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 cliché 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.