Director Frank Borzage began his career in silent film having won two Oscars by 1931 (7th Heaven -1927 and Bad Girl – 1931). “The Mortal Storm” was released in 1940 while the U.S. was still in an official position of neutrality on the war that was raging in Europe. Based on a novel by Phyllis Bottome (1938) the film was, like the 1939 Warner Brothers film “Confession s of a Nazi Spy”, a blatant anti-Nazi film or at least as blatant as the film studios dared to be in those pre-war days.
During the time prior to the U.S. entering the war, Hollywood was cautioned by Washington politicians not to violate the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936 and 1937 by making any films that were openly anti-Nazi or anti-Japanese. The Government insisted during this period that no specific enemies or nations be mentioned; it could be only vaguely insinuated. Many studio heads balked about this unvoiced position though for the most part they followed the Government’s orders. Sometimes, like in the 1939 “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”, they did not. And of course there was Charlie Chaplin who financed his own film mocking Hitler and Mussolini in “The Great Dictator.” In between these two films came MGM’s “The Mortal Storm” which clearly states right at the beginning that the story takes place in Southern Germany in a small university village.
The storyline revolves around the Roth family who live in a small Bavarian village. Professor Roth (Frank Morgan) is Jewish, or Non-Aryan, as all the Jewish characters are called and is well-respected at the university where he teaches science. The Professor’s family consist of his wife (she is Aryan, her second marriage) two stepsons, Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich (William T, Orr) and two children of his own, Freya (Margaret Sullavan) and young Rudi (Gene Reynolds).
Daughter Freya is in love with two men, Fritz (Robert Young), a student of the Professor’s at the University and Martin (James Stewart) a local veterinarian. She favors Fritz until she discovers his pro-fascist opinions which rise to the surface after a radio announcement that Hitler has been named Chancellor. The Professor’s two stepsons also welcome this declaration as a great event while the Professor and his Aryan wife see dark clouds ahead. Martin is also concerned about this change in events to the dismay of long time friends Fritz and the professor’s two stepsons. Here is some the dialogue that transpires between Martin, Fritz and the two Professor’s stepsons after the announcement…
“We should be intolerant of anyone who opposes the will of our leader” cries Fritz.
“Whatever his will might be? Persecution? War?” answers Martin.
“What sort of talk is that?”
“Are you a pacifist” Fritz demands to know.
Martin answers “I think peace is better than war. A man’s right to believe and think is as good for him as food and drink.”
“That sounds like the kind of stuff the reds dish out.” Fritz responds.
Fritz and the two stepsons go on to declare Germany will reclaim its right as a leader in Europe spitting out slogans like “if they want war by heaven they’ll get it” and “if you’re not with us, you’re against us and against Germany.”
When it is pointed out that their step dad may be in danger because he in non-Aryan the boys naively think that men will be judged on their merit and on their records, not on who they are. The boys are easily sucked in by false patriotism. The Professor’s worst fears come true when he defends a scientific study in the classroom that Aryan and Non Aryan’s are equal. Soon after he is arrested and sent to a concentration camp.
Martin who has stood his ground against the growing pro fascist movement that quickly engulfed the others escapes to Austria before he is arrested. Later he returns to get Freya and bring her to freedom. Just as they are about to cross the Austrian border, Freya is shot and killed by a Nazi patrol out to catch them, a group that is led by her former boyfriend Fritz. “I’m very tired now”, she tells Martin just before she dies. He carries her body across the border to freedom.
Viewed today this film looks overly dramatic especially the quasi-religious opening . Borzage begins the film with dark stormy clouds gathering on-screen. In voice over we hear “when will man be able to overcome his ignorant fears” (a question that can still be asked today). The sets are very much studio bound and the actors make no attempt at even having a German accent. That said, these are minor quibbles, and do not deter from the strong impact the film still contains.
This was a startling film to come from Borzage whose other works were fairly devoid of any political message. He would find himself a few years later after the war in political hot water, blacklisted by the HUAC partially due to this film somehow misconstrued as pro-communist. With the clouds of war gathering and the inevitability of America entering the war the film was a sensitive topic and did not do well at the box office upon its release.
This was the final pairing of James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan who made four films together, including the Ernst Lubitsch classic “The Shop Around the Corner” released earlier the same year. For anyone who grew up with Robert Young as Jim Anderson in “Father Knows Best” or later on as Marcus Welby seeing him in this role is rather unsettling. His convincing role as Fritz was certainly different from many of the nice guy roles he generally played on TV or in many of the undistinguished films he made. Robert Stack was only in his second film here, Ward Bond has a small but important role as a stormtrooper, and be sure to look for a young Dan Dailey as a Youth Party Leader.
Making the film was a gamble for MGM who had a lucrative market for their products in Germany as did other studios. As a result Germany banned not only this film but all MGM products in the future. While the film was in production, word had reached the studio that the German Government was aware of the film’s subject matter and similar to what happened with the filmmakers involved in the making of “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”, they promised retribution once the war was over. The same month this film was released France fell to Germany.