Thursday, July 28, 2016

Storm Warning - 1951


Storm Warning (1951) is a bold slice of moody noir that is unabashedly a “message film” and is successful, however, by neither lecturing opponents, nor preaching to the choir, but by holding up a mirror and whispering, “Is this you?”

Ginger Rogers stars as a model who interrupts a sales trip for her company to detour to the sleepy southern town where her younger sister lives, for a long-delayed visit.  Her kid sister is played by Doris Day in her first dramatic role.  Steve Cochran plays Doris Day’s husband.  He is a truck driver; she works at the town’s entertainment center, which is really a glorified bowling alley that substitutes for nightlife in this town (Its owner, Ned Glass, is probably the nicest guy in the movie. A tougher job than you might think, considering his clientele.) She is expecting a baby.

Miss Rogers witnesses a murder. A group of Ku Klux Klan thugs drag a guy out of jail, beat him up, and then shoot him. Ronald Reagan plays the county prosecutor who investigates the murder. The movie is quite good, solid acting and moody cinematography, a fast-paced plot, that makes the film stylish and intriguing, and a bit creepy. That this movie has such entertainment value is important, because it is so obviously a message film. We have commented before on this blog that message films do not always appeal to the public, even when it is a message they need to hear. Nobody likes being preached to. The particular success of this movie is that though the audience is being lectured, they may be unaware of it, because it really is a good crime story – because the criminals are average Joe’s. Sometimes having an easily identifiable, sneering, Snidely Whiplash villain can be a bit tedious. We know where the plot is going. The bad guy is going to get his in the end.

But when the villain is pretty much everybody in town, and finding a bad guy to prosecute is like herding a bunch of cats, the story becomes more interesting because we don’t know who all the bad guys are, which ones of them are going to be brought to justice, and is there any justice at all?


One of the most common comments about this film is the complaint that the victim of the Ku Klux Klan murder is not a black man. He’s a white reporter.  There are very few African Americans in this movie. Many viewers feel that because of the prejudices of the day that the studio, Warner Bros., pulled a punch. That’s a valid complaint. Maybe they did.  It was certainly a big risk to offend the southern distribution market.  However, there is another way to look at this. I think in putting across the message, Warner Bros. did a sly, subtle, and intelligent maneuver by not making this film solely about racism.

Put a white robe and a white hood on a guy and we automatically identify the Ku Klux Klan with its brutality against blacks. We know that message. But some people, even those disgusted by this prejudice, may forget that blacks were not the only victims of the Ku Klux Klan. They also lynched, brutalized, and terrorized Roman Catholics, Jews, foreign-born individuals, and not a few journalists who were poking their noses in Klan business. The Ku Klux Klan are racist, but they are also fascists. Racism and fascism go hand-in-hand; you cannot have one without the other.

If Storm Warning does not particularly address racism against blacks, it does tackle the broader view of fascism, because the Klan in this town is made up of average nice people whose membership in this heinous organization they defend with a sense of self-righteousness. They feel they are above the law. When they are not terrorizing others, they threaten fellow members to stay in line. There must always be a constant threat, or there is no reason for having a Klan.  As we mentioned in last week’s post on Address Unknown, fascism is always cannibalistic.

This is our third entry in our series discussing how old Hollywood tackled the subject of fascism. We discussed The Mortal Storm (1941) here, and Address Unknown (1944) here.  Those two movies dealt with fascism and the rise of Hitler in Germany. Today we discuss native-born fascists. The Ku Klux Klan, not the only fascist hate group, but certainly the most well known, was born from the ashes of the Civil War, but the height of the clan really occurred during the 1920s, an era of great prosperity, and rose mainly in the Midwest, chiefly Indiana, the home state, coincidentally, of Republican vice presidential nominee Michael Pence.

Recently, a group of historians made their opposition to Donald Trump’s candidacy on social media.  One of them was 93-year-old William E. Leuchtenburg, whose The Perils of Prosperity 1914-1932 is a book I’ve long admired. He addresses the rise of the Klan in the 1920s among fundamentalist conservatives, the atrocities committed, and their astounding political power—until sexual and financial scandals drove them underground again.

At the recent Republican Party convention, congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) made headlines with his white supremacist remarks, and upon closer examination by the press, the so-called “Confederate” flag and the Tea Party’s (erroneously claimed) Gadsden flag on his desk.  

We know the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, and that even those who believe themselves to be virtuous will march in lockstep with people who are not, turning a blind eye to corruption, even evil, if it suits their purpose.

Donald Trump’s bullying rhetoric is asinine, his grandstanding is immature, unintelligent and without integrity, and so naturally appeals to those who are immature, unintelligent and without integrity, both in those politics and with the general public. There will always be some to whom his antics will appeal (including the television media, whose lust for ratings these days makes them the most shallow segment of the Fourth Estate).

Today’s film, Storm Warning, deals with fascism on its most lowest level, the small town, where the big men in town are not hidden, even if they wear a hood. Indeed, the funniest line of the movie is when Ronald Reagan approaches a Klan rally and sees a man completely covered by robe and hood and addresses him, “Hi, Ed. How are things at the dairy?”

None of these men are very powerful, and none of these men are very bright, and so we might not feel terribly threatened by them. But when they are all in a mob, they become a frightening spectacle indeed. It’s the particular sleight-of-hand of fascism. Whip people up into a frenzy, make them feel they are above the law, and then turn them loose. And then if they do wrong, whose fault is it? Who can we pinpoint to blame? It’s a wonder this country hasn’t suffered several slipped disks with all the shrugging we do.

