The Mortal Storm

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 1, 2015

What’s with this “non-Aryan” stuff? The word is “Jew”! Speaking of which, this film is usually criticized for its naiveté and insufficiency. That’s fair, as long as that criticism considers the conventions and restrictions and the reality of the times. What else were they going to say, or do? It’s a Nanook-like situation; limitations diminish in proportion and importance when you compare it with what everyone else (in Hollywood, that is) was thinking or saying. More than that, limitations diminish because there are so many other fine things happening.

The bookends (is that Raymond Massey?) are over-emphatic, as in, for instance The Great Dictator or Foreign Correspondent. It’s an emblem of the times, and of American isolationism, and maybe even Pare Lorentz. We could knock it, or observe that it’s a historical reality with its roots and reasons. Observing and understanding are way better than complaining (if less fun). The opening Alps-y idyll is obviously there to provide some calm before the titular storm, as well as a contrast with the impending, brutal regime. It performs that function, but it’s also directed by Frank Borzage. So, beautiful! Such sweetness, delicacy, depth of feeling. I always say that, don’t I? Well!

The unraveling is very well charted and executed. It’s dramatically effective, in that it arouses our interest and sympathy and anger. It’s also pretty effective conceptually, and even politically. These are actual details and characteristics of fascist or mobocratic or, let’s face it, extremely conservative method and policy. That is to say that The Mortal Storm is not at all mere melodrama. (Cf. the treatment of the Robert Young and Robert Stack characters.) And though the film may be a bit wan when compared to what was actually happening in Europe, the violence and cruelty still register plentifully, such that it actually borders on being a horror film.

The horror registers because the horrific is so affectingly countered by the characters and interactions that express and affirm the values of civilization. Tolerance, kindness, all manner of decencies, and courage most especially. The people who stand up do so plausibly, with uncertainty and self-doubt, with fear and trembling. But they stand up. Consider, for instance, the tremendous beer hall sequence. The Frank Morgan character, and Frank Morgan! In a way, compared to Treblinka, the film’s version of a concentration camp is ridiculous. On the other hand, as a reduced, stylized equivalency, it is quite fearsome and pitiable.

The James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Maria Ouspenskaya characters, the performances by James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Maria Ouspenskaya, are just really tremendous. There’s an ad hoc marriage that is Borzage-luminous, a quality that is multiplied in light of the titular, figurative storm that rages just outside. This is the guy who made A Farewell to Arms. There’s a topical (1940) enhancement, but the resonance is actually more mythical. It’s his great theme, of the saving power of committed, covenant relations between men and women. And then they kill her, and she dies in his arms. This isn’t a great movie, in the usual sense, but this development really is a lot like King Lear, Act IV, followed by King Lear, Act V. (We mostly have process shots, but there are a few really cool skiing bits. The mountain pass intercutting is really effective.) Howl! Naive or not, the treatment of this subject, by these collaborators, had to have been profoundly affecting for contemporary audiences.

The epilogue with the brothers!