Watching With Warner: ESCAPE (1940)

In the mountains of Bavaria a woman lies in a bed, a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.  She and her roommate are kept by a surly nurse, who seems less concerned with their actual health, and more with their ability to walk come Saturday.  When the roommate begins to hack and cough, the nurse calls for the doctor.  Doctor Ditten (Phillip Dorn) enters and sends the roommate out for treatment.  He now turns to the other woman, a German-born actress named Emmy Ritter (Nazimova).  Ditten recognizes her from her days on the stage, and it is implied that he has gone above and beyond in her treatments in an effort to keep her alive.  This seems to be a cruel irony because Emmy has been sentenced to death and her execution is to take place on Saturday.  Ditten takes pity on the poor woman and offers to let her write a letter to her son, however he will not be able to deliver the letter until after the execution.  Convicted as a traitor for harboring refugees, Emmy is surprised at this offer of kindness and gladly accepts.

Unbeknownst to both of them, Emmy’s son Mark Preysing (Robert Taylor) has arrived in the country looking for any information on his mother’s whereabouts.  He is stymied however, when everyone he talks to gives him the same response.  No one will talk about what has happened to his mother and instead recommend that he go back to America as quickly as possible.  Mark is relentless and goes the police commissioner to find out what he can about his mother.  It is here that he finally learns what charges have been brought against his mother and he pleads with the commissioner to see sense.  His mother is a kind woman who has no traitorous inclinations at all, she must have been confused and certainly didn’t mean anything treasonous!  The commissioner won’t listen and is only interested in learning who told Mark that his mother was being held at all.  Mark won’t reveal his source and is told to return next Friday.

Mark now travels to a small Bavarian town in search of an old servant of his mother’s, a man named Fritz Keller (Felix Bressart).  When he finally finds him however, Fritz claims not to know him and brushes him aside.  Dejected, Mark wanders down to a frozen lake where several young women are skating.  They call to a nearby woman who they call “Countess”.  The Countess Ruby (Norma Shearer) soon falls into conversation with Mark and reveals that she is also American.  Having moved to the country over ten years ago, she stayed on after her husband died and now runs a finishing school out of her home.  Ruby is sympathetic to Mark’s situation but has no information to give him, though she promises to get in touch with him if she finds anything out.

Ruby has indiscretions of her own and is the mistress of a high-powered Nazi general, Kurt Von Kolb (Conrad Veidt).  Kurt and Ruby have known each other for many years and became involved soon after Ruby’s husband died.  Kurt suffers from a heart condition and so must avoid excitement.  So when Ruby broaches the topic of Emmy Ritter, she does so subtly.  Kurt reveals that Emmy is being held in a camp not far from the village and will be executed on Saturday.  The next day Ruby heads into town with her girls to see a military parade.  Feigning a headache, she slips off into Mark’s hotel.  Once there, however, she loses her nerve and cannot bring herself to tell him what she has found.  Mark, for his part, has begun to fall in love with Ruby but once he finds out that she is involved with Kurt he pulls away.  Later that night, Kurt mentions to Ruby that she was seen talking with Mark.  He warns that if Mark continues poking around there will be consequences, regardless of whether he is an American or not.

Ruby asks Mark to meet her that night at a concert and he reluctantly agrees.  Once there, Ruby warns him that he must leave Bavaria as soon as possible.  Mark is enraged at what he takes as callousness on her part and lashes out at her.  At this point the concert lets out and the pair find themselves in the lobby surrounded by people.  Ruby sees several people she knows, including Doctor Ditten.  She soon leaves with a group of friends, leaving Mark and Ditten to share an umbrella.  The two men decide to go and get a drink at a local pub.  It is here that Ditten reveals his party affiliations, and asks Mark to send him some American medical journals.  Mark agrees and the two men exchange addresses, and names.  Ditten is shocked to learn that he is drinking with the son of Emmy Ritter and produces the letter written for him.  He finally tells Mark the truth of his mother’s situation and that there is nothing to be done.  He also advises Mark to leave, something he refuses to do.  Ditten leaves but invites Mark to his apartment the following evening.  Mark returns to his hotel and finds Fritz waiting for him.  He admits that he was afraid to be seen talking to Mark but offers to help bury Emmy properly after the execution.

