115 Years of James Stewart – THE MORTAL STORM (Frank Borzage, 1940)

Today, my favourite actor, the iconic James Stewart, would have been 115 years old. Born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, on May 20, 1908, he became one of the most well-appreciated figures of classic Hollywood by exploring all sorts of genres, working with top directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra or Anthony Mann (I’m not his biggest fan but he is an A-list director) and by excelling at playing the everyday guy who becomes a hero despite himself. In other words, he perfectly embodied the type of person people similar to him could identify with as society was then shaped. So, it’s no doubt he was very popular.

James’s career spanned over fifty years, and, in those decades, he managed to be cast in films that became undeniable masterpieces due to many factors, one of them being his often excellent performances. THE MORTAL STORM (Frank Borzage, 1940) can be categorized as such. I’m mentioning this particular one because I watched the film a few days ago and thought writing about it would be a perfect occasion to highlight Stewart’s birthday. Plus, it is an even more perfect occasion to finally write something on my blog after two months of silence… And it had been a while since I hadn’t written a regular film review (my last articles were top lists, which I love doing, but it’s not the same kind of investment). Anyway, I’m back, and I hope on a more regular basis.

I must admit, The Mortal Storm is not a film I had put on my watch list until very recently (well, until the day I watched it, honestly). Not that I didn’t want to, but I just hadn’t heard of it. I know that’s weird since James Stewart is my favourite actor, but he was in so many movies, and I haven’t seen them all. But then, on May 16, I published a picture of Margaret Sullavan (Stewart’s co-star in Borzage picture) and someone mentioned in the comments that according to her, The Mortal Storm was her best film. Moreover, someone else added that the film also starred James Stewart and Robert Young. As I love Stewart and I’m pretty fond of Robert Young as well, it instantly teased my curiosity. After doing a quick research, I also discovered that Robert Stack was in it (I haven’t seen many of his movies, but I like him in what I saw), and that it had a 100 % score on Rotten Tomatoes (ok, one must not always rely on that because film tastes are subjective, but it’s a good clue that it probably won’t be crap either). Add to that that I needed to see more Margaret Sullavan films, and I had many good reasons to sit and watch it. I was not disappointed. The film is hyper-sad, but as that person on my Facebook page wrote, it indeed “sticks with you”. 

The premise of The Mortal Storm is simple. Set in 1933 in a small university town in Germany, it depicts the rise of nazism in the country and how it shakes the life of the inhabitants of this usually peaceful and friendly place. The action revolves more particularly around the Roth family. Frank Morgan plays science professor Viktor Roth, a man of good values, well-appreciated by his students and his family. On his 60th birthday, he celebrates at home with his wife, Amelie (Irene Rich); his daughter, Freya (Margaret Sullavan); his son, Rudi (Gene Reynolds); his stepsons, Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich (William T. Orr), as well as two of his closest students, Martin (James Stewart) and Fritz (Robert Young) who is then engaged to Freya. As the little group happily celebrates, news comes on the radio that Adolf Hitler has now been elected Chancellor of Germany. That immediately brings excitement among most people present, aside from Freya, Professor Roth and Martin. Mrs Roth is in between, but her family’s and close ones’ wellness takes priority over German politics. While Fritz believes that Hitler will bring greatness to Germany, Martin is a pacifist who only sees the catastrophes this could lead to (he’s not wrong…). Freya is not particularly enthusiastic about the news either, and Professor Roth’s scientific work does not follow Hitler’s ideals. Little by little, those three are seen as enemies, and what was once a happy group is torn apart by their different perspectives on this new German era.

Martin lives on a farm outside the town close to the Austrian border with his mother, Hilda (Maria Ouspenskaya), and a young girl named Elsa (Bonita Granville). He is an intelligent and straightforward man but won’t hesitate to stick to his values and make it clear that Fritz’s aren’t in agreement with his, although it brings him a lot of problems. He doesn’t hesitate to help those oppressed by the new regime, although it constantly puts him in danger. Moreover, he’s in love with Freya, and the feeling is mutual. Although she’s engaged to Fritz, she eventually cancels the plan as she discovers they are too different.

The Mortal Storm was based on the 1937 novel of the same name by Phyllis Bottome. As she moved to Austrian in 1924 with her husband and then to Munich in 1930, she was in the front row to witness the rise of nazism and the shaping of Nazi Germany. It inspired the book, and although the film is apparently different enough, both artworks convey anti-nazi messages and make us understand how it was to be right in the middle of this situation.

If you compare it to a film about the rise of nazism like CABARET (Bob Fosse, 1972), where it is shown gradually and is seen as a setting rather than as the central piece of the story, The Mortal Storm puts things more in your face as the tension between the opposite parties is felt quite rapidly and not necessarily questioned. However, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its dose of nuances and doesn’t make us analyse what we see. For example, when I saw Fritz and Otto’s excitement after the news of Hitler becoming the new chancellor, my first thought was that they were probably not well-informed and easily impressionable young men. With people like Martin or Professor Roth in their close entourage, they certainly couldn’t have values that far apart from theirs. And I thought, surely they will come to reason eventually and face the reality of this catastrophic situation. Right?? Well, the rest of the film quickly proved me wrong. And that’s what it’s all about: politics tearing up families and friendships. It’s devastating.