Ginger Rogers suffers an obstacle course of horrors in this movie. She witnesses the murder while hiding in the shadows. It is a powerful scene as she stumbles away in the dark night, shaken, leans behind a lamppost and vomits. She finds her sister at work at the bowling alley and they go home together, and she tells her sister about the murder. Then her sister’s husband comes home.

Steve Cochran is an affable workingman, weak minded and easily influenced, and somewhat immature, who drinks a little too much and when he gets a little rowdy, is always astonished to find there are consequences to his behavior. He meets Ginger Rogers for the first time and welcomes his sister-in-law in a warm and friendly manner.

Ginger is frozen in horror at the sight of him. Steve Cochran was one of the mob who attacked the dead guy. We will find out later in the movie that it was Cochran, having had too much to drink, and getting excited at the mob frenzy, was the one who actually shot the guy.

Miss Rogers’ acting in this movie is quite good, understated, and believable.  She suffers the humiliation and the guilt of going on the stand at the inquest and lies about what she saw in order to protect Steve Cochran. She doesn’t like the guy, but Doris Day has begged her to keep his name out of it, and Ginger would do anything for her sister. Later, when she gets him off, Steve will get very brave, and very drunk, and spy on Ginger when she is changing her clothes and packing to leave. He catches her in her slip and makes overtures. Instead of shrinking away from him, Ginger stands right up to him, does not even pretend to cover herself, and lets him have a good long look while she tells him to his face that he is a “stupid, vicious ape.”


Then he attempts to rape her, but Doris comes home in time, pulling him off Ginger. Doris finally comes to the realization that her husband is really not such a nice guy, and she is ready to leave him. Now Ginger is free to go to the authorities and tell them what she saw. Cochran, panicked, punches Ginger and drags her to a Klan meeting to suffer their punishment.

I like Cochran's work in this movie, he is charming and exasperating, and scary at the same time.  We last saw him play a very different villain here in Slander (1957), where is character was more cool and intellectual.  He was a handsome actor, with a good solid range.


I also like Ronald Reagan’s acting in this movie. It is low key and understated. With his Fedora pushed back off his head and his low, quiet voice, he represents a decent man of authority in town. He is not an outsider, he grew up here. He is not so much a shocked crusader of human rights, just a guy who knows this town inside out and is sick of its imperfections. He’s tired and disgusted. But he plods along trying to do his best, persevering, and hoping one day to catch enough evidence on the Klan to put somebody in jail.  So far, he has been unsuccessful.  He is not an idealist, but a pragmatist, knowing nobody’s going to have a very good life in this burg if everybody’s a slave to a bunch of rowdies.

As regards another complaint about this movie and it’s skirting of the racial injustices in the South at this time period of the early 1950s, no one in this movie speaks with any regional southern accent. This time around, I don’t feel that that is typical Hollywood sloppiness. I really sense that this was a subtle and quite intentional move to bring the subject to a level where it applies to everybody. Though the Klan was a product of, and continues to be, a blot on the South, it is also possible to discuss racism as it applies to everyone in this country without pinpointing a particular group of people. Sometimes when we pinpoint one segment of our society of being guilty it is very easy for us to wash our hands of the guilt. We say, oh, that’s those people. We would never behave that way ourselves.

But fascism is a template that fits anywhere. In today’s political climate there is a great resentment, and perhaps always has been, of “Washington.” Ronald Reagan complains to the boys at the police station, “Every time someone from New York or Washington pokes his nose into our affairs, we holler, ‘Foul!’ Well, if we don’t want them meddling, one of these days we’re going to have to start cleaning up our own nests.”  He is calm, world-weary, and his quiet voice tells us he is sick of the lynchings and sick of trying to tell his best friends and neighbors what is so obvious: stop dividing the world into us and them. That is where fascism has its roots.  There is an inherent thuggishness in an "us" and "them" attitude.

The minor characters show the warts and make his point for us. The bus station baggage claim guy played by Paul E Burns, is afraid to stand up to the Klan.  It sickens him, and sobbing, he begs Ronald Reagan not to question him because he’s afraid they will burn him out.  He regrets being a coward. Later some of the boys will rough him up teasingly, and Ginger Rogers will come to his rescue.

Even the Klan’s leader shows his contempt for his own men. “You know these boys. Without those hoods, they are no heroes. That’s why they need the hoods in the first place.”

The scene with the reporter arriving to do man-on-the-street interviews at the enormous crowd in front of the courthouse is quite good. It looks real, not stagy, as the reporter struggles to pull his microphone cable through the crowd, and he makes comments and ask questions and the people either pipe up or else tell him to get lost. This is the only scene where we see a few African Americans in the crowd. I think it is used intelligently. They show us quite visibly that this is a topic that includes them. Almost as if to say, yes, the murdered guy was white, and we haven’t mentioned racial prejudice here, but you know we really are talking about that, don’t you? You know what this is really about, don’t you?

In case we missed it, the local Klan boss played by Hugh Sanders puts it bluntly in his defense of the Klan to Ginger Rogers, “You have to think of all the good the Klan does. Without us, a girl like you wouldn’t be safe in the streets at night.”

Safe from whom?  We know to whom he’s referring. If he had bluntly said or referred to in the most vulgar vernacular, that she was in danger of being raped by black men, it would have been a different movie. Yes, it would have been bolder, but it also would have switched the focus for people who automatically turn that message often their minds because it offends them, because they do not wish to face their own prejudice, or else because they feel their own prejudice is justified. By talking about racism as fascism and applying it to everybody as a principle that is evil and a danger to everybody, we reach more people because the audience cannot say, oh, you’re talking about them, you are not talking about me. Because I am not like that.