The next day, Emmy suffers what appears to be a fatal heart attack.  Ditten pronounces her dead and signs her certificate.  That night Mark comes to Ditten’s apartment where, after dismissing his maid for the evening, Ditten reveals that Emmy is not truly dead.  She is in a coma after being administered a drug by Ditten.  Mark must now find a way to go and retrieve her body within the next three hours or Emmy will suffocate in the coffin.  He must also bring with him many blankets and coats to help warm her up.  Mark is at a loss but soon decides to call Fritz, telling him to that Emmy has died.  Fritz is instructed to collect Emmy and then meet Mark at a local pub.  However, when Mark arrives at the pub he finds that two Nazi officers are also stopping there and they have developed an interest in this American with his large bundle of blankets and coats.

I will admit that when I first started watching this film I found Robert Taylor’s character sort of annoying.  ESCAPE is based on a book and I am not sure how close to the source material the screenplay is, so I can’t say if this is how he is in the book.  The character of Mark comes off as a “typical American”, running around Bavaria demanding to know where his mother is.  He is confounded by the reluctance of the townspeople to help and their insistence that he return to America.  I found this a little irritating but then I was coming at it with the benefit of history on my side.  The important thing to realize is that the time when this book was written and when this film was made was a very crucial moment in history.  Hitler had been in power for almost seven years, World War II was happening but America was not yet involved, the full and terrible truth of the Nazi regime was not yet fully realized.  So if you look at it like that, the reaction of Mark to the people of Bavaria makes more sense.  He is the typical American in that he cannot conceive of a life where you are not free to question, to challenge, to investigate.  The very idea that there might be a place where people can be arrested and sentenced to die simply for helping those who wish to leave the country is so completely alien and foreign to him that he simply cannot accept or process it.

Ruby is a much more complex character, an American who has chosen to give up her citizenship in order to remain in a country that is not her own.  This country is now swept up on the Nazi tidal wave and yet she remains.  Not only that, but she has a lover who is a high-ranking Nazi official.  She seems to still believe that just because Kurt wears the uniform he remains pure of heart, rejecting the Nazi rhetoric.  That her adopted country, though now controlled by the Nazis, is not changed by the events surrounding it and remains the same place she fell in love with.  As time passes she begins to see that the Nazi poison has in fact taken hold of all that she once held dear, including Kurt.  She must then decide where her loyalties lie, whether it is with her adopted country and German lover or with her birthplace and Mark.

Kurt is a devious man.  I think that the fact that his heart is damaged (irony intended) has caused him to be far more underhanded than perhaps he once was.  Some of the comments he makes to Ruby, glancing blows at first and far more savage digs later, seem almost diabolical.  It is his way of keeping her off guard, keeping himself in control of the relationship.  Further, he is a complete convert to the Nazi ideology whatever Ruby might hope for.  By the end he has shown himself to be an enemy in every sense of the word.

As I noted before, this film was made at a strange moment in history.  People were aware that bad things were happening, that Hitler was trouble, and yet there was still this moment of peace when all the world was at war except America.  And so, this movie does not wish to disturb that peace.  For the entirety of the film no mention is ever made of Germany or Nazis.  It is rather “that country” and “political police”.  Even Hitler avoids much mention beyond a Nazi salute.  While the message is clear, that this is a dangerous regime and the world should be on watch for it, the political constraints of the time prevent it from being made obvious.  All in all ESCAPE is a good film and compelling story, one that is almost made more powerful for all the things that it doesn’t say as well as what it does.

Watching With Warner: THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (1944)

Another fantastic offering from the Warner Archive, and another installment in my month-long Warner watch-a-thon!  This time it is THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK, a truly wonderful film from the brilliant mind of Preston Sturges.  The miracle of this film just might be that he managed to get it past the censors because this is one of the most pre-code post-code movies I have seen!

Governor McGinty, played by Brian Donlevy, (an inside joke for you Preston Sturges fans) is in his office just before Christmas when he receives a frantic call from the editor of a newspaper in a little town called Morgan’s Creek.  He has a fantastical tale to relate to the governor, and when the governor finds out what the story is about he calls all his advisors and aides to his office immediately to hear the story.  The editor begins his tale…

