(director: Frank Borzage; screenwriter: from the novel by Phyllis Bottome/Claudine West/Andersen Ellis/George Froeschel; cinematographer: William Daniels; editor: Elmo Veron; music: Edward Kane/Eugene Zador; cast: Margaret Sullavan (Freya Roth), James Stewart (Martin Breitner), Robert Young (Fritz Marlberg), Frank Morgan (Prof. Viktor Roth), Robert Stack (Otto von Roth), Bonita Granville (Elsa), Irene Rich (Mrs. Emilie Roth), William T. Orr (Erich von Rohn), Maria Ouspenskaya (Mrs. Breitner), Gene Reynolds (Rudi Roth), Dan Dailey, Jr. (Holl), Ward Bond (Franz), Esther Dale (Marta, Roth’s servant), Thomas Ross (Professor Werner); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Sidney Franklin/Victor Saville; MGM; 1940)
“This was the first Hollywood film to so openly and boldly cast aspersions on the Nazi oppression.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s based on Phyllis Bottome’s best-selling 1938 novel, The Mortal Storm, which served as a wakeup call for people of good will to fight the evils of fascism. This was the first Hollywood film to so openly and boldly cast aspersions on the Nazi oppression and its extreme anti-Semitism, as it examines the evil effects of Hitler’s rise to power and the carrying out of the former aspiring artist’s policies of Aryan supremacy. For that alone it deserves kudos, and that it was powerful enough so Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, banned the showing of MGM pictures in Germany. Director Frank Borzage (“7th Heaven”/”Lucky Star”/”A Farewell to Arms”) and writers Claudine West, Andersen Ellis and George Froeschel are well-intentioned, the talented cast performs well and the production values are first class, but the film at times suffers from its crude propaganda, its sentimentality and its emotional naiveté.

Professor Roth (Frank Morgan) is a “non-Aryan” (which stands for Jew) intellectual teaching medicine in a Bavarian university in a small fictionalized college town in the Alps. While celebrating his 60th birthday with friends, students and family at a house dinner party, on January 30, 1933, it’s learned that Hitler becomes Chancellor of the Third Reich. The respected and popular professor’s stepsons, the older Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich (William T. Orr), and Fritz Marberg (Robert Young), the professor’s student and suitor of his pretty daughter Freya, (Margaret Sullavan), are enthused with Hitler. Meanwhile the professor has a more cautious reaction, as does his protégé, a pacifist veterinary student named Martin Breitner (James Stewart), who are both alarmed by Hitler’s hateful racial policies and his warmongering.

The town’s Nazis soon become violent thugs with their foes and the non-Aryans, while carrying out Hitler’s policies of persecution. Roth’s stepsons leave their stepfather’s house and join the Hitler Youth. Freya then breaks with Fritz and falls in love with the sensitive Martin. The lovers are separated when Martin gets stranded in Austria, after helping a non-Aryan professor (Thomas Ross) leave the country. For refusing to acknowledge a difference between Aryan and non-Aryan blood as to superiority during a class session, Roth not only loses his teaching position but is sent to a concentration camp. His frantic family briefly visit him before they learn of his mysterious death.

On their way to Austria by train are Freya, Mrs. Roth (Irene Rich) and Rudi (Gene Reynolds), the professor’s biological son, whereby Freya is detained for carrying the professor’s manuscript and is forced to stay in Germany indefinitely. Martin, however, returns from his farmhouse in Austria for Freya, who is stuck in Germany, and as the couple make their way by skis through a snowy mountain pass in the Austrian Alps they are spotted by a Nazi patrol, led by Fritz and Franz (Ward Bond). The lovers reach the Austrian border, but Freya dies in Martin’s arms shortly after from a gunshot wound received during the chase. While a saddened Fritz, looks on and reflects that he was only doing his duty when Franz told him he learned of the escape plan.

The grim film flopped at the box office. Of note, it was the film debut of former Broadway song-and-dance man Dan Dailey, who played out of type as a fanatical Nazi ideologue.

The Mortal Storm (1940)