Shortly before WW II, MGM, most powerful of all Hollywood film studios, openly declared its personal war on Hitler's Third Reich by producing the powerful film THE MORTAL STORM. Hitler took one look at the film and banned all MGM movies in Nazi Germany. Though the film deals with the rise
of the Nazi regime in the early 1930s, it nevertheless scathingly profiles the hideous tyranny Hitler and his fellow thugs practiced over once-civilized Germany. Morgan is a professor with a large and happy family in 1933. Surrounding him are his wife, Rich, his daughter Sullavan, his son
Reynolds, and two stepsons, Stack and Orr, plus two young suitors for his daughter's hand, Young and Stewart. Sullavan later chooses pro-Nazi Young as her fiance, rejecting Stewart who returns to his farm in Austria, he being violently opposed to Hitler's regime, which comes into existence and
immediately begins repressive measures. When Morgan's university students quiz him about Aryan supremacy, he ridicules the master-race notion and is quickly removed from his position and placed in a concentration camp where he ultimately dies. His sons Stack and Orr become members of the Nazi
Youth Organization but young Reynolds, Rich, and Sullavan, who has broken her engagement with Young for his political views, now attempt to reach Stewart in Austria. They take a train out of the country but at the border, Nazi guards search their luggage and find a manuscript written by Morgan.
Sullavan explains that it's a scientific treatise but the manuscript is seized and her passport is revoked. She convinces her mother and little brother to continue their journey to freedom. Later, Stewart comes to Germany and takes Sullavan on a perilous trip on skis, across the mountains,
attempting to ski across the border. A patrol led by Bond and Young follows the fleeing pair and, just as they are about to cross the border, the Nazis fire at them and Sullavan is mortally wounded. Stewart, at her request, picks her up and skis into Austria so she can die in a free country. Young
looks down upon the scene with sadness but believes he has done his duty for the Third Reich.
Somber, even grim, this message film carried the theme of anti-Nazism in the words of Morgan the professor: "I've never prized safety either for myself or for my children. I've prized courage." The film appeared when America was on the brink of war with the Axis powers and Americans had, by and
large, mostly distrust, fear, and hatred for Hitler's awful regime, but THE MORTAL STORM was not a box-office success. It is propaganda, often crude in spots, and certainly sentimentally sloppy on occasion, but the leads play their roles with vigor. Sullavan--whom Borzage also directed two years
earlier in THREE COMRADES, along with Young--is believable and sympathetic as the confused young woman who dies rather than yield to the Nazi philosophy. MGM executives thought long and hard about allowing her to live at film's end, then opted for death and a more dramatic if not maudlin finale.
Sullavan's film career diminished after THE MORTAL STORM; she appeared sporadically in such movies as CRY HAVOC (1943) and NO SAD SONGS FOR ME (1950), preferring to act on Broadway. While preparing to go onstage during a Connecticut production, Sullavan took an overdose of sleeping pills and died
on January 1, 1960. Stewart, who appears on and off in this film, was teamed with Sullavan earlier in NEXT TIME WE LOVE (1936), THE SHOPWORN ANGEL (1938), and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940). Suprisingly good is Stack as the older stepbrother, who realizes in the end that the Nazi path he has
chosen is crooked. Orr, the younger brother, hears that his stepsister is dead and Stewart has escaped to freedom. "He's free to fight against everything we believe in," says Orr bitterly. "Yes," replies Stack, still dressed in his stormtrooper's uniform, "Thank God for that." Stack, with this
remark, becomes one of the few sympathetic Germans portrayed in Hollywood just prior to, during, and after WW II. Borzage maintains a swift pace in this film and keeps his cameras fluid, employing many dolly shots, pans, and quick cuts. He often repeats his shots to emphasize the hopelessness of
his characters' situations. The director ends where he began, outside Morgan's once happy home--now deserted, gutted of humanity by the Nazi storm--his camera at the final shot showing Stack's footsteps in the snow as he leaves the now empty home, the snow falling heavily and quickly obliterating
his footprints, as if to say that the Nazi scourge will pass into history, a powerful ending. MGM still played it somewhat safe by stating at the beginning that the scene is set "somewhere in Europe," but no viewer can mistake it as being other than Germany. Warner Bros.' production of CONFESSIONS
OF A NAZI SPY a year earlier pulled no such punches.
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- Review: Shortly before WW II, MGM, most powerful of all Hollywood film studios, openly declared its personal war on Hitler's Third Reich by producing the powerful film THE MORTAL STORM. Hitler took one look at the film and banned all MGM movies in Nazi Germany. Th… (more)