Yes, we’re talking about you.

By the way, I love the reporter’s Ted Baxter voice. Why do not radio and television reporters speak like that anymore?

We are also talking about Ginger Rogers. She is a girl of integrity, street smart, and even though she is a high-tone fashion model, we know she is not upper crust, not removed from the realities of the day. When the ad man accompanying her on the trip makes passes at her at the beginning of the movie, she sends him off like an expert fencer and shoves him on his way. This gal is a tough dame. She is no pushover.


But she rolls over and plays dead for the Klan and lies to Ronald Reagan in front of everybody, because she thinks that protecting her sister’s husband will get her sister out of a jam. It is like putting a Band-Aid on a severed artery. She just wants to smooth things over and leave town as quickly as possible. In such innocent ways do we become complicit with corruption.

A nice touch when, trying to squeeze out of the close crowd at the end of the trial, she and the dead man's widow are pushed together, face-to-face, and Ginger squirms under the woman's accusing stare.

When she leaves the courthouse, Ronald Reagan, frustrated in defeat, tells her off and actually shoves her out the door, “Now, beat it.” He tells her over the sound of the jubilant men outside whooping and hollering because they have won and nobody’s going to go to jail, “They just found out the law cannot touch them. You did that.”

It’s a powerful ending with two scathing realities: first, Reagan tells the Klansman at the rally, a huge burning cross above them lighting up the black sky, “It’ll take more than these sheets you’re wearing to hide the fact that you’re mean, frightened little people, or you wouldn’t be here desecrating the Cross.”

They are mean, and they are frightened and they’re letting their fears make them mean.

They kidnap Ginger Rogers, but things are too hot for them right now to just kill her outright. Instead, they will punish her with whipping.  The scene could easily be gratuitous—most movie whipping scenes tend to go for eroticism, to varying degrees, certainly when the victim is female. Instead, they slash her in the face with the bullwhip, repeatedly, to scar her.  We don’t see any marks on her – the magic of Hollywood—but the image of her being hurt in this manner does not stray into eroticism and therefore seems more profoundly cruel.

But the Klan in the 1920s, as Dr. Leuchtenburg points out, had a particular fondness for stripping naked “fallen” women – according to their standards (which included divorcees) – and whipping them.  Filming such a scene would have been truthful, but impossible to film without it being also gratuitous.

I have to applaud Warner Bros. for the courage of the second reality: to just let the movie end in tragedy with no happy ending, no, “Maybe we were wrong and things will be better now,” and no romantic clinch between Reagan and Ginger Rogers.  There is no flirtation between them; indeed, as mentioned above, he gives her a shove in disgust.  He’s arrived in the nick of time like the cavalry to save her, but he’s not her boyfriend.  The only clinch at the end is when Ginger Rogers cradles the dying Doris Day in her arms.  Day has been shot, accidentally, by her husband who was aiming for Rogers.  The end.  Go home and chew on that for a while.

Fascism is always racist, opportunist, and corrupt, and it poisons every level of society. 

But it doesn’t start there.  “Populist” movements have a big hand in keeping fascists in power, but they don’t have the clout to put them there. That takes money.  All the dictators of the world had their backers, wealthy men holding the purse strings, powerful men in the military, some to drive the vote to their best interests, and some to grab public office for themselves.  This will be the case in our last two movies: Keeper of the Flame (1942), and Seven Days in May (1964), which we’ll discuss in August.

Next Thursday, however, a break with a return to our monthly state of the classic film fan series. See you then.

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My audio book version of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., narrated by Toni Lewis, is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.
 




Thursday, July 21, 2016

Address Unknown - 1944


Address Unknown (1944) is a very artistic examination of the consequences of fascism. The cinematography creates an otherworldly palette of light and shadow, of angles, of unbalanced screen images that is poetic and visionary. Classic films took on the subject of fascism and planted the nightmare on an everyday familiar world with everyday people we could relate to, unlike modern films which might tackle the grand subject of good versus evil and place it in an imaginary futuristic or superhero setting. The characters in classic films were unable to escape their circumstances with special powers or an arsenal of apocalyptic weaponry. They had only their brains, their courage, and their conscience.

This the second film in our series on classic films’ depiction of fascism. We covered The Mortal Storm (1940) last week here. With Donald Trump’s Faustian rise to become the official Republican Party nominee for President this past week, the subject of fascism is one we need to examine very closely, not as a history lesson per se, viewed safely from a distance, but as a very personal blueprint on how to fight it in our midst—with brains, courage, and conscience.

Address Unknown came late in the war, and so was not so much a warning of the consequences of what was going on in Nazi Germany – though certainly, Hollywood likely felt the subject still worth pursuing morally and financially. The interesting thing about the movie is it shows very little of jackbooted Nazis, the sneering villains of most wartime patriotic fare. It is instead a psychological nightmare of one man’s seduction, and the price he pays for going over to the dark side. As such, it is not a flag-waving, drum-beating story, but a mature, contemplative tale that, unfortunately as we see today, is timeless.

Paul Lukas stars as a German-born art dealer who has lived in San Francisco for many years. He is married to Mady Christians, and they have five sons. Four of the boys are school-age, the oldest, played by Peter van Eyck, is a young man and works in the art gallery with his father.

Morris Carnovsky plays his longtime partner in the gallery, also originally from Germany. Mr. Carnovsky is a widower with a grown daughter played by K.T. Stevens. Stevens, and Mr. Van Eyck, have known each other since childhood, are romantically involved and intend to be married.

