Cast & Crew
Carl Steelman, a German-American attorney for a mining company, is implicated in a German sabotage operation when he and seven other men are arrested shortly after arriving in a German U-Boat on the shores of New York. Following the trial of the saboteurs, Chief Craig of the F. B. I. answers a question posed by one of his men about Carl's involvement in the group by telling the story of Carl's first exposure to the German-American Bund: Despite his parents' protests, Carl, a youth, attends Bund meetings and gets into trouble with the law. Unknown to his family and the Nazi Bund leaders, however, Carl is an American agent on a top secret mission to infiltrate the higher echelons of the Nazi organization and investigate their training school for saboteurs. As part of the government's investigation of the school, Carl is given a passport belonging to a German enlisted man, Ernst Reiker, whose identity he is to assume, and is sent to Hamburg, Germany. There, Carl befriends Helga Lorenz, a Nazi operative who is suspected by the Germans of being a double agent. Given orders by the Nazis to determine Helga's loyalties, Carl soon discovers for himself that she is a double agent when he finds fake candles containing anti-Nazi propaganda in her home. Confident that Helga can be trusted, Carl confesses that he has been sent by the Nazis to spy on her and suggests that she flee before they send her to a concentration camp. Before Carl can dispose of the candles, however, Nazi agents confiscate them and Helga is immediately captured. During Helga's interrogation, she confesses to being a double agent and is ordered to do time in a detention camp. Carl cleverly saves Helga, though, by using his skills as a saboteur to sabotage the vehicle in which she is being transported. Carl then takes Helga to a boat that is waiting for them on a river and sends her to a safer place. Meanwhile, Frau Reiker, the wife of the real Reiker, causes trouble for Carl and his mission when she decides to pay a surprise visit to her husband and finds Carl in his hotel room. Though confused and angry, Frau Reiker consents to Carl's request that she give him twenty-four hours to find out what happened to her husband. Having stalled Frau Reiker, Carl rushes to his German commander, Colonel Taeger, and tells him that his wife has gone mad and that she is convinced that he is an impostor. Arguing that her delusion poses a security threat, Carl persuades the colonel to have Frau Reiker sent to a sanitarium. Meanwhile, back in America, Carl's father Julius, who never completely recovered from the shock of his son's apparent involvement with the Bund, has become seriously ill. To save Julius, the F. B. I. sends an agent to the Steelmans, and after swearing him to an oath of absolute secrecy, the agent tells Julius that his son is on a top secret mission. Julius rejoices at the news and makes a speedy recovery, but is unable to contain his excitement and pride and tells his physician, Dr. Herman Baumer, about Carl. Baumer, a Nazi sympathizer, informs on Carl, and orders are placed in Germany to have the American arrested. Carl, however, has already left Germany, and is en route to America on his first mission of sabotage. Although it is now clear to Taeger that Frau Reiker was telling the truth about Carl, Taeger kills her in her jail cell because she might expose his mistake if she is released. When the submarine on which Carl is traveling comes under attack from U.S. war planes, Carl escapes in a rubber raft and watches as the submarine explodes. After landing on American soil, Carl is arrested along with eight other saboteurs, but he is soon released when his identity is learned. Six of the eight saboteurs are tried and executed, and Dr. Baumer is exposed as a Nazi agent and is arrested.
Walter O. Stahl
W. D. Flick
Hugo W. Friedhofer
Harry M. Leonard
Thomas Z. Loring
They Came to Blow Up America
Sten (1908-1993), born in the Ukrainian city of Kyiv, worked her way up the rungs of the acting ladder (Russian Film Academy, Moscow Art Theater, film roles in Russia, then Germany). When Samuel Goldwyn saw a picture of the strikingly beautiful Sten, he signed her to a contract, not knowing she barely spoke English. Like every movie exec in the 1930s, he was eager to latch onto the next Garbo or Dietrich. Sten threw herself into English and diction lessons. But Goldwyn didn't help when he hyped her as "the passionate peasant." Cole Porter skewered her in a lyric from Anything Goes: "If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction/ Instruct Anna Sten in diction/ Then Anna shows/ Anything goes." Of course, none of this would have mattered if her films had been hits. But Nana (1934), We Live Again (1934) and The Wedding Night (1935) flopped. So much for the new Garbo.
