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 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 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. 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.