The Mortal Storm, starring both Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, is the film that got MGM banned by Germany during WWII.
Between 1936 and 1940, Sullavan and Stewart starred in Next Time We Love, The Shopworn Angel, The Shop Around the Corner, and The Mortal Storm. One could make the argument that Sullivan is also responsible for Stewart becoming a star. This is another story for another day. But anyway, this is their fourth and final team-up before Stewart entered the Army Air Corps and Sullavan took a break. You can certainly see that the duo have great chemistry on screen. It’s just a shame that this film would mark the end of their on-screen adventures.
The Mortal Storm is based on a novel by Phyllis Bottome. For more background on Bottome’s book and differences between film and book, Tablet has an article by Andrea Crawford. Anyway, the film starts with the birthday celebrations for Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan). We’re introduced to his family, including daughter Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan). The film introduces us to some of the other supporting characters–including Martin Breitner (James Stewart)–before Hitler gets elected chancellor of Germany. After this, as one can probably tell, the film goes downhill from there. With the Nazis in power, we see its impact on the combined Roth-von Rohn family.
This is a film that depicts how Nazis tore families apart. If you didn’t go with the law, you were sent to the police. From there, one would assume the labor and death camps. I mean, Freya couldn’t even take her father’s final work with her upon leaving Germany because they forbade it. It’s hatred through and through. Even though this film does not even show us what would soon come of Hitler’s reign, it’s scary enough alone for 1940. And again, there were a large number of Americans wanting to stay out of the war. But when you watch a film like The Mortal Storm, how are you not compelled to speak out and do something?!?
Take a good look at the final minutes of the film and how the ending impacts both Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich von Rohn (William T. Orr) differently. Moreover, Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) is at the scene when both Freya and Martin are trying to flee Germany and get to safety in Austria. I’ll let you know right now, the film begins with Fritz and Freya announcing their engagement. It’s no surprise at all that she chooses to break it off when she witnesses the horror of the Nazis. Again, it’s still 1933 and we’re not even close to when things get really bad.
This film is a classic example of one’s Jewishness being erased on screen. Not so much in that it isn’t implied but in not being able to OUTRIGHT say that characters are Jewish. I don’t know why Hollywood studios were afraid of depicting Jewish characters on screen in the 1930s and 1940s. Even for those films set during the war, the studios just couldn’t do it. Instead, they end up copping out by using “non-Aryan” rather than outright saying that Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) and daughter Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan) are Jewish. Another classic example is a Best Picture winner, The Life of Emile Zola.
Another takeaway from the Tablet article on the book and Bottome’s reaction also comes as no surprise. MGM studio executive Louis B. Mayer was a staunch anti-communist. If you’ve read Lion of Hollywood by Scott Eyman, it’s not much of a shock to see the communist subplot removed entirely from the film. While I’ve not read the Bottome’s book, it appears that Martin is more or a less a stand-in for Hans.
It’s no lie that the German consulate sought to impact what was coming out of Hollywood. This is why it doesn’t surprise me that Joseph Goebbels and company ended up banning the studio. I mean, this film certainly didn’t paint a nice picture. This is where I must plug the Chris Yogerst book, Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictures. This book dives into a Senate investigation on the anti-Nazi films. The investigation, of course, would come to a premature end when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. This doesn’t change the fact that both the House and Senate were home to isolationists. When asked by Senator Charles Tobey (R-NH) if The Mortal Storm was fair to Germany, then-Loew’s Inc. president Nicholas Schenck responded “in the affirmative” while also adding “I don’t think you want unity with Hitler.”
The Mortal Storm shows the first-hand impact of the Nazi atrocities before things get really bad but the film could have had a stronger impact on Americans with an earlier release date.
DIRECTOR: Frank Borzage
SCREENWRITERS: Claudine West, Hans Rameau (as Andersen Ellis), and George Froeschel
CAST: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Robert Young, Frank Morgan, with Robert Stack, Bonita Granville, Irene Rich, William T. Orr, Maria Ouspenskaya, Gene Reynolds