The Mortal Storm (1940)- Frank Borzage

 ★★★★★

 

The films being made in Hollywood during 1940 fell into a great number of genres. If there was one specific type of movie that was a rarity, however, it would be the ones that dealt directly with the uprising of Nazism. “The Mortal Storm”, directed by the pioneering Frank Borzage, was not afraid to tackle the subject. This film is part drama and part romance; it is, however, all anti-Nazi, and all for the freedom of mankind.

The film takes place in 1933, where a distinguished Professor (Frank Morgan) is celebrating his 60th birthday. At dinner that night it is announced over the radio that Hitler has come to power. The Professor (being non-Aryan) is upset, as is a pacifist friend of the family, Martin (Jimmy Stewart). The Mortal Storm (1940)The Professor’s two stepsons and another family friend, Fritz (Robert Young), are excited about the future of their country, and are eager to stand up behind Hitler and his regime. The Professor’s daughter, Freya (Margaret Sullivan), is engaged to Fritz, but is disturbed to see the hatred within him and her brothers, especially when he begins a verbal attack on Martin. It is the first time Freya sees a hatred within her friends and family- but it won’t be the last.

As the film continues, Martin begins helping others who are ostracized by the Nazis, and even must leave Germany for a while. Freya breaks off her engagement to Fritz, and falls in love with Martin, despite her brothers warnings (or perhaps orders is the right word). The Professor, insistent that he has done nothing wrong, ends up in a prison camp doing manual labor, and ends up begging his family to flee.

I know from this brief synopsis this doesn’t sound like much of an uplifting film and, well, you’re right, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It is a film that was made not to entertain or delight audiences, but to open their eyes to a reality that was coming. Released in June of 1940, “The Mortal Storm” was a wake up call for everyone here in America.

Just to be clear, this film has its share of flaws.The Mortal Storm (1940) The drama quickly turns to melodrama, and still comes off as somewhat cheesy during the opening and closing voice-over, as we are warned about the dangers of the “mortal storm” headed our way. The film also suffers from trying to teach too much in too short of a time, never allowing the audience to be connected to one character. I suppose the point here was to illustrate the situation in a broad sense, so seeing all the characters was more beneficial anyway.

The cast is phenomenal in each of their smaller roles, with no one being required to do much heavy lifting. Frank Morgan is the one actor who really steps things up and leaves a the largest impression. He has always been one of those character actors that makes me smile when I see him, but in “The Mortal Storm” he has elevated his acting ability to a whole new level. His performance is powerful and intense, and could very well be the best of his career.

What I do find extremely interesting about this film is how spine-chilling it is to watch the changes within all the different characters, even today. Upon its initial release, audiences could have seen this picture and not understood the ramifications of what was happening. The Mortal Storm (1940)Perhaps this was the first time they saw Nazis at work, but today we have learned everything that happened, and seen it recounted in more films than we can remember. Yet this film went back further, all the way to 1933. It showed everybody within one family. They are loving and caring toward one another, focusing on everything that is good and righteous. Then we are witnesses to a startling disintegration right before our very eyes. Today we know what would follow. We have learned the history and how the story will end. But watching this one family literally fall to pieces is devastating to behold.

 

The Last Gangster (1937)- Edward Ludwig

 ★★★

 

There is no point in denying the truth here, I only watched “The Last Gangster” because of my constant goal to see every film in which James Stewart appeared. I knew going into this one that it was before Stewart became the actor that everybody loves, and therefore I wasn’t expecting too much from him in this role or film, and that is exactly what I got. I was, however, surprised by the film overall, and in particular with Edward G. Robinson’s magnificent performance.

For those who haven’t seen this film, the story revolves around a bootlegging gangster named Joe Krozac (Robinson) who has recently returned from Europe with a young bride, Talya (Rose Stradner).The Last Gangster (1937) She speaks very little English and knows nothing of her new husband’s work or violent past. She soon becomes pregnant, but before they become a happy little family, Krozac is arrested for income tax evasion. He is sentenced to serve 10 years in Alcatraz, and subsequently misses the birth of his son.

Talya brings Joe Jr. to California to be near his father, but she has now learned about his unsavory past. She also has come to realize that Krozac doesn’t have much use for her now that she has given him an heir. Around this same time a newspaper reporter, Paul (Jimmy Stewart), meets Talya, and the two develop a relationship that is much more promising for her, but is constantly haunted by an uncertain future that will one day see Krozac return to reclaim his son.

Like I said before, “The Last Gangster” is not a great film, and leaves much to be desired. The story just kind of meanders along, waiting for something exciting to happen, but this isn’t really much of an action film. The heart of the story is that of a gangster coming to grips with the fact that his time as the ruler of the criminal underworld has come to an end. The Last Gangster (1937)Krozac had never even thought about having to deal with the future, such as being sent to prison, the lack of special treatment while there, the end of prohibition, and most importantly perhaps, having a wife that wants to keep his own son hidden away. The changes he endures, not only as a gangster but also as a man, are monumental.

The reason this film works is because Edward G. Robinson does a monumental job portraying these changes to the audience. The script doesn’t give him much to work with, so he has to do it through his gestures, glances, and just the emotional boiling anger inside of him, trying desperately to stay under control. Obviously Robinson played a gangster several times in his career, and almost always he did it with a panache that few other actors could achieve, but in “The Last Gangster” Robinson reaches a new height of sadness that many of his other films avoid touching completely. We, as the audience, know that this is a bad person, but to see the way he looks at his son, and to understand how much he wanted to raise this child as his own, is heartbreaking. It is a wonderful performance from Robinson, and it is he that elevates this entire film above obscurity and mediocrity.