Based on a 1938 novel by British authoress Phyllis Bottom, The Mortal Storm was the first major American film to address Nazism in Germany head on. A powerful film with a top drawer cast, Storm was released in June 1940, a full year and a half before the United States' entry into the war. The story pulls no punches when dealing with the Fuhrer or the wave of political shift in Germany.
The film doesn't name the country of setting except at the very beginning in a short written prelude, which also lets us know that the date is January 1933. The camera pans in on an idyllic Bavarian city, with snow, mountains and warm lighting (think Heidi Goes to Town or Courier & Ives meets Thomas Kinkade). But amidst this beautiful Swiss Miss setting lies the Nazi movement on the verge of eruption. It is here that Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) lives peacefully and comfortably with his wife Amelie (Irene Rich), his college age daughter, Freya (Margaret Sullavan), his teenaged son Rudi (Gene Reynolds) and his step-sons, Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich (William T. Orr), young men both. Though the word "jew" is never used, it is made very clear throughout the film that Professor Roth is "non-Aryan", a term and state of being which eventually haunts the kind and popular university scholar.
When Hitler is named Chancellor of the state, the Roth family becomes torn in its loyalties. Otto and Erich, excited and enthusiastic about the new political climate become members of the Hitler Youth. Freya becomes engaged to Fritz (Robert Young), who is also gung-ho for the new order, but as his loyalties become dangerous and unyielding, the fair fraulein begins to see more of longtime friend Martin (James Stewart), a pacifist farmer. Tensions are high all around and political lines are drawn in the sand between family members and friends. Freya and Martin find they have fallen in love just as the world they live in has decided to pull them apart. Martin is forced to take refuge in neighboring Austria after he helps a Nazi battered comrade escape from their homeland. Professor Roth is taken to a concentration camp when he refuses to dispel scientific facts about race and bloodlines that aren't in keeping with the new regime. Mrs. Roth, Freya and young Rudi seek safety in Austria with Martin when Freya is detained at the border when a politically questionable manuscript written by her father is found in her luggage. Martin risks life and limb to go back for Freya and....whew, I'll stop there.
The cast of The Mortal Storm is superb, though Stewart is much too apple pie American to convincingly portray the German farmer, Martin. However, he brings such compassion and dignity to the character, that his lack of nationality can be overlooked. He and real life friend Margaret Sullavan complement each other beautifully, Sullavan actually coming across very effectively as the intelligent and educated Bavarian, Freya. This was the couple's fourth and final film together. In one of his very early parts, Robert Stack does a fine job as the zealous Otto. Future film song and dance man, Dan Dailey (billed here as Dan Dailey, Jr.) makes his movie debut as the nasty, smirking Youth Party leader who wreaks havoc on anyone without a heil in his Hitler! Bonita Granville, Maria Ouspenskaya and Ward Bond all give excellent support in their roles. Finally, in what is arguably his best dramatic role is Frank Morgan as Professor Roth. Best known as The Wizard/Professor Marvel in the previous year's The Wizard of Oz, Morgan gives a poignant and sensitive performance as the good hearted, fair minded educator. His range from cheery optimism in early scenes to careworn concern in his concentration camp episode is marvelous.
Though MGM made the effort by not naming "jews" in its film or not constantly repeating the name of the country in question per se, its status of neutrality was shattered. Angered by the "propaganda" the film put forth, Germany banned all MGM productions from its theaters for the duration. The Mortal Storm is a strong film both artistically and emotionally particularly since its influence came before an official American involvement in World War II.