#137. The Mortal Storm (1940)

Maybe I just wasn’t paying close attention but it wasn’t until about fifteen minutes into the movie that I realized this takes place in Germany, and that the bad guys are Nazis. MAkes sense, given the release date, but the actors all seem pretty American. they aren’t even trying on the accent.

The Mortal Storm is the story of a celebrated professor (Frank Morgan) who at first is beloved and celebrated by the community and then shows up to work one day to find himself reviled by students who’ve fallen for state propaganda and now see him as a subversive tyrant. The accusation is galvanizing since we see him depicted as like the most virtuous guy in the world. Almost a caricature of the compassionate paternal sage. The professor is arrested shortly thereafter. His daughter, Freya (Margaret Sullivan) falls for a dashing young dude named Martin (James Stewart) and together they try fleeing the country as Nazis take over.

That last paragraph is basically the Wikipedia summary, which I’m consulting a few weeks after watching the movie because I remember virtually none of it save for the tedium, and how disoriented I was by realizing so belatedly that it was set in Germany.

The movie’s tedium is a double bummer because, having had such a hard time finding the DVD, I was thinking that if it turned out to be a masterpiece I would have been the owner of a rare and precious thing. Mortal Storm joins the ranks of The Crowd, Angels with Dirty Faces, Make Way for Tomorrow, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, It’s a Gift and a few others on teh List that proved unavailable through streaming services and so needed to be hunted down in hard copy. It arrived in a DVD package that sports some original poster art for the film enclosed in blue trim, the Warner Bros logo at the top of the case, and a few words on the back. The DVD has no special features. The main menu is blank.

I think this is what comes your way if you get in touch with WB and ask them to print you an otherwise unavailable movie from their archive. I’ve never done it directly (found this one pre-owned on eBay) but if this is the final product I guess it’s a service worth recommending.

So anyway. This, like the bootleg DVD of The Crowd that I needed to get shipped overseas, feels like a special kind of artifact for the Project. But I didn’t get much out of it except, in its perpetual gloom and (somewhat justified) fear mongering, an idea of how I prefer my propaganda.

As we get chummier with wartime Hollywood I should take this moment to say that i’m not using the word “propaganda” in a negative way. It’s basically just storytellling with an agenda, usually something political. Seeing as just about every American was on intimate terms with a soldier in battle, it makes sense that, unlike the Great Depresson, where times were desparate but you had your loved ones beside you, audiences of the 1940s weren’t necessarily going to the movies for Busby Berkley to distract them from their woes. I’m getting a vibe like the nation’s mood was a little too brooding to want some sort of spectacle. There was nothing that could distract you from the absent father, brother, son. Sems like movies of the era were a little more concerned with communication and introspection than thrills.

Makes sense that, rahter than enduring some hopeless effort at distraction, Americans wanted to go to the movies to have somebody talk to them constructively about what was going on with the war. Wanted to talk about the consequences and motives. Contextualize it. I mentioned in the Wuthering Heights post how I’ve been feeling self-conscious lately about my susceptibility to the charms of motivational speakers. But by watching movies from the early ’40s I’m coming to terms with the reality that it’s totally human to crave reassurance. And if my brother was on the frontlines of an international war I think I’d take a good bit of solace in being able to go to the movies and have James Cagney or Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart perform with earnestness and humility to remind me that we’re all embarking on this nightmare for a good cause.

Anyway. It seems that Hollywood’s wartime propaganda was divided into two camps: movies that focus on celebrating the American cause, maybe a bit jingoistic, and then there’s propaganda that’s predicated on fear.

Mortal Storm is definitely the latter.

Normally in Thousand Movie Project essays I’ll bracket and render in bold the passages that I add late in the editing process that reflect a more seasoned perspective. Like I’ll be editing the movie while I’m fifteen or thirty titles beyond it and now I’m seeing it in a new light. I won’t do that here cuz it’d be obnoxious to have a few whole grafs bulked up that way. The truth is that I’ve struggled with writing about this movie because, frankly, it was boring as hell and I couldn’t get into it. It’s one of the few movies from the List that’s felt like a chore to watch.

But here I am, a couple months later, finally returning to the postponed task of jotting down some thoughts about it (guess I thought I’d force myself to watch it again at some point, but that’s not gonna happen) and I’m considering how it felt within the context of wartime propaganda that came out afterward (and that the List features) and noticing why it might be worthy of note, why it might deserve its place on the List. Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandee — these are all propaganda movies on the List that were all about lifting the audience’s spirits.

Mortal Storm, however, tries to feed the audience’s need for contextualization of the war not by championing the Allies’ heroics but, instead, showing us how monstrous enemy was.

Such depictions would seem to go a heartening way toward contextualizing and championing the audience’s cause. Implicit in Jimmy Stewart’s leading a movie full of tragedy, rendered by the hands of our mutual enemy, is I guess — in theory — just as galvanizing as a portrait of American moxie and heroics. Poses an interesting question, though, of the line between art and propaganda. Wartime cinema should be a good platform for hacking that out.

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