Between 1939 and 1941, when Europe was at war and America wasn’t, Hollywood did something uncharacteristic: It produced a series of motion pictures with an overt political agenda. The films warned that the armies rolling over Poland, Belgium, France et al. would always be hungry for more lebensraum. Defying the oft-quoted advice of producer Samuel Goldwyn (“If you want to send a message, use Western Union”), they telegraphed a blunt message, boldfaced, in all caps: Nazism was a clear and present danger to the homeland.
Against expectations, the most potent entry in Hollywood’s prewar anti-Nazi cycle (a cycle is a time-bound cluster of like-themed films too short-lived to be a genre) came from MGM, the most controversy-averse and conservative-minded of all the major Hollywood studios. Released in June 1940, The Mortal Storm dramatized the metamorphosis of Germany into a gangster state by showing the imprint of the Nazi jackboot on a single family. Though long in circulation and in regular rotation on TCM, the film has been restored recently by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which first unspooled the results last February at its Festival of Preservation. On May 7, the crisp new 35 mm print was screened at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts, as part of the National Center for Jewish Film’s annual festival.
The anti-Nazi cycle was jump-started by Warner Bros., the most politically engaged and unapologetically Jewish of the major studios, with Confessions of a Nazi Spy, released in April 1939, four months before the Nazi invasion of Poland. A ripped-from-the-headlines exposé of a Nazi espionage ring operating out of New York, it was the first big-budget feature film to showcase the imagery and iconography that would fill the motion picture memory of the 20th century: sinister Nazi villains in slick SS uniforms, swastikas emblazoned on flags, armbands and banners, and authentic newsreel footage of swarms of robotic soldiers precision marching to a martial drumbeat. The ads screamed, “The picture that calls a swastika a swastika!”
Although not the huge hit Warner Bros. had hoped for, Confessions of a Nazi Spy opened the floodgates. Even before American entry into WWII, all of the major studios adopted anti-Nazism as official company policy. Whether bargain basement B-movies or prestige productions, the anti-Nazi thread connected films as diverse as the exploitation quickie Hitler: Beast of Berlin (1939) and Charles Chaplin’s cri de coeur The Great Dictator (1940).
Having built its reputation on sumptuous period romances, Technicolor musicals, and heartwarming fun for the entire family, MGM was an unlikely participant in the anti-Nazi cause. Its prototypical screen fare was the Andy Hardy series, in which Mickey Rooney, spunky scion of a middle-class family of unspecified Protestant roots, mounts extraordinarily elaborate musical numbers in between high school hijinks and puppy love. Studio chieftain Louis B. Mayer had two pictures on his office wall that summed up his rock-ribbed Republican politics and assimilationist aspirations: newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and Roman Catholic prelate Francis Cardinal Spellman.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, MGM (unlike Warner Bros.) complied with the anti-Jewish edicts of the new regime, firing Jewish employees from its branch offices in Germany and transferring its Jewish American employees to other sites in Europe. In private, Mayer contributed generously to anti-Nazi causes in Los Angeles. He helped finance the efforts of local Jews to infiltrate the German American Bund and the Silver Shirts in Los Angeles, a story chronicled in Steven J. Ross’ illuminating study Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America, published in 2016. Yet as late as June 1939, MGM was still giving Nazi newspaper editors VIP tours of its soundstages in Culver City. Earlier, MGM had infuriated progressives by backing away from a motion picture version of Sinclair Lewis’ dystopic novel It Can’t Happen Here, published in 1935, in which fascism comes home to roost in a Great Depression America.
The Mortal Storm is based on the 1937 book (subtitle: A Novel of Dictatorship) by British author Phyllis Bottome, who had lived in Germany in the early 1930s and witnessed firsthand the descent of the Weimar Republic into the Nazi abyss. A bestseller that was serialized in the New York Post, the novel is a middlebrow mélange of political thriller, family melodrama, and feminist bildungsroman. Its heroine is Freya, a brilliant medical student who spends her wardrobe allowance on a new model microscope (“My career comes first!”) and falls for a noble communist peasant (“our ideal is only to attack selfishness”). History has other plans.