The Morgan’s Creek newspapers are full of warnings about the dangers of young women and soldiers having a good time.  Beware the horror of the wartime marriage!  After reading this the town policeman, Officer Kockenlocker (William Demarest), decides that there is no way that his daughter is going out to the farewell dance for the soldiers that night!  His eldest daughter, Trudy (Betty Hutton), is devastated by his refusal but soon comes up with a plan.  She believes that it is her patriotic duty to go out and support the boys, so she enlists the help of her childhood friend Norville (Eddie Bracken).  Poor homely, stuttering, Norville is in love with Trudy but is unable to impress her by enlisting because of his blood pressure.  Trudy had already turned Norville down for a date earlier that morning, so he is beyond thrilled when she calls up and tells him that she changed her mind.  He is still thrilled when he picks her up and says good-bye to her father and younger sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn), and drives to the local movie theater.  He becomes decidedly less thrilled when Trudy reveals her true intentions and asks Norville to wait for her in the theater while she goes to the dance alone.  He finally agrees and even lets Trudy take his car, intending to stay at the theater until 1AM when the last picture is finished.  Trudy happily drives off and is soon having the time of her life at the dance.  However, just one farewell dance is not enough and Trudy goes to not one, not two, but three parties with the soldiers.  Dancing and drinking lemonade everything is going wonderfully until Trudy accidentally jitterbugs into a chandelier.  The next thing she knows it is 8AM and she has just arrived at the theater to get Norville, who keeps implying that she is drunk even though she never had a drink before in her life!  She cannot remember anything about the night before or where she has been, and poor Norville is forced to take the brunt of her father’s anger upon their late return.

It’s just lemonade! Isn’t it?

Later, while taking off her party clothes, Trudy is chatting with Emmy when all of a sudden she has a flash and remembers someone mentioning something about getting married.  The two sisters laugh off the thought until they look down at Trudy’s ring finger.  Desperate to remember who it was she married, Trudy tries to come up with a name but all she can get was that it had a Z in it…sort of like “Ratzkiwatzki”.  When Emmy suggests that they simply go and look up the license Trudy remembers that everyone used a fake name, making it impossible to find out the truth!  Things go from bad to worse when, sometime later, Trudy comes out of the doctor’s office with the news that she is pregnant.  Emmy and Trudy try to come up with a plan of what to do, even going to the local attorney to try to get the marriage deemed illegal.  Unfortunately, even though neither party used their real names and Trudy has no idea who her husband is the marriage is indeed legal.  Emmy now comes up with a new plan and it again involves Norville.  Even though up until now Trudy has resisted Norville’s advances, Emmy now tells her to encourage them as Norville is the perfect candidate to marry Trudy.  Initially resistant to the idea, after all it is bigamy isn’t it, Trudy finally agrees and invites Norville over for dinner.

After a lovely meal with the family, Emmy and her father go off to clear the dishes while Trudy and Norville go out on the front porch to talk.  Trudy hints to Norville that she is open to the idea of marrying him at last and Norville, devoted to Trudy since childhood, is stunned.  He eventually takes the hint and proposes, and then promptly falls off the front porch.  Touched by Norville’s kindness and goodness of heart, Trudy refuses to deceive him any further and tells him everything.  Shocked at first, Norville reiterates his desire to marry Trudy but she refuses.  Now Trudy has begun to see the real Norville and has fallen in love with him for real.  Because of her love, she will not marry him and make him a party to bigamy.  By this time, however, rumors have begun to swirl throughout the small town and these rumors soon make their way back to Trudy’s father.  Unaware of Trudy’s true situation, Officer Kockenlocker uses all of his fatherly talents (and his service revolver) to help convince Norville to propose.

Having recovered from his “talk” with his future father-in-law, Norville now has a flash of brilliance!  Marriage by proxy!  Or at least something like that.  In order for Trudy to get a divorce from Ratzkiwatzki she needs a marriage license with the right names on it.  Norville goes about gathering the needed supplies, ring, money, and military uniform (which appears to be from the time of the rough riders), and returns that evening to retrieve Trudy.  Under the guise of a normal date, the two make their way to the Honeymoon Hotel just about twenty-five miles outside of Morgan’s Creek.  Once there the two begin the ceremony of getting married but when the time comes to sign the license there is a problem.  Trudy has signed her rightful name and Norville has signed his, but has told the proprietor that his name is Ratzkiwatzki.  The man now believes that Norville has kidnapped Trudy and is marrying her against her will, and promptly draws a gun.  Calling to his wife to phone the police, Trudy and Norville are warned not to move.  Imagine the surprise of Emmy and her father when Norville and Trudy return from their date in the back of a squad car, escorted by a bevy of police.

Daughters!