The story begins with the partners toasting each other on a sunny terrace in San Francisco, grateful for their life in America, and secretly celebrating because they think that Lukas’ son and Carnovsky’s daughter are about to name the day of their wedding. These old friends look forward to having their families united. It is also something of a farewell celebration, because Paul Lukas is slated to take his family back to Germany for a period of time to do business for their art gallery. Lukas will buy paintings in Europe and ship them back to Carnovsky in San Francisco to be sold in their gallery. Paul Lukas’ eldest son, Van Eyck, is going to remain in America to work at the family business. However, Carnovsky’s daughter, Miss Stevens, is going to go to Europe with Paul Lukas his family to study acting.

The fathers are disappointed when the young people announce that they are not going to set a date for their wedding. They are going to wait until Stevens returns from Europe and then decide on their plans. It is a great letdown, and the mood of the story changes with this first announcement.

In Europe, Paul Lukas will meet Carl Esmond, a local baron who will seduce Lukas with the lure of the brand-new Chancellor Adolf Hitler.  Mr. Esmond is educated, erudite, and hardly a Nazi thug. But he approves of the order and discipline that Hitler is bringing to Germany, the pride Hitler appears to be instilling in young people, and even though Esmond is a nobleman, the kind of person Hitler hated, he takes the view that Germany is progressing for the good. He will make Germany great again. We last saw Carl Esmond as they bad guy bullying Ann Blyth into a forced marriage in The World in His Arms (1952), and here as the Nazi officer in Resisting Enemy Interrogation (1944).

Mady Christians, whose film career was winding down (she died in 1951) was reunited with Paul Lukas in this picture. You may recall we mentioned her as playing opposite Lukas on Broadway in Watch on the Rhine in the same role that Bette Davis took in the 1943 movie of that play. We briefly mentioned it in the intro to the Ann Blyth series, but a more in-depth look at that play can be found in my book, Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.


Mady Christians, like Mr. Esmond, originally hailed from Vienna, and there are a number of German cinema actors in this movie to give it credence. There are also a few old Hollywood character actors who are fun to pick out, including Amory Parnell as a busybody mailman – who has a much more important role in this movie that we might realize later – and Frank Faylen plays a smart alec journalist.

Paul Lukas, just on the strength of his performance in the film Watch on the Rhine, for which he won an Oscar®, is one of my favorite actors. Address Unknown really shows his range, particularly when you compare it to the hero he played in Watch on the Rhine. That film showed a man courageous, committed, but deeply torn by his commitment and what his actions were doing to his family in his effort to fight fascism. He declares what he does for a living, “I am an antifascist.”

In Address Unknown, he plays a man who falls under the spell of fascism, which leads to his own doom. His work here is meticulous and we can always see the range of emotions playing on his very expressive face. His joy at the thought of his son marrying his partner’s daughter; his disappointment when they hear the marriage is to be delayed; his amused, eye-rolling attitude over his young sons, who, all born in the United States, are going to run into culture shock when they go to Germany with him because there will be no baseball there. He is a proud and indulgent father, an attentive and kind husband, and a loyal and affectionate friend to his partner. He is a good man. Because he is a good man, he seduction into the Nazi creed is all the more painful for us to watch. It is easy for us to dismiss bad guys and morons as bad guys and morons, but when we come across a gentle soul who turns evil and is corrupted either because of a lack of will, or a desperate need to be flattered, we are faced with an even stronger message of right and wrong.

That is the particular achievement of this movie. It does not serve up platitudes, and it does not show things in black and white, but there are still clear demarcations between right and wrong, and like people walking on a footpath in the woods, following a marked trail, if we keep our eyes open we can see them, clearly. If we are careless and do not pay attention, we turn the wrong way and get lost.

How this tale is told in this introspective and intelligent examination is largely through stylistic imagery. The director here is William Cameron Menzies, and the film has a wonderful mosaic of extreme close-ups, off centered positioning of the subject, and stark lighting. We begin the movie with extreme close-ups of Paul Lukas and Morris Carnovsky toasting each other, and it almost looks like a scene out of Citizen Kane (1941) and a similar kind of cinematography here. The movie is quite visually stunning, and it turns this simple story to one of deep psychological horror.

When Paul Lukas and his family get settled in Munich, he receives a letter from his partner Carnovsky in San Francisco. Lukas is delighted to receive the letter because already he is homesick for America. 

Carnovsky asks, “Who is this Adolf Hitler?... I do not like what I hear of it.”

This movie is about an exchange of letters. It is based on a novel of the same name where the plot is told through the exchange of letters between these two men.

Paul Lukas can hardly answer Carnovsky, because he is still new to Germany, does not really know much about Hitler himself, but almost immediately his ability to reply to this question is stifled by Carl Esmond. Esmond encounters Paul Lukas and a friend in a local ratskeller that Lukas knew from days gone by. Lukas looks around; it is quiet and forbidding and he says the place has changed from the happy place he knew as a youth, but he can’t put his finger on it. He has read the letter aloud, and Esmond, with cool authority, tells him about Hitler’s virtues.  We see Lukas’ expression turn from curiosity, to being flattered that the great Baron is sharing a table and sharing his knowledge and giving him attention, but Lukas is embarrassed that his friend in America has asked this question and put him in an awkward position when he has read it aloud.

Carnovsky in San Francisco gets a letter from Lukas telling him that Hitler is good. Oh yes, he’s done some bad things, storm troopers breaking windows and being thugs, but essentially we have to take the good with the bad. Carnovsky and Lukas’ son, Van Eyck are surprised to get such a letter. Van Eyck immediately expresses concern about Miss Stevens.

