Cast & Crew
In 1936, in a concentration camp in the Bavarian Alps, German-born actress Emmy Ritter awaits her death at the hands of the Nazis, only comforted by camp physician Dr. Ditten, who secretly allows her to write a letter to her American-born son, Mark Preysring. Unknown to them, Mark has arrived in Germany searching for Emmy, and after a terrified old friend reveals that she may have been arrested for trying to smuggle money out of the country, Mark goes to the authorities. He learns that Emmy, who had been helping refugees and "enemies" of the German state, has been sent to a concentration camp. Mark then goes to a small Bavarian town in which an old servant of Emmy's, Fritz Keller, lives, but Fritz pretends not to know Mark. One afternoon, a despondent Mark meets Countess Ruby Von Treck, an American-born widow of a German nobleman, who runs a finishing school in her home. Ruby is sympathetic to Mark and asks her lover, Nazi General Kurt Von Kolb, about Emmy and learns where she is confined. Ruby then goes to see Mark at his hotel, but can't bring herself to tell him. Mark begins to fall in love with Ruby, but when he learns that she is friends with a Nazi general, he turns against her. When Kurt reveals that Emmy is about to be executed, though, Ruby invites Mark to meet her at a concert and tells him about Emmy, then advises him to go home. Mark is enraged by her apparent callousness and lashes out at her. After the concert, she introduces him to Ditten, an old friend, who asks Mark to go with him for a drink. Unaware that Mark is Emmy's son, Ditten at first asks him to send some American medical journals to him, but when he realizes who Mark is, he gives him Emmy's letter. When some Gestapo officers come into the café, Ditten leaves, but invites Mark to his apartment the following evening. Back at his hotel, Mark finds Fritz waiting for him, remorseful over his earlier behavior. Fritz admits that he was too afraid to speak to Mark openly, but offers to properly bury Emmy. The next morning, in the concentration camp, Emmy seems to have a heart attack and Ditten pronounces her dead. That night, however, when Mark goes to visit him, Ditten secretly reveals that he administered a drug to Emmy to produce a coma-like state that simulates death. Mark is shocked, but when he realizes that Ditten has given Emmy her only chance, Mark arranges for Fritz to claim the body, then meet him at an inn near the camp. Mark waits, but Fritz does not come, and soon two members of the Gestapo arrive and question him. Suspicious when Mark says that he is waiting for Ditten, they take him to the camp for questioning. Ditten tells the Gestapo that Mark has come for his dead mother's body, and soon Fritz arrives with the proper papers to claim her. Though still suspicious, the Gestapo release the body to Mark and Fritz. After they leave the camp, Mark finally revives Emmy, but because snow and debris on the road blocks their truck, Mark decides to take her to Ruby's house, hoping that she will help. She says she doesn't want to help, but does, even though Kurt has seen Fritz' truck and suspects that something is wrong. The next morning, Ruby obtains a passport for Emmy from one of the girls who is against the Nazis, then sends the rest of the girls off to ski. When Kurt arrives, he is suspicious of Mark, whom Ruby dismisses as someone with a crush on her. She secretly sends Mark away with Emmy and promises to join him later, even though she knows that Kurt will never let her go. After they leave, Ruby prevents Kurt from stopping them by revealing her love for Mark and taunting him, causing him to have a heart attack. As Kurt dies, she promises not to leave him, knowing that Mark and Emmy are free.
Edwin B. Willis
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
Author Grace Zaring Stone used a pen name when her book was published to protect relatives living in Europe from Nazi retribution. Similarly, no composer credit was given in the film for the same reason, and some of the actors used fictitious names.
Opening cast credits for the film identify Norma Shearer's character as "The Countess," Conrad Veidt's character as "The General," Albert Basserman's character as "The Lawyer," Felix Bressart's character as "Fritz" and Philip Dorn's character as "The Doctor." End credits list the character names as indicated in the credits above. Character names for the other leading actors, Robert Taylor, Nazimova and Bonita Granville, are the same in both places. According to the film's pressbook, the name Ethel Vance was a pseudonym used by the real authoress of Escape to protect relatives living in Nazi Germany. Modern sources have confirmed that Vance was the pen name of novelist Grace Zaring Stone, who previously had written The Bitter Tea of General Yen (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.0353). Stone's daughter, Eleanor Perenyi, was living in occupied Europe at the time, and her husband, Ellis Stone, was the United States Naval attache in Paris. Stone felt that her relatives might be in danger if her real name were attached to the book, thus she used a pseudonym that was not even known to M-G-M when that studio purchased the rights to the novel.
An article in Pacific Coast Musician on November 2, 1940 noted that no music credits were given for the film for the reason that the composers also had relatives in Germany and feared for their safety. No music credits were given in contemporary reviews or in onscreen credits, nor were any music credits cited within the film's cutting continuity, a departure from most M-G-M films of the time. Additional scenes were shot for the film in early September 1940 by director George Cukor. A news item notes that Edgar Barrier, who played "The Commissioner," made his motion picture debut in the film. Elsa Basserman, the wife of actor Albert Basserman, who portrayed his wife in the film, made her motion picture debut in the film. Actor Helmut Dantine, who had a minor role as a porter in the film, also made his debut in Escape. Modern sources credit Jack D. Moore with set decoration.