The Mortal Storm

The Mortal Storm is a 1940 drama film from MGM[1][2] directed by Frank Borzage and starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. It shows the impact upon Germany’s people in general and upon one family, the Roths, in particular, after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany (on January 30, 1933) and he and his fascist followers gain unlimited power. The supporting cast features Robert Young, Robert Stack, Frank Morgan, Dan Dailey, Ward Bond and Maria Ouspenskaya.

The Mortal Storm
Directed byFrank Borzage
Produced byFrank Borzage
Victor Saville
Screenplay byClaudine West
Hans Rameau
George Froeschel
Based onThe Mortal Storm
(1937 novel)
by Phyllis Bottome
StarringMargaret Sullavan
James Stewart
Robert Young
Frank Morgan
Robert Stack
Music byBronislau Kaper
Eugene Zador
CinematographyWilliam H. Daniels
Lloyd Knechtel
Leonard Smith
Edited byElmo Veron
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • June 14, 1940 (1940-06-14)
Running time
100 minutes
CountryUnited States


In 1933, Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan) is a young German girl engaged to a Nazi party member (Robert Young). When she realizes the true nature of his political views she breaks the engagement and turns her attention to anti-Nazi Martin Breitner (James Stewart). Her father, Professor Roth (Frank Morgan), does not abide by the attitude of the new order towards scientific fact.

Though his stepsons Erich (William T. Orr) and Otto (Robert Stack) eagerly embrace the regime, Professor Roth's reluctance to conform leads at first to a boycott of his classes and eventually to his arrest and a sentence of forced physical labor. His wife is permitted a five-minute visit in which the professor urges her to take Freya and her younger brother and leave the country. He dies soon after.

Freya is kept from leaving by Nazi officials suspicious of her father's work. She reunites with Martin and together they attempt to escape through a mountain pass. A squad reluctantly led by her former fiancee gives chase and Freya is fatally wounded, dying in Martin's arms just after they cross the border. Later, Erich and Otto are informed of their sister's death. Erich responds with anger towards Martin. Otto, however, experiences an epiphany, and flees their once-happy home, rejecting the Nazis and their cruel doctrine.


Production background

The film is based on the 1937 novel The Mortal Storm by the British writer Phyllis Bottome. Bottome moved to Austria in 1924 when her husband, Alban Ernan Forbes Dennis, was posted there. Dennis was a British diplomat and (secretly) MI6 Head of Station with responsibility for Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia. In the 1930, she moved to Munich. She was a witness to the rise of fascism, the rise to power of the Nazi party, and the transformation of Nazi Germany. A Woman Out of Time, a 2007 article by Andrea Crawford, available on Tablet, provides an intriguing glimpse into her life and the creation of the book.

On Bottome’s reaction to the film, Crawford wrote: “Bottome believed that the film ‘brilliantly retained’ the ‘core and spirit’ of her novel. Nevertheless, its storyline was a considerable departure... But Bottome’s only disappointment with the film was this: ‘What it is to be a Nazi has been shown with unequivocal sincerity and life-likeness, but in the scene between the Jewish professor and his son, Rudi, there was a watering down of courage. Those familiar with the father’s definition of a good Jew will miss its full significance in the film because the central idea has been overlaid by insignificant words,’ she wrote in an article when the film came out.”[3]

The Mortal Storm was one of the few directly anti-Nazi Hollywood films released before the American entry into World War II in December 1941. The film stars James Stewart as a German who refuses to join the rest of his small Bavarian town in supporting Nazism. He falls in love with Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan), the daughter of a Junker mother and a "non-Aryan" father. The Mortal Storm was the last movie Sullavan and Stewart made together.

It is implied that Freya and her father are Jews, but the word "Jew" is never used, and they are identified as "non-Aryans"; in addition, Freya's half brothers are all members of the Nazi Party. Though it is understood that the film is set in Germany, the name of the country is rarely mentioned except at the very beginning in a short text of introduction. MGM purposely did not mention the name of the country or the religion of Freya's family because of the large German market for its films, but it was to no avail—the movie infuriated the Nazi government and it led to all MGM films being banned in Germany.

The supporting cast features Robert Young (a major romantic lead in many Hollywood films and later Jim Anderson on television's Father Knows Best, and the title role in Marcus Welby, MD), Robert Stack (The Untouchables, 1959–63), Frank Morgan (Professor Marvel and the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz the previous year), Dan Dailey, Ward Bond (John Wayne's co-star in 23 films, one of director John Ford's favorite ensemble actors, and later the lead in the television series Wagon Train), Maria Ouspenskaya, William T. Orr, and Bonita Granville, who was the first actress to play Nancy Drew onscreen.

Mountain snow scenes were filmed at Salt Lake City, Utah, and Sun Valley, Idaho.[4]

The score by award-winning composer Bronislau Kaper and by Eugene Zador (who normally orchestrated) was not credited to them, but rather to a pseudonym, "Edward Kane".


Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "magnificently directed and acted ... a passionate drama, struck out of the deepest tragedy, which is comforting at this time only in its exposition of heroic stoicism."[5] Howard Barnes' review in the New York Herald Tribune pointed out the chief difficulty with the film: By the time it was released, all Europe was at war. "...Less than a year ago, it would have had far more dramatic and emotional impact than it has at this time....It is not MGM's fault, but the timing on the making of The Mortal Storm has been extremely bad."[6]

A review in Variety stated: "It is not the first of the anti-Nazi pictures, but it is the most effective film exposé to date of the totalitarian idea, a slugging indictment of the political and social theories advanced by Hitler. ... Performances are excellent."[1] Harrison's Reports wrote: "This is the most powerful anti-Nazi picture yet produced. It excels in every department - that of acting, direction, production and photography."[2] Film Daily wrote: "Because of its virulent exposition of Nazi methods, this film must be seen by every American ... Magnificently directed by Frank Borzage, pulsating with dramatic power, and played up to the hilt by a transcendingly skillful cast, it will electrify audiences wherever it is shown."[7] John Mosher of The New Yorker praised the film's story for being presented "without any theatrical nonsense" and added, "What is outstanding about Frank Borzage's direction is its restraint. The cruel story is told without any of the highlights of horror. We feel that what lies behind is worse than what we are shown."[8]

The Mortal Storm ranked tenth on Film Daily's year-end nationwide poll of 546 critics naming the best films of 1940.[9]

See also


  1. "The Mortal Storm". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. June 12, 1940. p. 14.
  2. Harrison's Reports film review; June 22, 1940, page 98.
  3. "A Woman Out of Time". Tablet Magazine. 2007-07-31. Retrieved 2019-10-25.
  4. "The Mortal Storm (1940) - Notes -". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 19 April 2016.
  5. Crowther, Bosley (June 21, 1940). "Movie Review - The Mortal Storm". The New York Times. Retrieved December 3, 2015.
  6. "The Mortal Storm (1940) - Articles -". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2019-10-25.
  7. "Reviews of New Films". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 6 June 11, 1940.
  8. Mosher, John (June 22, 1940). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. p. 62.
  9. "'Rebecca' Wins Critics' Poll". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 1 January 14, 1941.
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