We are back in Vienna when Miss Stevens shows up at “Uncle” Paul Lukas’ house in Munich. She enters at the end of a long shadow. She warmly greets him and he is pleased that she has come. She has taken the stage name of Stone because it is shorter and will look good on a marquee. The Baron is there when she visits and he notices that her monogram on a purse does not match her last name of Stone. When she has left the room to visit with her “Aunt” Mady Christians, the Baron asks Paul Lukas about the monogram, and Lukas gushes that Stone is just a stage name, that her real name is Eisenstein.

The Baron says the one word that puts fear into the heart of Paul Lukas. He asks, “Jewish?”

For the first time, we realize that Morris Carnovsky and his family are Jews. This is not a fact that has ever distressed Paul Lukas in the past, but suddenly it changes things. We see the expression on Lukas’ face. He is uncomfortable, he is embarrassed. The Baron warns him about such an association and leaves. The camera settles on Lukas for a moment, again his face registering a changing parade of emotions. He is like a child who is fretting, pouting and resentful that his party has been spoiled. There is a shot about table height looking up at Lukas and his grim expression tells us he has reached a decision. He turns off the table lamp. We are left in darkness by his hand.

In San Francisco, Carnovsky gets a letter, “We must, for the present, discontinue writing each other. You will understand, I know, that it is impossible for me to be in correspondence with one of your race.”

Van Eyck reads the letter over “Uncle” Morris Carnovsky’s shoulder. “What in the world is he talking about? He must be insane.”

Carnovsky is more forgiving. He understands that Lukas is only writing this letter because of the censorship that is going on in Germany at the moment. He must say the right thing or he will get into trouble. Carnovsky is hurt, but he understands. But he brightens, he tells his partner’s son that there is another way that they can freely send letters and not have to worry about the censors. He will send a letter to Lukas hand-carried by a friend who is an American journalist.

Our old friend Frank Faylen is the wiseguy journalist, who sits in the office of a Nazi bureaucrat, where Paul Lukas works at a new job – he has apparently given up being an art dealer. Faylen is unimpressed by the officious Nazi gatekeepers and lower-level management of this government office, and bluffs his way in to see Paul Lukas. You may remember Faylen most from his role as Ernie the cabdriver in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). He cheerfully gives Lukas the letter, but Lukas dismisses him arrogantly.

Back in San Francisco, Carnovsky, now desperate to clear the air and understand Lukas’ intention, writes one more time saying that he understands there is censorship, but that he needs some word of reassurance from Lukas that everything is all right in their friendship. “But there is so much madness in the world, I need a word of reassurance.” The simple word he requests Lukas to send back is “yes.”

Lukas’ answer is no.

Van Eyck has had enough. He wants K.T. Stevens to come home now. Her father reminds him that she’s up for new job in Berlin as a leading lady and he doesn’t want to cable her and spoil her big night. They will wait to contact her.

We go to Berlin, where her play is being rehearsed.  It is a religious theme and she is to recite the words from the Beatitudes, Christ’s words from the Gospel of Matthew. During rehearsal a Nazi official tells the director the following lines are censored:

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God…

…and other lines from the Beatitudes. Disobedience is treason.

On opening night, the feisty Miss Stevens decides to say the forbidden lines. The censor stops the show and demands the director to come out but Stevens courageously defends the director saying that she was the one who made the decision to put those lines back in.

The smarmy little censor announces to the audience that the actress’ name is not Stone, but rather Eisenstein. In a moment we hear murmurs in the audience, and soon shouting, of the word, “Juden!”

Stevens, who was brought up in America, not only finds this all a bit too ridiculous to swallow, but she is proud of her heritage and will not back down. It ends in a mob scene, in a chase and she is on the run.

Eventually, a hunted outlaw, she will make her way to Munich and her “Uncle” Paul Lukas’ home. Brownshirts are fast on her heels. When he answers the door and sees it is her, he will not let her in. She has been hurt and she’s bleeding from her hand, and she leaves a bloody handprint on his wall as he closes her out.  She’s shot on his doorstep.

Carnovsky gets a curt letter in San Francisco, “Heil Hitler. Your daughter is dead.”

Carnovsky sits, sobbing, utterly destroyed, while Van Eyck gently pats his shoulder. We see a close-up of Van Eyck’s hand in ministering comfort and then pulling back, forming into a fist. A subtle symbol that’s important later.


Back in Germany, Mady Christians has just had another baby, another son. At the christening, Baron Carl Esmond congratulates her on having so many sons, thereby doing her duty. The parents smile to their guests, but when they are alone with the baby, we see their marriage is on the rocks. Mady Christians is disgusted with Paul Lukas. She dislikes the change in him, and she is horrified at his having turned away Stevens in her hour of need. She intends, when the baby is able to travel, that she will take her sons away to Switzerland.

Things have definitely turned sour for Paul Lukas. He starts receiving more letters and cables from San Francisco, but he doesn’t understand the messages. They mention painters and artwork but the notes seem to be written in a kind of code. He can’t make sense of them. We see that the censors picking up on this code are starting to make things a bit hot for Paul Lukas. He is being watched. The Baron questions Lukas’ loyalty to Germany. Lukas is helpless and floundering. He tries to defend himself. He tries to write back and pleads with Carnovsky to please stop writing him because he’s in terrible trouble. Every letter he gets puts him deeper and deeper under suspicion.

We have seen throughout the course of this movie the great psychosis that is fascism. He is seduced by falseness, by flattery, by a sense of power, by being told he is better than other people, but it is a double-edged sword. By propping up a fascist government, one very easily – and over very little provocation, almost in the blink of an eye – can become its victim. Fascism is invariably cannibalistic. Lukas has become terrified. He has become paranoid. He is now an enemy of the state he once was so proud to join. It is difficult to walk that line. This is why inevitably fascist governments fall, but of course, not until they do great damage on a civilization.

