Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): A Quick One - The Mortal Storm

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Quick One - The Mortal Storm

[As December, and with it 2008, comes to a close, let me take a moment to look back on several recently viewed (but undiscussed) movies. Each "Quick One" will be a paragraph, with the open invitation for you to keep the discussion going by leaving comments.]

"Message" movies are usually looked down upon, and often with some justification. But there are different sorts of movies, which deliver different sorts of messages. There are some which are cloaked in an overbearing sense of self-righteousness, a complacency borne of "being in the right." And then there are others, like The Mortal Storm, which may be somewhat naive in their good-heartedness, but which move you, in part because of that very naivitee. Fashioned with quietly poetic grace by Frank Borzage in 1940, but set in 1933, The Mortal Storm is anti-Nazi at a time when many elements in America were flirting with unscrupulous neutrality. More importantly, it does not show the rise of Nazism in the halls of power, or amongst diverse groups in an urban environment, but in a small mountain town, within a single family. It allows us to soak in this warm domestic environment, slowly, before the pall of fascism has fallen over this town and this way of life. The film exudes a quiet, noble desperation rather than a florid, chest-thumping heroism and it ends up exhibiting a painful sorrow. Its primary flaw is that it does not identify its protagonists as Jewish - though this fact is so apparent, perhaps one could argue that the dialogue's denial only adds an extra shade of poignancy. Although I didn't notice it, the country in the movie is never once referred to as Germany. The conceit is completely absurd, as the country in the movie is demonstrably Germany.* The film cannot be pegged as an allegory when the swastika is featured prominently, and the name "Hitler" is unmistakably invoked. James Stewart is good in what could potentially be a one-dimensional, thankless role (the good farm boy who never buys into Nazism). But the real star of the picture is Margaret Sullavan. Before seeing this film, I didn't really "get" her appeal. That's now changed. Her wounded, luminous expressiveness adds another shade of poignancy to that already invoked by the sweetly, sadly good-hearted screenplay and a tragedy-tinged performance by Frank Morgan as her befuddled father, a kind of tragic twin to his beloved Professor Marvell.

*This is incorrect - the country is referred to as Germany several times.

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