In April 1939, MGM snapped up the movie rights for $25,000, but vacillated about putting the film into production, skittish at being overtaken by the fast-moving news from overseas and fearing that the studio might be accused of violating U.S. foreign policy, which was, after all, (officially) neutrality. When war broke out in Europe, sensing a change in the domestic weather and confident of a bull market in Great Britain, MGM greenlit the project and began shooting in early February 1940. You will be shocked to hear that little of the feminism and none of the communism in Bottome’s novel made it through the blender of MGM’s adaptation process.
To helm the film version, MGM turned to the reigning expert on star-crossed love and emotionally fraught families, director Frank Borzage. In a career that stretched from the multi-hankie tearjerker Humoresque (1920) to the apostolic biopic The Big Fisherman (1959), through 25 silent features and 45 sound films, Borzage never lost his tender auteurist touch. He is often known as—or dismissed as—a dreamy romantic, but The Mortal Storm was his third excursion into tumultuous Weimar territory, after Little Man, What Now? (1934), a compromised version of the anti-Nazi novel by Hans Fallada, and Three Comrades (1938), a compromised version of anti-Nazi novel by Erich Maria Remarque. MGM accorded The Mortal Storm the full A-picture treatment: big stars, big budget, and big publicity rollout. The smooth production process encountered only one glitch: When Borzage tried to order several hundred Nazi flags for background decoration, no flag-making firm in Los Angeles would fill the order. MGM’s own prop department had to make up the necessary regalia.
Set in a small, unnamed university town nestled at the foot of the Alps, on the epochal date of Jan. 30, 1933, the film opens with a portentous narration that underscores the contemporary setting. “The tale we are about to tell is of the mortal storm in which man finds himself today,” booms a voice from the heavens. “Again, man is crying, `I must kill my fellow man!’”
But for the moment no storm clouds rumble on the horizon. Professor Roth (Frank Morgan) is an esteemed scholar-scientist, not coincidentally turning 60 that very day, a man beloved by his family, worshipped by his students, and honored by his profession. Arriving at school for his usual lecture, he is disappointed that no one seems to have noticed his birthday—until the entire lecture hall rises and sings the school song in tribute to the esteemed Herr Professor Doktor, who can’t help but wipe a tear from his eye.
At home professor Roth presides over a convivial extended family: a loving wife (Irene Rich) and a young son (Gene Reynolds); two grown boys (Robert Stack and William T. Orr) from his wife’s previous marriage; two favored students, blustery Fritz (Robert Young) and soft-spoken Martin (James Stewart); and his beautiful, headstrong daughter Freya (the luminous Margaret Sullavan). Fritz is Freya’s fiancé, but the cozy two-shots framing alpha stars Sullavan and Stewart predict another coupling. Suddenly, the maid bursts in, giddy with the wonderful news just announced on the radio: “They have made Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany!”
Already fervent brownshirts, the elder stepsons rush to the radio and hear a hysterical broadcaster proclaim the dawn of a New Germany. The young men are ecstatic. Professor and Frau Roth—and Freya and Martin—not so much. They have good reason to be anxious: The professor is “non-Aryan.”
“Non-Aryan” is as close as the film will come to designating what the new regime would call professor Roth’s racial type. At no point is he explicitly identified as a Jew; at no point is the word uttered on the soundtrack. Still, one would have to be a very dense spectator indeed not to understand what makes him a born enemy of the Third Reich. Later, when Roth is hauled off and imprisoned in a concentration camp, the sleeve of his prison uniform will bear a conspicuous “J.”
As the Nazis consolidate power, the world of the Roths, professional and personal, disintegrates. The elder boys leave home, friendships dissolve, and a gentle old man, obviously Jewish, is pummeled by brownshirts. A fiery nighttime sequence reenacts the famous newsreel footage of the May 10, 1933, book burning in Berlin, a foreshadowing of the conflagrations to come.