Lukas writes to his son instead and begs him to stop Carnovsky from sending any more messages. He writes, “You must go to any lengths, as you are my son.”

It’s an interesting line. We imagine perhaps Lukas means that Van Eyck should kill Carnovsky. As you are my son.  Fascism demands ultimate loyalty.

The Baron is convinced that Lukas is a spy. When he confronts Lukas, the mail comes again and Lukas is nearly sick with worry when a letter arrives from San Francisco. He really isn’t doing anything wrong, obviously. He is not a spy. He has been a loyal member of the Nazi party and done everything they asked him to do. He wanted the prestige they gave him. He wants to be a good citizen of the Third Reich. But they don’t believe him. His intentions are irrelevant. He is under suspicion. To be under suspicion is to be automatically guilty. There is no due process here. To be slow to answer is to be guilty.

Mady Christians takes their children and leaves for Switzerland. Lukas gives her a letter to send to Carnovsky, begging him to stop sending any more letters. She is stopped at the border, but she is allowed to pass because she is no threat to the Third Reich. The Baron comes to warn Lukas for the last time, and Lukas, in desperation tells him that the letter his wife brought to Switzerland is the proof that he never wanted Carnovsky to write to him. He is told that ironically the letter was confiscated and destroyed. He has no proof.

We end this interesting movie with two grim scenes. Lukas stands outside the door of his home, an expression of deep horror etched on his face at approaching thugs coming to get him. He will be going to a concentration camp. Or murdered.

Then we go to San Francisco where Carnovsky reads a letter from Lukas that has been returned to him marked “address unknown” on the envelope. He is puzzled. Van Eyck is standing near him, watching him.

Spoiler time. The whole post has been a spoiler, but sometimes to be blunt is more necessary than to tease. 

Carnovsky tells Van Eyck that he hasn’t written to Lukas in months, that he didn’t write this letter to him. He stopped when Lukas originally asked him to send no more letters.

We see Van Eyck’s face. He wrote the letters. He wrote them to implicate his father and to purposely put his father in danger. He wants revenge over the death of his fiancĂ©e. He wants to kill the monster that the Nazis created.

It’s a cautionary tale of sorts—beware the company you keep—but so artistically framed that we are not bludgeoned with lessons and morals. The lessons and morals are obvious.

Unless one is the kind of person to whom lessons and morals are not obvious, and they are the real perpetrators of fascism, not the ones in power, but ones keeping them there.  And they are, ultimately, its victims as well. Eventually.  But some weak-willed, weak-minded souls are only too happy to vote against their own best interests.

When you deny rights to others, you’re next.

Come back next week when we take on Storm Warning with Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, and Doris Day. Part 8 of our series on the current state of the classic film fan follows the first Thursday in August. Our look at fascism in classic films will continue with two more movies in August, where we bring the curse to America.

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My audio book version of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., narrated by Toni Lewis, is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.
  


                                                            

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Mortal Storm - 1940


The Mortal Storm (1940) is about fascism.  It is about young love—and fascism.  It is about family values—and fascism.  It is about career dreams—and fascism.  We may consider these ideals to be separate from fascism, even opposing, but they are not.  So many people in the course of history have woven them together at their own peril.

For the next few weeks, we’re going to be talking about fascism, a particularly appropriate theme with the coming of the Republican Party convention and the rise in the media and in American politics of Donald Trump.  He is a fascist.  Too many people perhaps equate the word fascism with something old-fashioned, belonging to the twentieth century, and think it is a foreign aberration, since Adolf Hitler made it his slogan and source of power.  They might think that use of the word today is clichĂ© and overused, but it is as powerful and meaningful a word and a strain of political thought today as it ever was from the 1920s through the 1940s.  It is with us still, and the most poisonous aspect of fascism is it becomes chameleon-like.  We do not see it for what it is, unless we force ourselves to concentrate and look.

Classic films forced us to look at fascism.  During World War II, of course, the films were patriotic, and even propagandist, and it was very easy to pick out the villains in the movies because they were wearing Nazi uniforms.  But in that strange, tense era just before our involvement in World War II, the studios utilized their art and their industry with courage not seen today, and with a social conscience not seen today, they examined fascism.

Because of so many screen Nazi bad guys, we may have come to believe that fascism is a product of Europe, and is as out of sync with the modern world as high waisted trousers, fedoras, and clip-on earrings. The movies we’re going to examine will take us out of that notion, and into an interesting exercise of where we must look to examine how fascism starts, how it spreads, and what do we do about it?

Along with The Mortal Storm, in future weeks we will be discussing Address Unknown (1944), Keeper of the Flame (1942), Storm Warning (1951), and Seven Days in May (1964).  This brings us up to the 1960s, when our world became far more interested in the Cold War against communism, and the space race, and the dizzying parade of social ills and revolutions.  But fascism remained, always there, like a smoldering ember at a campfire that has been carelessly left, and will start a forest fire if the prevailing winds allow it.

The Mortal Storm (1940), was produced by MGM, with great trepidation.  We were not at war with Germany yet (indeed we would not go to war with Germany until two days after they already declared war on us in December 1941), and the studio was wary about producing a movie that could be considered inflammatory.  The German market was especially important to Hollywood, and offending the German government could be disastrous when it came to distribution of the film in Europe.  Moreover, the studio heads were sensitive about pushing the subject of fascism when, as most of them were of Jewish heritage, were afraid to appear as if they were politicizing their product.  It had been their practice, as most of them were European immigrants to this country, to assimilate to their new country and to adapt to its culture, its language, and even, if necessary, to concede to its long-standing prejudices.