The way the tensions between the opposite parties are expressed through the medium is efficient and marks you. On more than one occasion, it leads to scenes where the tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife. It is particularly the case in this scene where Martin goes to town with Freya and joins his friends (Fritz, Otto and Erich) in a pub where people sing German tunes and drink beer. At this point, he’s still not seen as the enemy and is still part of their social circle. However, there is a definite turning point. As they are greeted by Professor Werner (Thomas W. Ross), whom Martin will eventually help get out of Germany as the Nazi party does not exactly appreciate him, we immediately feel the elephant in the room. Fritz, Otto and Erich are far from pleased with his presence. However, everybody stays pretty polite, but man! You certainly anticipate where this will go. At some point, a Nazi officer decides to lead the songs and invites the room to sin a Nazi-patriotic song, which he describes as “A glorious song of a new Germany”. Most people get up and sing along while doing the nazi salute. Freya gets up with them reluctantly and discreetly orders Martin to do the same. The idea is mostly to keep up with appearances rather than creating a situation with the rest of the people. Still, they refuse to do the nazi salute. Fritz notices, and we understand he’s boiling inside. As the song is sung, Martin and Freya stand straight, sometimes looking at the floor, sometimes around them and at each other, with that facial expression showing that they’d rather be anywhere else. The moment is just a few minutes long but seems to last forever as pressure is strongly felt. Then, it becomes clear that Fritz and Martin’s friendship is a thing of the past. It’s a turning point in the film and truly one of the best scenes.

James Stewart starred in some great films in the 40s. He even won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (George Cukor, 1940). At the time, the USA was still not involved in the Second World War (that happened after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941) and little would we know James Stewart would be seriously involved. We didn’t see him in movies from 1941 to 1946 as he enlisted in the American army in 1941 to fight in the war. Although Stewart was then becoming a major Hollywood star and was definitely at the top of his game, his family’s military background and patriotic values took priority over the life of fame and glamour. He chose the army path for a while instead of the acting one. Sadly, he returned to Hollywood with his share of traumas but re-started his acting career in force with Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), which he considered his favourite film. Although it then received mixed reviews, it is regarded as a true classic today. It is interesting to compare James Stewart to his character in The Mortal Storm. On one side, although Stewart was ready to fight for his country during the war, Martin is a pacifist who’d rather do his thing on his farm and not get brainwashed like Otto or Fritz. However, as mentioned before, he believes in helping others and doesn’t hesitate to do what is needed and what he believes is right and follows his values. Although I don’t think anyone enjoys the idea of a war going on, and I’m far from being the kind of person who will encourage people to go to the front (not in my values, sorry), I see James Stewart’s joining the troops as his way of defending his values and believing in the importance of doing so just like it is the case for Martin. On another side, it might sound far-fetched, but there’s a way to compare Martin and Fritz’s friendship with the real-life friendship of James Stewart and Henry Fonda. Although Martin and Fritz, but especially Fritz, can’t overlook their political beliefs and, therefore, become enemies, it is interesting to know that despite the fact James Stewart was a strong conservative and supporter of the Republican party, and Henry Fonda was a liberal democrat, they agreed never to discuss politics, and that’s how they managed to develop a friendship that lasted about 50 years. In the film, you can see that Martin is the one who could tend to do the same as Fonda and Stewart, but, unfortunately, Fritz prioritises politics over friendship. It makes you think.

Aside from all the lessons the film brings you, one of his strongest points is undeniably the chemistry between James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. As I watched the film, I thought, “I want a romance that feels like this one!” (well, maybe in a different context). You feel the deep connection between the two characters, and seeing them together brings a ray of light in the darkness. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan had appeared previously together in NEXT TIME WE LOVE (Edward H. Griffith, 1936), THE SHOPWORN ANGEL (H. C. Potter, 1938) and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940) and were close friends. So, they were indeed not strangers to each other. They interact with a lot of sensibility, make us travel through various emotions and make everything feel very authentic

Robert Young, who was not as big a star as James Stewart, maybe doesn’t leave the same impression. However, he has his moments of acting glory. One of them is when Freya comes to see him seeking his help. Her father is now in prison, but she doesn’t know where. She goes to Fritz to beg him for some information. They’re then not engaged anymore, and he’s a member of the nazi party. During their meeting, he’s cold, barely looks at her and refuses to give her the information. However, as she leaves, he stops her, and his attitude completely changes. With concerns and worries on his face, he tells her that what she’s asking for is dangerous, but he’ll try to do his best. You can feel he’s scared someone might hear him and that it could put him in a difficult situation. For a few seconds, he’s back to his human self to help an old friend. Still, as another Nazi officer enters the room, he returns to his cold attitude to avoid any suspicion. Young very effectively does those quick changes of emotions and gives us a lot of information on the character’s true nature. He obviously still has feelings for Freya and is torn between his present and past life.

Although The Mortal Storm is an excellent film, my only problem is that I always find it weird when Americans play European characters. Well, mostly because they speak English, and surely Germans would speak German and French people would speak French (at least among them). However, I can overlook that aspect as there are some genuinely great films where Americans play Europeans if you think, not only of The Mortal Storm but also ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Lewis Milestone, 1930), TO BE OR NOT TO BE (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942) or PATHS OF GLORY (Stanley Kubrick, 1957) – all anti-war films. However, for a classic Hollywood film, I appreciated that they didn’t decide to be cliché and go with a happy ending. Of course, I would have preferred for things to go well, but I think the way it ends is more realistic and more in agreement with what would follow the rise of nazism. Because, yes, spoiler alert, it doesn’t end well. However, despite that, the film ends with a very light touch of hope when you feel that some of the characters might have had a wake-up call and finally see things clearly and differently. I’m particularly thinking of Otto. Sadly, it takes a tragedy for this to happen.

After watching the film, I felt weird and thought a lot about it and how devastating it was. It’s not a picture that leaves you indifferent, and it provokes all sorts of thoughts. I highly recommend seeing it to learn more about a hard reality that happened decades ago but that could be compared to present situations. However, I don’t recommend following my example and watching it before sleeping. It might make you overthink too much and be there, sad, in your bed.

Anyway, I hope you give it a try one day and appreciate it. If you already saw it, I would love to know your thoughts on it!

See you!