communist, leading to his imprisonment and blacklisting as another of the Hollywood Ten.

Metty went on to a distinguished career. As the director of photography for several Douglas Sirk films, he brought a unique use of color and shadow to that director's melodramas, among them Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959). Perhaps his most lasting achievement, however, was Orson Welles's film noir Touch of Evil (1958), with its legendary three-and-a-half-minute opening tracking shot. Ironically, Metty won his only Academy Award for Spartacus (1960), a production in which his role was largely usurped by director Stanley Kubrick (and one of the films that broke the blacklist by hiring and giving credit to Trumbo).

Speaking of Welles, the lead here, George Coulouris as the dastardly Von Beck, played Charles Foster Kane's nemesis, the banker Thatcher, in Citizen Kane (1941). Coulouris reprised his role as Von Beck in a January 1945 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of a 60-minute version of the story.

The film did not do as well as Hitler's Children at the box office and got only middling reviews. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times wrote, "One can't help but feel keen disappointment when a subject of tremendous human scope is tossed upon the screen in slipshod fashion, with little dramatic clarity."

Director: Herbert J. Biberman
Producers: Edward A. Golden, Robert Golden
Screenplay: Herbert J. Biberman, Anne Froelick, Rowland Leigh, from a story by Biberman
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Editing: Ernie Leadlay
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: George Coulouris (Von Beck), Stanley Ridges (Phil Carson), Osa Massen (Helena), Carl Esmond (Andrei), Nancy Gates (Nina)

By Rob Nixon

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