We may recall from these previous posts (part 1 and part 2), that Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) was avoided by many studios and was finally produced by Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox—a major studio head who happened to be not Jewish, but who had guts, and took on the story.

We may applaud MGM for moving forward with The Mortal Storm, risks and all, but their fears were justified.  The German government under Adolf Hitler was incensed that this film was made, and banned that and any future MGM movie from being shown in Germany.  That MGM was blacklisted by the Nazis may have been worn as a badge of courage by the studio in future years when the war was going on, but at the time it was seen as a misfortune.

However, the film is quite mild by today’s standards, at least of depicting the savagery of Hitler’s regime.  It is still a powerful movie, and that is because it deals with people.  Ideals, and political jargon are bandied about, of course, and people take sides, but first and foremost it is a movie about a single family and what happens to them when forces beyond their control knock on their door and take over their lives.  It is gentle, and it is scary.

Frank Morgan plays a university professor in Germany.  The year is 1933.  Irene Rich is his wife.  Her two grown sons by a previous marriage are played by Robert Stack and William T. Orr. They are very close to their stepfather, Frank Morgan, and when the film opens with Morgan’s 60th birthday celebration, they take him aside to give him their present personally and to thank him for being such a wonderful father to them.

From Mr. Morgan’s marriage to Irene Rich there are two younger children, a daughter played by Margaret Sullavan, and a son barely in his teens played by Gene Reynolds.  At the university where Mr. Morgan teaches, a surprise celebration in his lecture hall greets him when his students and the other members of the faculty, who clearly respect him and love him very much, present him with a gift and sing Gaudeamus Igitur in his tribute (which is pretty impressive watching the cast sing it in Latin).  We’ve heard the song in zillions of old movies and cartoons whenever a scene is set at a college. It’s like playing “California, Here I come,” or “The Sidewalks of New York.”

Two of those students are played by Robert Young and James Stewart.  Mr. Young, Mr. Stewart, and Miss Sullavan have been friends since childhood.  When these two gentlemen come home with the family to have a birthday dinner for Mr. Morgan, we see that Robert Young is even closer to Margaret Sullavan, and impetuously asks her to marry him.  With his exuberance, and the whole family watching, he makes it difficult for her to say no and she accepts.  Everyone in the family is jubilant, except for James Stewart, whose expression ever so slightly falls to the floor and we see that he has harbored an unspoken affection for Margaret.

But the birthday party turns on its head when we hear from the radio that Adolf Hitler has just been elected Chancellor of Germany.

Fascism, in its most vile form, is brought to a nation in a democratic election.  There is nothing so virulent a germ as a political movement which serves to appeal to the most base, crude, and ignorant in a society, inflating them with a power they do not have, and then taking it away like a shell game. Alexis de Tocqueville, nineteenth century historian who made many keen and valuable observations on America in its formative years noted especially of our eagerness to follow the mob, despite our boasts of individual freedom:

In times of equality, no matter what political laws men devise for themselves, it is safe to foresee that trust in common opinion will become a sort of religion, with the majority as the prophet.’”

Robert Young, Robert Stack, and William T. Orr are overjoyed at the radio announcement and celebrate, saying that Hitler will bring the country back to greatness.  He will make Germany great again.

James Stewart has no political convictions; he still seems to be reeling by the idea that Margaret Sullavan is going to marry somebody else.  Frank Morgan and his wife are hesitant to be quite as jubilant as the boys. They hope for the best, but as a university professor, Morgan is unimpressed with Hitler’s designs on the country and his methods for achieving greatness.  Morgan is a man devoted to logic, and this is all too illogical for him.

But there is more to his concern.  We come to find out later in the film that Frank Morgan is Jewish.

In the movie his Jewish heritage is never mentioned by name, he is instead called “non-Aryan,” and at first we may think this is MGM pulling a punch, trying not to get too ethnic, too personal, too political.  It probably was. But time tends to leave a patina, on ideas as well as on objects, and I think perhaps that “non-Aryan” sounds here more inclusive of all the millions of people who suffered under Hitler’s regime.  

When people who deny the Holocaust, or just as perverse, people who do not deny it, but who simply prefer not to think about it, hear the figure of 6 million Jews being murdered, I wonder if they forget that also there were at least 9 million non-Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union murdered in death camps, and nearly 2 million non-Jewish Poles, and millions of other people whom the Hitler regime regarded as non-entities: Gypsies (properly referred to now as Roma), non-Jewish Czechs, Serbs and other peoples of occupied Europe, and people within Germany who protested including Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the infirm, the mentally challenged, convicts, and homosexuals—a variety of targets in addition to the millions of suffering Jews.

It is staggering.  And because it is staggering, the human mind recoils, unless the heart is brave and the mind has a bigger conscience than it has a fear of discomfort.  Only a moron and a coward would deny the Holocaust, and though we may equate the Holocaust with fascism, we must remember that fascism did not start there.

“Non-Aryan,” means everybody who was not considered to be “us.”  And fascism resulted in millions of “thems.”  Us and them.  That’s where it always starts.

The movie moves swiftly from this point, with Robert Young, Robert Stack and William T. Orr becoming more immersed in the Nazi culture, wearing uniforms, giving the Nazi salute, and their boyish jubilation has turned to stern, dogmatic, and slavish obedience to their new leader. (Look for a young Dan Dailey as an especially vicious Nazi youth leader.)  Hitler has given them an identity, and they draw apart from their family because of it.  They become distant with Frank Morgan, and Robert Young’s preoccupation with his new Nazi youth organization duties has left Margaret Sullavan alone and puzzled at the change in him.


