Make Way for Tomorrow

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A victim of his own versatility, Gordon Douglas seemed never to encounter a genre he couldn’t feel comfortable in. His huge body of work embraces slapstick (“Saps at Sea,” 1940, situation comedy (the “Glidersleeve” series, 1942-44), musical comedy (“If You Knew Susie,” 1948),swashbucklers (“Fortunes of Captain Blood,” 1950), science-fiction (“Them!,” 1954), melodrama (“Sincerely Yours,” 1955) and spy spoofs (“In Like Flint,” 1967), with results that are always professional if not personal. But crime films and westerns seemed to bring out the best in him, with their potential for depicting the violent tension between radical individualists and conformist cultures. Douglas is in some ways the anti-Hawks, fascinated by the networks of distrust and betrayal that bind groups together. That theme is particularly evident in “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” (1950) and “Only the Valiant” (1951), two films independently produced by James Cagney and his brother William originally released through Warner Brothers, but now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films. A review here, in the New York Times.

114 comments to Make Way for Tomorrow

  • David Cohen

    Robert, the book HITLERLAND: AMERICAN EYEWITNESSES TO THE NAZI RULE by Andrew Nagorski deals extensively with Dodd and his family, particularly his fascinating daughter Martha.

    Mike, while I agree that it’s awful for Hollywood to have deferred to Germany so blatantly, I do think it’s worth remembering that the studios were deferring when it came to all sorts of threats, real, implied and imagined, when it came to controversial topics in the 1930s. In particular, it is my understanding that the major studios, again with the possible exception of Warner’s, deferred to the American South on how the issue of racial relations were to be portrayed. The studios were not going around rocking the boat.
    That’s my understanding anyway – if anyone knows otherwise, please correct me.

  • Larry Kart

    About this passage from Dave’s review of Doherty’s book:

    “But the Third Reich’s influence, as Doherty shows, extended beyond Germany to Hollywood itself. Unwilling to risk the displeasure of Nazi officials — and in particular, the wrath of the German consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling — the studios avoided any mention of German politics in their productions, while backing away from Jewish subject matter, a Hollywood staple in the ’20s with films like “The Jazz Singer.””

    Will someone then tell me how the heck Borzage’s “The Mortal Storm” ever got made? Yes, I know it was released in June 1940, but that means it was conceived and then went into production some time before that — how long before that I’m not sure, but still…. And I’m not bringing this up just to be a contrarian jerk. “The Mortal Storm” is such a passionate, powerful film that surely no one could have failed to recognize its intent and impact. Nor was it made under wraps, so to speak; it came from M-G-M and starred James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and Frank Morgan. So what forces, if you will, were present in this case that ran so counter to the ones that Doherty describes? And again, “The Mortal Storm” is no mere sop but a film of great intensity. Was it all Borzage’s doing? Or what?

  • Barry Putterman

    Well Larry, by the time that THE MORTAL STORM was made, World War II had actually started. I know that we here in America now think of World War II as starting with Pearl Harbor, but by 1940 there was no point it shaving points in order to protect your flank in the European market, because the European market was basically kablooey. So what the hell, you might as well do THE MORTAL STORM, and have Chaplin and The Three Stooges parody Hitler, and let Cary Grant say “Take Hitler and stick him in the funny pages” in HIS GIRL FRIDAY because there won’t be any financial consequences to reckon with any more.

  • Robert Garrick

    Barry is mostly right, and the gloves definitely started coming off after Kristallnacht (November 1938) and the start of the war in Europe less than a year later. But they weren’t completely off. Even “The Mortal Storm,” which was released in June, 1940, is hedged in some ways. The Margaret Sullavan character and her father, played by Frank Morgan, are obviously supposed to be Jewish, but the word “Jew” is never used in the film. Nor is there any reference to Germany, where the film obviously takes place, except in a short introductory text. Was MGM trying to preserve Germany as an export market? If it was, it didn’t work; the film was banned by the Nazis and so were all future products from MGM.

    “The Mortal Storm” is powerful stuff, but it wasn’t unique, nor was it the biggest slap at Hitler’s Germany among major American motion pictures pre-Pearl Harbor. Fritz Lang’s “Man Hunt” was released in June, 1941, a half-year before Pearl Harbor, and its story involved nothing less than good old Walter Pidgeon trying to put a bullet in Hitler’s brain. Lang’s Nazis were mean, too–they tortured Pidgeon and threw Joan Bennett out of a building. Clearly by then the gloves were all the way off, and “Man Hunt” notably came out of Fox, headed by Daryl Zanuck, the most powerful movie executive from that era who was not Jewish.

    Dave, in his New York Times piece, talks about “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” which came out way back in May, 1939. But that was Warner Brothers, and Jack Warner was the one Hollywood exec who decided early on that he didn’t care about the German market or about German feelings.

  • Larry Kart

    OK, “The Mortal Storm” was a matter of timing for the most part.

  • David Cohen

    Lloyd Bacon’s Espionage Agent from 1939 is worth mentioning in this context, though again it is a matter of the viewer drawing their own conclusions. And there are other Borzage films of the 1930s that seem to me to be warnings about fascism, notably No Greater Glory. Fascism and German militarism.

