The Mortal Storm is a 1940 drama film from MGM directed by Frank Borzage and starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart.
It shows the impact on Germany’s people in general and on one family in particular, the Roths, after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany (on January 30, 1933) and he and his fascist followers gain unlimited power.
The supporting cast features Robert Young, Robert Stack, Frank Morgan, Dan Dailey, Ward Bond and Maria Ouspenskaya.
In 1933, Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan) is a young German girl engaged to Nazi party member Fritz Marberg (Robert Young). When she realizes the true nature of his political views and witnesses the racism and ruthlessness imposed by the Nazis, she breaks the engagement and is drawn to old friend and Nazi-detractor Martin Breitner (James Stewart). Her father, Professor Roth (Frank Morgan), does not abide by the attitude of the new order towards scientific fact.
Though his stepsons Erich (William T. Orr) and Otto (Robert Stack) eagerly embrace the regime, Professor Roth’s reluctance to conform leads first to a boycott of his classes and then to his arrest and a sentence of forced labour in a concentration camp. Freya goes to Fritz to beg his help in aiding her father and he reluctantly uses his influence to arrange a visit for the professor’s wife. During this visit – unfortunately limited to five minutes – the professor urges her to take Freya and her younger brother and leave the country. Still hoping for the release of the professor, the family delay their departure. News now comes that the professor has died from ‘a heart attack’.
The family board a train for Austria but Freya is arrested at the border because officers find a manuscript in her suitcase which was written by her father. She is eventually released but her passport is confiscated. She returns to the town and reunites with Martin at the farm and together they attempt to escape via an unguarded mountain pass. The Nazi thugs beat this information out of the farm-maid and a patrol is ordered to intercept them. Fritz asks his commanding officer to allow him to be left out of this operation but his commander refuses, reminding him of his allegiance to the Third Reich. Trying to ski to safety the couple are shot at by the patrol at Fritz’s order and Freya is fatally wounded, dying in Martin’s arms just after they cross the border. Later, at the family’s empty house, Fritz tells Erich and Otto of their sister’s death and leaves, crying out that it was not his fault. When Otto says that Martin is now free to follow his own beliefs, Erich slaps his face and marches out. Otto, however, remembers the time when the family were still happy and appears to experience an epiphany. We see his footprints in the snow leading to the gate and are left to wonder whether he returns to his comrades or whether he chooses to reject the cruelties of the Nazi regime and make a bid for his own freedom.
- Margaret Sullavan as Freya Roth.
- James Stewart as Martin Breitner.
- Robert Young as Fritz Marberg.
- Frank Morgan as Professor Viktor Roth.
- Robert Stack as Otto von Rohn.
- Bonita Granville as Elsa.
- Irene Rich as Amelie Roth.
- William T. Orr as Erich von Rohn.
- Maria Ouspenskaya as Hilda Breitner.
- Gene Reynolds as Rudi Roth.
- Ward Bond as Franz.
- Russell Hicks as Rector of University.
- William Edmunds as Lehman, University Doorman.
- Esther Dale as Marta, the Roths’ Maid.
- Dan Dailey as Holl, Youth Party Leader (billed as Dan Dailey, Jr.).
- Granville Bates as Professor Berg.
The film is based on the 1937 novel The Mortal Storm by the British writer Phyllis Bottome. Bottome moved to Austria in 1924 when her husband, Alban Ernan Forbes Dennis, was posted there. Dennis was a British diplomat and (secretly) MI6 Head of Station with responsibility for Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia. In 1930, she moved to Munich. She was a witness to the rise of fascism, the rise to power of the Nazi party, and the transformation of Nazi Germany. A Woman Out of Time, a 2007 article by Andrea Crawford, available on Tablet, provides an intriguing glimpse into her life and the creation of the book.
On Bottome’s reaction to the film, Crawford wrote: “Bottome believed that the film ‘brilliantly retained’ the ‘core and spirit’ of her novel. Nevertheless, its storyline was a considerable departure… Bottome’s only disappointment with the film was this: ‘What it is to be a Nazi has been shown with unequivocal sincerity and life-likeness, but in the scene between the Jewish professor and his son, Rudi, there was a watering down of courage. Those familiar with the father’s definition of a good Jew will miss its full significance in the film because the central idea has been overlaid by insignificant words,’ she wrote in an article when the film came out.”
The Mortal Storm was one of the few directly anti-Nazi Hollywood films released before the American entry into World War II in December 1941. The film stars James Stewart as a German who refuses to join the rest of his small Bavarian town in supporting Nazism. He is in love with Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan), the daughter of a Junker mother and a “non-Aryan” father. The Mortal Storm was the last movie Sullavan and Stewart made together.
It is implied that Freya and her father are Jews, but the word “Jew” is never actually used and they are identified as “non-Aryans”; in addition, Freya’s half-brothers are both members of the Nazi Party. The movie infuriated the Nazi government, leading to all MGM films being subsequently banned in Germany.
The supporting cast features Robert Young (a major romantic lead in many Hollywood films and later Jim Anderson on television’s Father Knows Best, and the title role in Marcus Welby, MD), Robert Stack (The Untouchables, 1959-1963), Frank Morgan (Professor Marvel and the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz the previous year), Dan Dailey, Ward Bond (John Wayne’s co-star in 23 films, one of director John Ford’s favourite ensemble actors, and later the lead in the television series Wagon Train), Maria Ouspenskaya, William T. Orr, and Bonita Granville, who was the first actress to play Nancy Drew onscreen.
Mountain snow scenes were filmed at Salt Lake City, Utah, and Sun Valley, Idaho.
The score by award-winning composer Bronislau Kaper and by Eugene Zador was not credited to them, but rather to a pseudonym, “Edward Kane”.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Frank Borzage.
- Producer(s): Frank Borzage and Victor Saville.
- Claudine West … (screen play).
- Hans Rameau … (screen play) (as Andersen Ellis).
- George Froeschel … (screen play).
- Phyllis Bottome … (based on the book by).
- Music: Edward Kane, Bronislau Kaper, and Eugene Zador.
- Cinematography: Williams H. Daniels, Lloyd Knetchel, and Leonard Smith.
- Editor(s): Elmo Veron.
- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (presents) (controlled by Loew’s Incorporated) (A Frank Borzage Production).
- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (1940) (USA) (theatrical).
- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (1940) (UK) (theatrical).
- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (1940) (Mexico) (theatrical).
- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (1945) (Portugal) (theatrical).
- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (1945) (Turkey) (theatrical).
- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (1949) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (1950) (Finland) (theatrical).
- MGM Home Entertainment (1994) (USA) (VHS) (For MGM/UA Home Video and Warner Home Video).
- Warner Archive Collection (2020) (USA) (Blu-ray).
- Warner Home Video (2009) (USA) (DVD).
- Release Date: 14 June 1940 (US).
- Running Time: 100 minutes.
- Rating: A.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.