James Stewart, who has come to the university to learn veterinary medicine, has grown up on a farm on the outskirts of town.  His mother is our favorite Maria Ouspenskaya, who seems to see no werewolves in the vicinity.  Young Bonita Granville is their hired girl, and Bonita has a crush on James Stewart.  Before the movie is over, she will be terrorized by Nazi thugs trying to get information out of her about where James Stewart is hiding.

Stewart has pulled away from his university pals; he wants none of this Nazi business.  When he sees them beating up an old teacher, James Stewart runs to his aid, and Margaret Sullavan helps. She refuses to stop seeing Stewart as friends, even though Robert Young warns her to stay away from him, not so much because of romantic jealousy, but because Stewart is getting a name for himself as an enemy of the state.  It does not take much to be an enemy of the state.  James Stewart has made no political speeches, he assiduously avoids talk of politics at every turn; he just wants to be left alone.  But he will not join the boys in their Nazi youth organization, and this makes the boys furious.  He will not play with them, so now James Stewart has stopped being “us,” and has started to be “them.”


Frank Morgan, formerly beloved by one and all, has become an even more serious “them.”  He is not political either, but he was born to be a “them,” because he is a non-Aryan.  He is sent to a concentration camp.

James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan show the most courage and the most moxie of anyone in the movie because of their stubborn refusal to be one of the gang, because they defend a victim of that gang, and because Miss Sullavan openly claims her heritage.  When she hears Robert Young disparage non-Aryans, she calls them “my people,” though her mother most certainly is Aryan and if she wanted to, Margaret Sullavan could be safe even in this Nazi regime, by denying her father and ignoring her Jewish heritage. She breaks off with Robert Young.

An exciting climax builds when, after Frank Morgan dies in the concentration camp (which must have been at least surprising, if not shocking, to audiences of the day), she, her mother, and her young brother try to escape from Germany as James Stewart has already done before them.  Mother and younger brother make it, but Margaret is held at the border.  Stewart comes back for her and leads her through a treacherous mountain pass, with Robert Young and the boys on the chase. Just Stewart and Sullavan are skiing down a wintry slope approaching the Austrian border, the patrol under the orders of Robert Young, shoots Margaret Sullavan down like a dog.

Mr. Stewart scoops her up in his arms and continues to ski for the border, but she dies before he can reach it.

That had to be equally strong stuff for the audiences of the day.  The Nazis here are not punished, they are not foiled.  World War II is barely six months old, and it would be another year and a half before we became involved.  This is a tragedy we cannot reach.  Is it any of our business?  Some Americans on the sidelines (and in the movie theaters) said yes, some said no, some were cheering for the Nazis and resented them being presented as the bad guys.

Robert Young has always impressed me with his sensitive acting ability, I think I like him better in dramas than in comedies, though he could certainly do both well.  Here he is not so much a brainwashed Nazi, as someone who is trying to convince himself that he hasn’t made a mistake, and his pride is too great to admit that he could be wrong. 

We see this so often today.  People so slavishly devoted to an idea, or political party, or a candidate, and refuse to entertain any niggling doubt that might indicate they are wrong in their choice, that there are holes in the story they want to believe.

Robert Young does still love Margaret Sullavan, and we can see he is choked up and appalled by her murder (he even helped her earlier by finding out what camp her father was taken to), but we do not know if this is going to change him and make him step back from being a Nazi.  It probably won’t.  He would have to admit he was wrong.

Robert Stack is also appalled by his half-sister’s murder, and he is the most sensitive to the horror of it.  It’s possible he would step back from being a Nazi if he could, but he is too weak.  It is not his pride that keeps him in the grip of fascism; it is his weakness.

The younger brother, William T. Orr, is the one most flagrantly dogmatic about fascism, to the point where he does not mourn his sister’s murder.  He slaps Robert Stack in the face for entertaining thoughts that they have made a mistake.  Orr has embraced fascism out of lack of maturity, a lack of intelligence, and because of the sensational high it gives him, and he is perfect fodder for the new regime.

Frank Morgan, before he is taken to the death camp, refuses to submit to Nazis, not because he is a non-Aryan, but because he is a teacher and a scientist and in both professions truthfulness is more important than fashion, or should be.  He takes umbrage about the concept of racial purity in his lecture hall when students protest when he insists that the blood of different races is the same.

“Scientific truth is scientific truth, unchangeable and eternal.  It cannot be altered to suit the politics of the hour or the clamor of immature hoodlums.”

Later he will say, “I’ve never prized safety for my children, I’ve prized courage.”

These are great lines.  They are just as apropos today.  We began this year with this post on the relevance of classic films today, particularly as we examine how our society is buffeted in turbulent times.  I mentioned Donald Trump as both an aberration of our time, and a consequence of it.  I admit, I did not think he would get this far, that the media would have raised him to the level of a celebrity; or that the party of Abraham Lincoln, of Teddy Roosevelt, of Dwight D. Eisenhower would have embraced this pig.  But fascism has its mysterious and confounding allure.  We cannot depend on modern films to tackle the subject.  They are too busy with juvenile stories.  Luckily, we have classic films.


Come back next week when we discuss Address Unknown with Paul Lukas. This time, we see the allure of fascism not to impetuous youth, but to an educated and cultured man in middle age, and two immigrant American families that are touched by long-reaching ideology from a foreign source, caught in its web even from the supposed safety of American shores.

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My audio book version of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., narrated by Toni Lewis, is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.