Unsubtle but never insincere, MGM’s prestige production of The Mortal Storm is given a fine Blu-ray presentation by Warner Archive.
The Production: 4/5
Frank Borzage’s 1940 production of The Mortal Storm begins with a literal storm, lightning piercing clouds as an ominous narration immediately locks in a tone of overcast gloom that sets the stage well before the story comes into focus. The year is 1933 and the setting is a small (implicitly German) town, where a blended family is introduced, led by Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan), stepfather to two sons and father to a daughter, Freya (Margaret Sullavan) and all-around pillar of the community. All seems well until seventeen minutes into the picture, when the maid interrupts a family dinner to declare, “Wonderful news! They just made Adolf Hitler the Chancellor of Germany.”
As the film progresses, Professor Roth’s two stepsons join the Nazi party, as does Freya’s fiancé (Robert Young), causing Freya to turn to a childhood friend, Martin (James Stewart), who does not share in those Nazi leanings. Friends and family turn to fascism on the promise of strength and prosperity, and those who participate bully those who don’t into submission, leaving those who resist on the losing end of a culture war that seeks to discredit their ideals. Finally, they turn on science, for its truths remain the last voice of dissent. Roth, a “non-Aryan” (the closest the film comes to identifying the Jewish people by name), is sent to the concentration camps for refusing to reject science for nationalism. With his stepsons already committed to the Nazi cause, Roth’s daughter Freya is left with little option but to flee to Austria, helped by Martin, who has long held feelings for her.
If this seems heavy handed, it’s a heavy time, and The Mortal Storm comfortably fits into the mold of The Important Film, the message picture. Released in 1940, the United States had not yet entered into the war, but many in Hollywood felt it a moral imperative that the country do so. At the same time, the European market was vital to the bottom line and there was concern about losing access to that audience, which left studios caution about addressing the situation too directly. Using Phyllis Bottome’s acclaimed novel as a source, MGM wound up producing one of the most overtly critical anti-Nazi films to date at that time, while still making effort not to offend by avoiding the word “Germany.” For all of the studio’s deft footwork in that dance, the film so infuriated the Nazi government that it and all future MGM productions were banned.
While the film received a number of positive notices from critics, audiences were more indifferent. Of the small number of American films released prior to the country’s entry into World War II, The Great Dictator was the biggest commercial success and best remembered today. It’s hard to say if audiences and history were underwhelmed by Mortal Storm’s appearance of pulling its punches by mentioning Nazis but not naming Germany nor Jews, or if the film’s depiction of Austria as a safe haven felt dated to an audience that knew that was no longer the case, or if it was something else entirely. Perhaps Chaplin’s satire was a more effective call to action than Borzage’s sincerity. Maybe The Mortal Storm is preaching to the choir. Regardless, as one of the few films willing to tackle the subject matter at the time, it merits a look today for an understanding of how these events were portrayed contemporaneously.
Though more of an ensemble picture, Sullavan is the clear lead, with Stewart appearing in a much smaller role than his prior teaming with Sullavan might suggest. Though the two have shown great chemistry in previous collaborations, this final pairing keeps them apart for most of the film’s running time; it is that familiarity and shorthand that helps to sell the relationship. While Sullavan excels at portraying Freya’s awakening to the harsh new world unfolding around her, Stewart’s role is less showy. He’s not quite right for the part, but he’s not wrong either. (The biographer Scott Eyman wrote that MGM didn’t quite know what to do with Stewart during his contract years, but loaned him out to studios and directors who did, and then would try to replicate what worked when he returned to his home studio.)
3D Rating: NA
Described as a “new 2020 1080p HD master from 4K scan of best surviving elements,” the presentation reflects the high quality that the Warner Archive Blu-ray line has become known for. The image is perfectly clear and stable, with a beautiful greyscale. Debris and other age-related damage is nonexistent. On occasion, sharpness can be slightly inconsistent, but it’s such a minimal concern that was only evident upon closer examination in projection. Make no mistake, this is a welcome and significant upgrade over the previous MOD DVD-R edition. (While the video quality is just shy of a perfect 5, I would give this 4.75 if the template allowed for it.)
The monaural mix, presented in the DTS-HD MA lossless format, is very clear, with only the faintest hints of hiss occurring for just the briefest of moments, mostly towards the beginning of the film. There are no obvious signs of wear or aging. Though the audio seems slightly thin in comparison to more modern recordings, dialogue is clear and easily discernible, and the quality is consistent throughout. Optional English SDH subtitles are included. (While the audio quality is slightly below that of the video, I would give it a 4.25 if the template allowed it.)
Special Features: 2.5/5
Trailer (2:46) – Presented in standard definition, the trailer places the film in the context of previous MGM literary adaptations, and is in reasonably good condition.
Peace On Earth (8:49) – The classic Technicolor cartoon short has been upgraded to HD for this release, with a lossless DTS-HD MA mono track.
Meet The Fleet (20:20) – This Warner/Vitaphone Technicolor fictional short about a day in the life in the U.S. Navy has also been upgraded to an HD presentation with lossless DTS-HD MA audio. Look out for a young George Reeves in a supporting role.
Warner Archive’s Blu-ray of The Mortal Storm is a noteworthy upgrade over the previous MOD DVD edition, with a first rate technical presentation. Though the film was more of a critical than commercial success that has been overshadowed in film history by a certain satire released in the same year, the sincere performances from a noteworthy ensemble cast merit consideration today.
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