The Mortal StormThe Mortal Storm (1940 USA 100 mins)

Prod Co: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Prod: Victor Saville Dir: Frank Borzage Scr: Claudine West, Hans Rameau (as Andersen Ellis), George Froeschel, from the 1938 novel, The Mortal Storm, by Phyllis Bottome Phot: William Daniels Ed: Elmo Veron Art Dir: Cedric Gibbons Mus: Bronislau Kaper, Eugene Zador (collectively as Edward Kane)

Cast: Margaret Sullivan, James Stewart, Robert Young, Frank Morgan, Robert Stack, Bonita Granville, Irene Rich, William T. Orr, Maria Ouspenskaya

Falling between the conventional choices for Hollywood’s greatest year (1939) and its greatest film (Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, 1941), 1940 was much more than an interim between the studio system’s Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) apogee and the first appearance of Welles in Gregg Toland’s deep focus. Indeed, were one to disentangle the notion of the greatest from that of the biggest, 1939’s sequel immediately presents itself as a challenge to the earlier year’s supremacy. 1940, after all, marked Alfred Hitchcock’s arrival in Hollywood with one of the greatest “Best Motion Picture” winners, Rebecca, and a second, deserving nominee, the topical, espionage-themed Foreign Correspondent; Charles Chaplin made his full sound film debut with the estimable, anti-Hitler comic tract, The Great Dictator; Howard Hawks attained an unprecedented comic speed with His Girl Friday’s over-lapping dialogue, delivered with exceptional aplomb by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell; George Cukor, in one of his best films, The Philadelphia Story, teamed Grant with former co-lead Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart in a work that would earn him his only “Best Actor” Oscar; Stewart likewise co-starred with Margaret Sullavan in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, which, for this author, remains superior to anything made in Hollywood during the previous or the following twelve months; Lubitsch’s former employer Paramount released Mitchell Leisen’s underappreciated, melodramatic masterwork, Remember the Night, penned by Preston Sturges, whose first two directorial features, The Great McGinty and Christmas in July, were also released by the studio later that same year; John Ford made the first of two consecutive “Best Director”-winning pictures, The Grapes of Wrath, which though arguably minor by the director’s standards, was major by all others; and, finally, Disney premiered perhaps the greatest of all its features, Pinocchio (Ben Sharpsteen).

1940 also brought three releases by two-time Oscar-winning director Frank Borzage: Flight Command, Strange Cargo and, most significantly, The Mortal Storm. Released by MGM in June following the January debut of the studio’s aforementioned Sullavan-Stewart pairing, The Mortal Storm exemplifies its extraordinary year of release like no other film thanks to its synthetic combination of Stewart’s (growing) star-power and Hollywood’s festering anxiety over the Nazi threat, united within a melodramatic form and visual style that perfectly encapsulates the period’s common and conventional reliance on shallow depth-of-field and an “almost universal standard pattern of editing” (1). Indeed, regarding the film’s look, it is worth remembering that Borzage was among the pioneers of “soft style” cinematography, as seen in his superlative Lazybones (1925) and Seventh Heaven (1927), which “made all planes of the image somewhat hazy” (2). Though William Daniels’ cinematography for The Mortal Storm often defines its figures with harder edges, the visual signature of Borzage’s earlier work remains in the softness of many of the film’s backgrounds, which notably prevailed in 1940 even after Toland had begun his pioneering experiments in deep-focus cinematography. While the latter would permit Ford (The Long Voyage Home, also 1940), Welles and William Wyler to stage the shots in their collaborations with the cinematographer in depth, The Mortal Storm retains Hollywood’s earlier predilection for medium shot and medium close-up compositions; frequent mobilisations of the camera; and most notably, perhaps, shot/reverse-shot editing. Through his application of this standard form of classical decoupage, Borzage, much like Hawks, Lubitsch and Sturges, and unlike Ford, in particular, creates a work where dialogue is paramount – or in the case of The Mortal Storm, as in that of The Great Dictator, monologue.

