Innsbruck, Austria is a mountainous, yet feasible cross country ski trek from the German village where Frank Borzage’s Mortal Storm (1940) is set in.
Here Viktor Roth, on his 60th birthday, is about to be honoured by the university he lectures at for achievements in science, except he doesn’t know that yet. Anyway, he’s a jolly good fellow, dignified and old, as Jonathan Richman might say. We meet his family at breakfast. Two energetic young boys (one played by a 21 year-old Robert Stack) bound into his room and wish him a happy birthday in a sing-song fashion.
A tender moment between them is shared. Viktor tells them they mean as much to him as his own flesh and blood. The boys turn around and say we don’t think of you as our Stepfather. Victor gets choked up, and so do you (and it’s not like you are the bastard son of anyone or anything).
The Father and his Sons do look nothing alike. The Dad is hard-lined and severe, while the boys are perfect Nordic blondes and blue-eyed. We also meet his stepdaughter — the great Margaret Sullavan. Her gift to him is a cashmere scarf that she ties around his neck as he heads out the door.
His lecture turns out to be a surprise party. A German song is sung. Two students approach the lectern and say a few kind words. They are played by Jimmy Stewart and Robert Young. A gift is presented. The audience, made up of students, peers, and his family, who are located in the balcony of the lecture hall — applaud with collective vigour.
Evening comes and we’re back at the Roth’s for a family dinner. Jimmy Stewart is also here. Cut to the servery where Robert Young is stealing a kiss from Margaret as she adds candles to the birthday cake. He threatens to announce their engagement and she appears to be in two minds about it, but ultimately feels it would be hard to resist (also to be in two minds about it: Jimmy Stewart). Cake arrives and Dad makes a fine speech about good humour, tolerance and other virtues that underpin their family and reinforce their position as a well-refined and progressive unit.
Robert Young proceeds to steal some of Dad’s thunder by announcing his engagement to Margaret Sullaven, while they both get upstaged by Adolf Hitler whose ascendancy comes over a radio news bulletin. Allegiances are quickly established. Young and the two Aryan-looking sons are thrilled with the country’s new direction and keen to make Germany a force by any means necessary.
In opposition are the Dad, Jimmy Stewart and, you could say, Margaret. Not that they are pacifists so much, just free thinkers. After all the Dad is a bloody scientist who can prove that blood doesn’t mean shit! You can imagine what happens. The poison of the Third Reich’s doctrine, led by sweaty, scar-faced and hideous Nazies, begins to spread. Even the most functional families get torn apart. Absolutely harrowing.
This was the second masterpiece of 1940 starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. Ernst Lubitsch’s Shop around the Corner was the first, a charming romantic comedy about small business capitalism (also starring Viktor Roth).
Not surprisingly Germany banned the importation of MGM products upon the release of this, a masterful film whose shadow looms large (two great recent flicks: The Lives of Others and Inglorious Basterds are hugely indebted to it). I love Margaret Sullavan. She is great. She went deaf in her late forties and no longer could act and then committed suicide.