This was a movie that I had heard mentioned several times but had never seen.  And yes, I will admit, I am late to the party but this is a fantastic film!  Watching this I was constantly amazed at the cleverness of the script and the acting in its ability to slip things by the censors.  No one ever mentions drinking alcohol, they talk about drinking lemonade.  The first time that Trudy actually says that she is going to have a baby isn’t until about three-quarters of the way into the film, prior to take it is all done with implications and knowing glances.  One of the extra features on the disc from Warner Archive is a short film about Preston Sturges and his circumventing of the Hayes Office when making this film.  Sturges never provided the censors with a completed script, giving them only a few pages at a time which prevented them from seeing some of the racier content in context.  He also played a good game of following the rules to the exact letter and no more.  For example when the censors suggested that a line be changed from “…people aren’t as dirty-minded as when you were a soldier…”, Sturges changed the line to “people aren’t as evil-minded as when you were a solider”.  See?  All fixed!  I think that is part of what makes this film so much fun, because it is an exercise by Sturges in thumbing his nose at the censors and having them thank him in return.  The fact that a film that talks about bigamy, drunken marriage, one night stands, pregnancy, divorce, abortion, and suicide can not only get by the Hayes office but be fun and funny as well speaks to the genius of its creator.  The genius of Preston Sturges is also the subject of a short film which is another bonus feature on the disc.  Speaking of the disc, the film itself looks gorgeous and is just as crisp and clean as you could hope for.  The Warner Archive has done a great job in remastering this film and putting out the disc!

Betty Hutton is hysterical and remarkably self-assured for being only twenty-two at the time this movie was made.  Rumor has it that she and Eddie Bracken were constantly trying to outdo one another when it came to the physical comedy in the film, which lead to some great moments.  In fact, Norville walking through the screen door was a complete ad-lib by Eddie Bracken.  Eddie Bracken was not an actor I was overly familiar with, but his portrayal of Norville certainly won me over.  He is really funny as the stuttering “boy-next-door” but he is more than just a fall guy.  I think that this film works so well because of the terrific cast.  Betty Hutton, Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, and Diana Lynn (who really steals the show as Emmy) are so great together that you can’t help but loving them and rooting for them.

This was also a film that poked fun at things that you weren’t allowed to make fun of in the movies like the army, the police force, and family life, I think it allowed audiences to see themselves in the story and even laugh at some parts of their own lives.  When this film first came out it was so popular that it was literally standing room only in theaters and no wonder.  They don’t make movies like this any more, but I really wish they did.

Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: HEROES FOR SALE (1933)

I have a thing for pre-code movies.  I find them incredibly interesting nuggets of life put to film, showing just what life was to the people living it.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the wittiness and subtlety that came along with the Hayes Production Code (a necessity in order to get the point across without alerting the censors) but there is something about pre-code movies that is compelling and just makes me want to dive in and watch!  It also doesn’t hurt that they are usually around an hour in length, which when you are trying to squeeze in some viewing time while your baby is napping (And I am!), is perfect.  And boy howdy do they pack a lot in to an hour!

About a month ago Turner Classic Movies (TCM) ran a spotlight on pre-code movies.  Every Friday for a month was filled with 24 hours of pre-code movies, which needless to say also filled my DVR.  As is the plight of most classic film fans with DVRs, you end up recording more movies than you can reasonably get to in a short amount of time.  Here I am, a bit after the fact, finally making my way through and it is from my DVR that I found my next film.  From 1933 and directed by William Wellman, it is HEROES FOR SALE and it is not only available on the first FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD collection from Turner Classic Movies but you can also watch it in high definition on Warner Archive Instant right now!

We start in the trenches of World War I.  An American soldier is receiving orders from his commanding officer for a secret mission.  Roger, played by Gordon Wescott, is told that he must take a group of men out of the trenches and into enemy territory with the purpose of capturing a German soldier.  It is basically a suicide mission and Roger knows it.  When the time comes to venture out Roger is paired with another soldier named Tom, played by Richard Barthelmess.  Roger and Tom make it across the battlefield to the German trenches while the rest of the group perishes.  At the critical moment Roger refuses to go any further, giving in to his fear and panic.  Tom goes ahead alone and captures a German soldier but, when he returns to Roger with his captive, he is hit in the back by an exploding shell.  He urges Roger to take the prisoner back to camp as he is done for.  Roger hesitates but does so when it appears that Tom is dead.  Back in the American camp, Roger is hailed as a hero for his bravery and cunning.  Out on the battlefield German soldiers come across Tom, who is not as dead as everyone thought he was.  Tom is taken back to the German camp and operated on.

