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.


0 thoughts on “The Mortal Storm (1940)- Frank Borzage

  1. John says:

    When I saw this film I remember enjoying the first 45 minutes very much and then it just fizzled and kind of didn’t build to a great climax. It still was a very enjoyable movie overall and every kid today should watch it as a history lesson.The individual is the basis for any republic or democracy. Group thinking taken to the extreme is very dangerous and this movie points out how dangerous that could become especially by a desperate populace who puts all their faith and hopes in one man. Does that seem a bit familiar today? Maybe so.


    • Paul says:

      I see why you might feel that this film fizzled. It’s not that it becomes boring or uninteresting, it’s just that the first 45 minutes is so amazing and captivating that the rest of the movie has trouble living up to the beginning. I also agree that it is a great film to introduce audiences to this whole subject. It is just a very compelling film to me.


  2. R.A. Kerr says:

    I agree that this movie is overly ambitious, but the more I watch it the more I admire it. Of course, Stewart and Sullivan are terrific, but I’m a huge fan Robert Young’s performance. He almost gives me the chills as he becomes more deeply entrenched in Nasi-ism.


    • Paul says:

      Robert Young plays a really fascinating character in this film. It’s a real testament to his range as an actor to pull this role off so well.


    • Paul says:

      That is amazing. I allowed my oldest to watch it with me (mostly because I have brainwashed him into loving Jimmy Stewart), and I think it left quite an impression as well. Usually he likes to take about a film as soon as it ends, but this time he has been rather silent. I can’t wait to hear what he says when he is finally ready to share with me. (Hopefully it will be soon.)


  3. Joel Bocko says:

    Very much agreed with your last line. I find this film extremely moving, in part because of the very melodramatic element you mention: it is not done in a “realistic” style, but rather a very Hollywood one, and seeing the real-world tragedy refracted through that familiar and usually comforting lens is an upsetting experience. I wish it was something we got to see ore often – even in the 40s it was a rarity, but it seems like it happened more often (The Best Years of Our Lives would be another good example, although that one departed from the confines of the studio lot a bit more – in a sense, even Casablanca fits in this category, although people tend to watch it today and only notice the romantic element). The movie’s very earnestness is one of its most appealing qualities. It’s too bad, though, that they don’t directly refer to the family as Jewish – which I guess was due to worries over homegrown anti-semitism, though I’m not sure. Still, to make this film at all in 1940, when most in the U.S. remained isolationist and wary of moralizing the European conflict, was a bold move.


    • Paul says:

      I almost missed the fact that they never call the family Jewish. It is sad that they didn’t feel they could go directly at that one, but I still think this film has much to offer.


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