Following an incipient voiceover where the human predilection to kill one’s fellow man is framed as a primitive act of appeasing “the gods of lightning” (3), The Mortal Storm opens in an exceedingly artificial, studio-bound German Alps village in late January 1933. It is Prof. Viktor Roth’s (Frank Morgan) sixtieth birthday, for which his family and later, his adoring students provide him with various tokens of their love and appreciation. Roth verbosely responds to their generosity, befitting a man of his academic standing – and providing the initial uses of the monologue form, which will shortly become more political in nature. Subsequently, two students at Roth’s university, Robert Young’s Fritz and Stewart’s Martin, join the tightly-knit family (including Sullavan as the Professor’s daughter Freya, the object of affection for both young men) for a celebratory dinner. The peace of the occasion, however, is quickly shattered by the announcement of Hitler’s election, which succeeds in dividing the dinner party according to the chancellor’s supporters (Fritz and Roth’s two Aryan stepsons) and his detractors (most fervently Roth, Martin and Freya). The “non-Aryan” Roth pleads with the young Hitler supporters to permit their intellectual differences, though he will soon feel the full force of the fascists’ denial of opposing opinions: Roth in fact will be imprisoned for refuting the National Socialist claim, before his suddenly hostile, swastika armband-sporting class, that Aryan blood is materially different to the non-Aryan variety.

Stewart’s Martin also resists the Nazis’ demand to conform, eventually being beaten in front of the Roth home, before involving himself in the rescue of one of the party’s targets (the aging Prof. Werner). After discovering thereafter that Freya has been refused entry into Austria where he awaits her arrival – due to her possession of a controversial manuscript of her father’s – Martin sneaks back across the Alps to save her. Before departing over the alpine slopes, Martin’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) asks that the couple drink from a family goblet bearing the names of generations of husbands and wives. She confides that she would prefer that the couple be married and blessed by the priest in the village church, but short of this, that they signal their bond according to the above family tradition. In this ersatz application of the sacrament of marriage, with Martin’s mother serving as the priest-figure, Borzage’s Catholic orientation comes to the fore, as it does likewise in servant Elsa’s (Bonita Granville) prayer for courage to an upstairs shrine, and indeed in the central place that family assumes in film as a whole(compared to say that of the workplace in the Protestant Hawks’ cinema) (4). If Borzage diverges from Ford in the centrality of speech to his work, he certainly converges with the master in terms of their shared religious affiliation.

The newly married couple thereafter sets off on skis, for the second time in the film, as they seek to cross over into Austria. In this second, overhead-rendered action sequence, intercut with rear-projected close-ups of the pursued pair descending the slopes, Borzage’s picture arguably borders on a level of absurdity that is nevertheless mediated by the sequence’s total sincerity. The climatic, ski-bound chase ultimately emerges as a vehicle for the film’s ample melodrama, which is characteristically (for Borzage) attached to a transformative romantic love, and which considered alongside the opening voiceover and Prof. Roth’s didactic monologues, moves the film into the realm of political advocacy. The Mortal Storm, like The Great Dictator’s direct-address conclusion, provides not only a direct refutation of Nazism, but also a call for American action – in advance of Washington.

The Mortal Storm relies on this direct register at every point except its closing passage. Here, in comparison to Chaplin’s static take with the actor-director voicing his monologue directly to the camera, Borzage’s camera quickly leaves its human subjects for the shadows of the darkened Roth home – and the voices of the now deceased members of the family. Anticipating the low-key aesthetic of film noir and the director’s outstanding late-career work, Moonrise (1948), Borzage and Daniels’ camera pans, tilts and tracks through the otherwise depopulated space before moving outdoors where a snowfall eliminates a set of footprints. Borzage thus brings his didactic, anti-fascist narrative to a lyrical, analogical close, reaffirming the film’s melodramatic story arc through a pure visual poetry more attuned to the decade to come.

Endnotes

  1. André Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. 1, trans. and ed. Hugh Gray, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005, p. 31.
  2. David Bordwell, On the History of Film Style, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1997, p. 204.
  3. Among Borzage’s many credits prior to The Mortal Storm’s release were the similarly German-set, anti-fascist Little Man, What Now? (1934) and Three Comrades (1938). In other words, The Mortal Storm did not present a new subject for the director, but the immediacy of its presentation was.
  4. See María Elena de las Carreras Kuntz, “The Catholic Vision in Hollywood: Ford, Capra, Borzage and Hitchcock”, Film History vol. 14, no. 2, 2002, pp. 121-135.

About The Author

Michael J. Anderson is a joint PhD candidate in Film Studies and the History of Art at Yale University, where he is doing his dissertation on the early films of Howard Hawks. In the past, he has written Cinémathèque Annotations on Hawks’ Tiger Shark and Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm. He is also the proprietor of the film weblogs Tativille and Ten Best Films.