Armistice Day comes and Tom is returned to America via an exchange of prisoners.  Before he leaves, the German doctor who has been caring for him gives Tom a box of morphine pills.  Tom, it seems, is in terrible and constant pain from the injuries to his back and the doctor tells him to take a pill whenever he feels that he can longer stand the pain.  On the ship back to America Tom runs in to Roger, who has been promoted and given many medals for his heroism.  Roger tells Tom that he never meant for it to happen this way but it is too far gone now.  He is ashamed but is fearful that Tom will tell their superiors the truth about that night among the trenches.  Tom says that he won’t but Roger still feels guilty and he gets Tom a job at his father’s bank.  However, Tom is not working out as an employee.  The pain in his back is terrible and so, his morphine habit has increased.  He can barely concentrate on his work and makes mistakes all the time.  Roger’s father wants to fire him but Roger keeps fighting to give Tom another chance.  One day, Tom is almost going crazy with pain and is waiting for his dealer to come through with more pills.  But the price of morphine has increased and Tom can’t pay.  Though tempted to steal from his employer, Tom ultimately goes to his doctor to plead for morphine.  Tom’s doctor refuses to give him morphine and actually reports Tom to authorities for drug addiction.  Tom is taken away and committed, leaving his elderly mother behind.

Almost two years later Tom is cured, but his mother has died, he has lost his job, and he is left with nothing.  In his search for a place to live, Tom travels to Chicago where he meets Mary (played by Aline MacMahon), a young woman who runs a small food counter with her father.  Mary and her father not only run a place for people to come, eat, and rest when they have nothing, but they also rent rooms.  Tom rents their last flat, living across the hall from Max (played by Robert Barrat), and the lovely Ruth (played by Loretta Young).  Max is an eccentric German inventor who is also “a Red” per Ruth.  Ruth is a sweet young woman who works as a local laundry.  Tom is smitten with Ruth immediately and also gets a job at the laundry as a driver.

Time passes and Tom is doing very well at the laundry.  When his boss finds out that Tom has come up with a system to actually increase his clientele, when other drivers are having their routes diminished, he promotes him.  Tom is now working as the second in command at the laundry and has enough money to marry Ruth.  Later on, Tom and Ruth are married and expecting their first child.  Max bursts in and tells Tom that he has invented a machine that will revolutionize the laundry industry, not only increasing productivity but decreasing the amount of time the employees need to work.  Tom agrees to take the idea to the factory workers, getting their support and monetary support before going to his boss.  The new machines are to be installed but with the condition that no workers will be fired from their current jobs.  The boss agrees, and also offers to buy out the employees for double what they initially paid for their share in the new machines.  Everything is going well, the machines are working, Tom and Ruth have a lovely son named Bill, and everyone is happy.  And then the boss of the laundry has a heart attack and dies.  Now the laundry is taken over by a large corporation, who do not honor the agreement entered into by the previous boss.  The majority of employees are fired and they blame Tom.  The Great Depression is beginning and these men and women have no job, no money, no food, and nothing to lose. In their fury a mob forms and heads off to the laundry to destroy the very machines that have taken their livelihood.  Tom, fearing that these people will be killed and knowing that this rioting will do nothing to help, hurries off to try to stop them.  Ruth meanwhile speeds towards the chaos, looking for her husband and fearing for his safety.  From there, tragedy ensues and Tom is swept up in it, persecution, the Red Squad, and the Great Depression.

This film doesn’t have a happy ending, but it has an ending.  I found this a truly fascinating film because it was made as the Great Depression was happening.  Everything that happened to Tom had really taken place only a few years before this film was made.  Interestingly, William Wellman used real hobos and laundry workers as extras in his scenes, perhaps to add authenticity or perhaps to give these people jobs when they were so desperately needed.  Loretta Young is quite luminous as the young bride, and Aline MacMahon is both funny and tragic as Mary.  Richard Barthelmess portrays Tom as a man trying to be honorable and true, in spite of his circumstances.  But he also allows Tom to have moments of anger, which I think is more realistic given Tom’s experiences as well as his painful war wounds both mental and physical.

While some people might think that this film is a product of its time, I think that it still has a place in modern society.  On the anniversary of the release of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES it is important to note that while World War II undoubtedly changed the lives of the men and women affected by it, World War I changed the world forever.  And just as THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES examined how men returning from war re-entered the ordinary world, HEROES FOR SALE does this as well with one difference.  Men returning from World War II found a world that, while different and strange, was prospering economically.  The men who returned from World War I soon found themselves faced with poverty and joblessness as the Great Depression took hold.  And here is where I think that this film still holds importance in today’s society.  In a time where we still talk about the plight of veterans, where we don’t have adequate health care systems for them, where many veterans are homeless or unemployed, can we really say that much has changed?