One of the most chilling—and, these days, resonant—scenes in The Mortal Storm takes place in the university lecture hall where professor Roth’s students had so recently raised their voices in his honor. He is teaching what he has always taught: the biological unity of all mankind, “the scientific truth” that blood is blood. His once-admiring students are now a squad of menacing brownshirts who will not tolerate his heretical rebuke to Nazi eugenics. They storm out of the lecture hall and call for a boycott of his classes.
Its beloved patriarch dead, its sons in thrall to Hitler, the house of Roth has been hollowed out by the Nazis. The survivors plot a desperate escape to Austria, Frau Roth and her young son by train, Freya and Martin over the mountains on skis, with the Nazis in hot pursuit.
The chase over the snow-capped Alps promises safety and liberation, but, shockingly, especially for the studio devoted to happy endings, The Mortal Storm delivers a death blow to its lovable star: Beautiful, vibrant Freya is shot dead by order of her former fiancé as she nears the Austrian border.
The bleak topicality and downbeat tone of The Mortal Storm would have been a hard sell at any time, but the film was thrust into a particularly volatile prewar moment: when isolationism and interventionism were fighting for the hearts and minds of the American public, when FDR was struggling to rearm the military and launch a peacetime draft, and when domestic anti-Semites were finding common cause with their Nazi models. As the highest profile of the anti-Nazi films, the film was a ripe target of opportunity for the extreme edges of the political spectrum, right and left.
The Nazis and their domestic wing in the German American Bund were predictably outraged. In the wake of The Mortal Storm, Nazi officials tersely informed MGM that its pictures would henceforth be banned in the Greater Reich and the occupied countries. Stateside, fifth columnists in the Bund sought to intimidate exhibitors playing anti-Nazi films with bomb threats and vandalism. Thus, the heads-up about The Mortal Storm from Motion Picture Daily: “The film is filled with potential audience impact,” the trade paper cautioned. “As such, it is subject to individual and community feeling prevalent at the actual moment of its playdate.”
Though usually falling short of actual violence, partisan outbursts sometimes disrupted screenings of the anti-Nazi cycle. In Los Angeles, pro-Nazi patrons greeted the appearances of the swastika in The Mortal Storm with rowdy applause. Taking up the challenge, anti-Nazi patrons responded with jeers and catcalls. “Loud acrimony followed as the partisans of the two sides jibed at each other,” reported Daily Variety. “No serious trouble developed but the showing of the anti-Nazi film is serving to uncover numerous Hitler supporters in this area.”
The other end of the political spectrum was no less agitated. Most of the anti-Nazi cycle was released smack in the middle of the interregnum between the Hitler-Stalin Pact (Aug. 23, 1939) and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941), when the Communist party line mandated an accommodationist policy toward Stalin’s new comrade in arms. Taking dictation from Moscow, the official organs of the Communist Party USA lambasted Hollywood’s anti-Nazi cycle as errant war-mongering by capitalist merchants of death. “The Mortal Storm fails to be an important film,” scoffed David Platt, film critic for the Daily Worker. “Sadly lacking in ideas. … The conception of the film is small, static.’” Reviewing the film for the New Masses, the literary-cultural mouthpiece for the CPUSA, Alvah Bessie, a future member of the Hollywood Ten, hewed obediently to the party line. “Virulent hatred of everything that Hitler represents is being utilized to drive us into a war to protect a nascent home-grown brand of Hitlerism,” he wrote, somehow distorting Hollywood’s anti-Nazism into a shill for domestic fascism. (After the Nazi invasion of Mother Russia, communist critics experienced an ideological awakening. David Platt now called upon good party members to urge Hollywood to “fight the appeaser’s attack by producing more, not less, anti-Nazi films.”)