More about Sten, whose career was on the wane, shortly. She gets second billing here to Sanders, although it's a distant second. Sanders (1906-1972) is the surprise here. He said he enjoyed playing cads. His instincts served him well. For years he was Hollywood's king of scathing disdain, immortalized in All About Eve (1950) when his acid-tongued gossip columnist, Addison DeWitt, introduced a novice actress played by Marilyn Monroe by witheringly describing her as a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts. Here he's miscast as an action hero and a sensitive guy, neither of which plays to his strengths. His character, Carl Steelman, is the son of naturalized citizens and speaks German. Before joining the FBI, he was a mining engineer with a good working knowledge of explosives.
Infiltrating the Bund, a US-based fellowship of German-Americans that suggests a long-running Oktoberfest with subversion, Carl and the FBI get a break. One of the Bund members, a saboteur, is killed in a police raid. Impersonating the dead man, Carl heads off to spy school in Berlin, where he learns about the latest in remote-control detonators. Thanks to a chance meeting and hormones, he pursues an angel-faced blond beauty (Poldi Dur), a member of the Underground. He promptly turns her over to the Gestapo, but only because he knows (she didn't) that Nazi agents had their binoculars trained on her flat. Not a problem. He rescues her, blowing up a pursuing Gestapo car en route, then shipping her off to safety in England.
Not that his troubles are over. When he returns to his hotel, his room is invaded by a confused and indignant Sten, widow (although she doesn't know it) of the man Carl is impersonating. It's not a large role, but Sten makes it count. Her German-accented English carries her past the speech barrier and her volatility breathes a bit of fire into the decidedly tepid proceedings. When she goes to the Gestapo to turn Carl in, she's foiled by Carl, who anticipating danger, beats her to the Gestapo commandant's office and discredits her. When she shows up, the commandant decides she's mentally unbalanced and imprisons her. Sten must negotiate a difficult tonal change. When she shows up unannounced in Carl's hotel room, the exchanges play like bedroom farce. But after the widow tells the commandant off, things get dire, then grim, as Carl's smoking jacket is replaced by a smoking gun.
The stereotypes and clichés pile up until they threaten to topple the entire enterprise, and finally do when Carl's FBI boss (Ward Bond, of John Ford repertory company fame) pays Carl's sputtering father a visit and tells him that Carl is really on a secret mission for the FBI and not the traitor the old man thought him. It almost costs Carl his life, but moments after disembarking on the beach at Amagansett, Long Island, he blows the U-boat to bits, too. The film also takes the lazy way out, presenting Carl's German-born parents (Ludwig Stoessel, Elsa Janssen) in the most cliché-ridden terms. And Dennis Hoey, as Carl's commanding officer, delivers one of the crudest performances of any Hollywood actor who ever yelled "Schweinhund!" In an acknowledgment of post-9/11 sensibilities, the box on the Fox Archive DVD release has junked the original poster, dominated by the Brooklyn Bridge being blown to bits, and replaced it with a picture of Sanders, in Nazi gear, with one arm cradling Dur and the other a sub-machine gun. They Came to Bomb America has its patriotism in the right place, but not much else.
By Jay Carr
They Came to Blow Up America
Based, loosely, on a true story.
Working titles for this film were School for Sabotage and School for Saboteurs. Although information contained in the Produced Scripts Collection at the UCLA Art-Special Collections Library notes that Ben Ray Redman co-authored a August 3, 1942 draft of the screenplay with Michel Jacoby, Redman's contribution to the released film has not been determined. Contemporary Hollywood Reporter news items note that Bryan Foy was originally set to produce the film, and that the Sheriff's Camp for Boys in Calabasas, CA, and the industrial sector of Compton, CA were selected as sites for location shooting.