  • David, I would propose Borzage’s “Little Man, What Now?” as Hollywood’s first explicitly anti-Nazi film. Released in 1934, it may have been made before the Breen Office was in a position to start enforcing the Production Code’s “friendly nation” dictates. The same is perhaps true of Alfred Werker’s “The House of Rothschild” (released in March, 1934, before Breen was up and running). After encountering Urwand’s astonishing assertion that “Rothschild” was ferociously anti-Semitic, I watched it again a couple of nights ago, and of course it is quite the opposite — as explicit a protest against anti-Semitism as any Hollywood film up until “Gentleman’s Agreement” (which was produced and written by the same team of gentiles, Darryl Zanuck and Nunnally Johnson). Although “Rothschild” is set during the Napoleonic Wars, it takes little or no imagination to transpose the action to 1934, with Boris Karloff providing the menace as a “Prussian” military aristocrat who funds an international smear campaign against the Jews to avenge himself on George Arliss’s smilingly benign Nathan Rothschild. I can’t quite believe this is correct, but “House of Rothschild” is available on archive.org as a public domain title, for those who care to check Mr. Urwand’s scholarship.

  • David Cohen

    Thanks. Urwand’s book is getting an unfortunate amount of attention in Jewish weeklies, by folks taking the work at face value. That bothers me.

  • alex

    “The Mortal Storm” is conscientious primer on bad stuff brewing in everyday ’30s German life, but despite its broad canvas and rather epic scope, somewhat too stereotypical in characterization,banal in dialogue and predictable in melodramatic turns and highlights to be quite ” powerful ” except as fictional primer on grave and terrible events.

    An admirable mass history lesson I suppose, but less artful — less powerful– than such less monumentally focused kindred efforts as “The Life of Emile Zola ” or “To Kill A Mocking Bird.” A bit to comitted to a socio-historical chronical to lett Borzage ‘s genius for delicately subjective romantic empathy to soar.

  • Larry Kart

    A more positive reading of “The Mortal Storm” can be found here:

    http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/the-mortal-storm/807

    In addition to its insightful account what seems to me to be far more subtle than a “conscientous primer on bad stuff brewing in everyday ’30s German life,” I would emphasize the delicate pathos of Frank Morgan’s performance.

  • Larry Kart

    P.S. In the review of “The Mortal Storm” linked to above, I particularly like the way Jaime N. Christley grasps how subtly Borzage positions “romance” and other emotions in the film.

    For example:

    “The final two or three minutes of The Mortal Storm are infused with nostalgia (memory) and hope. But neither emotion is gratuitous or easy—both are hard-won, all the more moving since they have been tested against cruelty, narrow-mindedness, and hate. (A Borzage film builds a dialectic of emotions rather than ideas.) But along with these emotions is a deceptively complex tapestry of images and sounds that illustrates the film’s ultimate meaning, a tapestry in which each of the elements has a meaning and power unto itself, as well as a power derived from its juxtaposition with all of the other elements.

    “Borzage’s establishes a space free of human characters (Robert Stack is off-screen, the camera is his gaze) as his camera moves from interior to exterior (Borzage cuts from a staircase suggesting ascendance to a shot of footsteps slowly being covered in snow, which traces the line of a character making a journey), from architecture to nature, from those who have chosen ideology over love to those who have chosen the reverse. On the soundtrack is the young man’s footsteps, interwoven with remembered dialogue that covers a number of the film’s bases: happier times, Martin’s philosophy of free thinking, and a speech about carrying a torch as a metaphor for the passing of wisdom from the older generation to the younger one (this is after Borzage has shown a group of young people betraying their elders), and finally, a speech from the Bible wherein a traveler is assured that a spiritual torch is superior to a real one.”

  • alex

    Larry Kart,

    Right after that last list of mine I worried that I might br too into German literature and history (e.g. as an avid Mann reader by 12th grade, an early Boomer WWII Lit/history fanatic and a professional scholar of Euro and Brit. settler colony comparative politics .

    But Christley ‘s stress on the first few minutes of The Mortal Storm much alienated me, for two of my strongest recollections of TMS are how sappy Borzage’s openning clouds and windy language are. Sure, the opening links up with strains in Borzage, but I ‘m not that big Borzage fan (or Gonzo an autuerist) to automatically find a given Bozage film much enhanced by links to other Borgaze films). I do think FB sometime ‘s great with his spiritual takes on young romance, but really don ‘t think the scripts Taylor Caldwell/Fanny Hurst/Edna Ferber level family saga material allows the Romance — powerful though IT is in the final scenes in the snow — to elevate the film to the high masterpiece or near – masterpiece level on which I ‘ ve presumed the film’s fans feel the film resides.

    I do think the film ‘s good, but please don ‘t remind me if it ends with Clouds as well as Words of Wisdom. (They ‘d evoke the horror of those final sun-swept clouds with which FB ridicules the hitherto sublime FAREWELL TO ARMS. They ‘d cloud my memory of the untarnished beauty of BAD GIRL.)

  • Alex

    Well, I see that THE MORTAL STORM has received not only favorable critical writing (as from Jaime N. Christley) but some picks as a top film of all time in BFI/S&S polling,e.g., from Jose Cortz, Jorge Gonzalez and Miquel Marias in the 2012 critics poll. This is an interesting trio of folks from formerly fascist nations: perhaps a testimony to folks placing a premium on the topic of everyday life under fascism, perhaps folks with more alertness to the nuances of pre-War, Nazi-era everyday life than I, perhaps both.

    For me, thiugh the suject matter is one far better addressed cinematically (although for more common volks) in BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ and HEIMAT and novels like THRE COMRADES, FOX IN THE ATTIC, HITLER’S NEICE, HITLER’S ANGEL, ALEXANDERPLATZ,early Grass and Boll, DOCTOR FAUSTUS, and the like, not to speak of works like SLEEPWALKERS that set the stage.

  • Lawrence Chadbourne

    Larry K: The most detailed history I know of the timeline during which The Mortal Storm was started up is in Herve Dumont’s Borzage book. The 1937 novel was first submitted to MGM in March 1938, and author Phyllis Bottome was invited to confer that December. One of the studio honchos responsible for pushing it along in 1939 was Sidney Franklin.