In the broad middle ground between the political fringes, the reviews for The Mortal Storm were uniformly excellent. Archer Winsten at the New York Post welcomed “a serious picture dealing with the highest ideas of freedom and tolerance,” Cecelia Ager at the progressive daily PM found it “gripping, skillfully assembled, filled with sympathy and suspense,” and Bosley Crowther at The New York Times hailed “the blistering anti-Nazi propaganda” of “a passionate drama, struck out of the deepest tragedy.” At the New York Sun, Eileen Creelman may have had the most discerning and prophetic comment. “The drama of a half-Jewish family caught in the hate and bewilderment of Nazi persecution” was a superb film, she recognized, but “with war and sudden death and misery poured forth from each press and newsreel and radio [it seems] unnecessary to use motion picture entertainment for such painful purposes. Five years from now, or ten, The Mortal Storm might be easier to see.” Well, yes and no.
As ever, the feedback Hollywood prized most came at the ticket window—and here, alas, Sam Goldwyn’s moneywise aphorism was proving true. Americans bombarded by the grim news from Europe sought to escape it at the local Bijou. “Anti-Nazi and other pictures dealing with the slaughter abroad are anything but the financial draws their producers had predicted,” reported Daily Variety. A sales manager for Twentieth Century Fox bluntly informed the home office that pictures reminding audiences of “World War No. 2” were “box office poison.” An unhappy exhibitor groused that “the public is getting all the war it wants in the newsreels.”
To lure in moviegoers resistant to gloomy geopolitics, posters and newspaper advertising for the anti-Nazi cycle played up the films as straight thrillers or romances. Ads for The Mortal Storm show Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in a clinch, with not a swastika in sight. “A story of love and sacrifice—not war!” insisted taglines. Similarly, two films that initially highlighted their anti-Nazi colors in their very titles were rebranded for theatrical release: A planned anti-Nazi comedy called Heil, Jennie! became the Nazi-less Jennie (1940) and I Married a Nazi became simply The Man I Married (1940).
But if many American moviegoers weren’t watching, their elected representatives were. In Washington, a bipartisan cohort of isolationist U.S. senators eyed Hollywood’s anti-Nazi cycle and saw just what the Bundists and the Communists did: an insidious propaganda campaign designed to sucker America into the European maelstrom. From Sept. 9 to 26, 1941, a subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate Commerce chaired by Sen. D. Worth Clark, D-Idaho, held hearings into “Propaganda in Motion Pictures” to investigate Hollywood’s sudden lurch into foreign policy. Variety—which despite the lineage shared by most of its masthead and readership seldom broached the Jewish angle—tagged the impulse behind the hearings as “the strongly anti-Semitic feeling of many members of Congress from small, homeland districts.” Among the moguls called to testify was Fox’s Darryl Zanuck, Warner Bros.’ Harry M. Warner, and Nicholas M. Schenck, president of Loews Inc., MGM’s parent company.
Sen. Clark and his equally nativist colleague Sen, Gerald P. Nye, R-N.D., singled out The Mortal Storm for “special inquiry” and Schenck for a special grilling. They charged that MGM was forcing exhibitors to book The Mortal Storm; that Victor Saville, an assistant producer on the film, was a British agent; and that Borzage had been taken off the picture because he “had not been sufficiently brutal [toward the Nazis] in directing the production.” Borzage vehemently denied the charge by telegram: “Senator Nye’s statement is incorrect as I started and finished direction of The Mortal Storm and was at no time removed from my directorial duties.”
Schenck, who had begun his career in the thuggish world of New Jersey amusement parks, didn’t blink or back down.
Did Schenck think The Mortal Storm was propaganda? asked Clark.
“Don’t use that word,” said Schenck, defending the production as “a great picture. I loved it.”
Did Schenck think The Mortal Storm contributed to harmony and national unity?
“I don’t think you want unity with Hitler,” Schenck replied evenly. However, he admitted that “under normal circumstances, with the world at peace, we wouldn’t want to make” politically charged films.
“We are at peace,” Clark pointed out.
“Not exactly,” shot back Schenck.
Throughout the hearings, the audience in the hearing room hissed at the politicians and applauded the moguls. Outmatched, the senators adjourned the hearings, promising to resume the inquiry by year’s end. By then, of course, anti-Nazism was no longer just Hollywood’s policy.
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Thomas Doherty, a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, is the author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 and Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist.