Directed by Frank Borzage, The Mortal Storm stars Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Robert Young, Frank Morgan and Robert Stack in a tale of youthful friendships that peel apart as Nazism infects their lives. Some were attracted to the promises of making Germany and themselves mighty again. Others feared the loss of freedom for many of their countrymen—Jews and Gypsies—and Hitler’s intent to roil Europe into another calamitous world war.

Director Frank Borzage was the first director ever to win the Academy Award—and he won twice: for Street Angel (1931) and Bad Girl (1934). Equally memorable and more important was his later film, The Mortal Storm (1940) was an adaptation of Phyllis Bottome’s novel.

Borzage was a ‘romantic’; he did not preach. Instead he focused on a single family and group of friends to represent the diverse ambitions, prejudices and sympathies contesting within Germany as ordinary folks tried to live within the conflicted, resurgently racist and imperialist Germany. In the midst of this, young folk fall in and out of love. Borzage brought his stories down to earth.

Margaret Sullavan (1909–1960), among the most capable and reactive actors of her generation, is the central person in The Mortal Storm around whom others, especially her male friends, gather to court and carry on their lives—lives imagined in great loves and high adventures. Few dreamt that rifles, bayonets and grenades would soon define their immediate and often unfortunately brief future.

Hollywood’s movie rental market in Germany and its Italian, Hungarian and Austrian allies accounted for a substantial portion of the overseas income for Hollywood movies. Thus most Hollywood studios were reluctant to criticize and alienate government censors in Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy by making American films that exposed the sadistic nature of fascism.

Another major reason for reluctance was that there were many Americans favorably disposed to Nazi Germany, even as late as 1940, because of ancestral and economic ties. A virulent minority of Americans were secretly pro-Nazi and in favor of eradicating Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals.

Yet, to MGM’s credit, it was the studio that made The Mortal Storm. Brave as was The Mortal Storm, the filmmakers failed further steps toward courage to make clear that the ‘non-Aryan’ victims of Nazism were Jews.

Sullavan had her own wartime struggle. Essentially mentally and emotionally fragile to the point of being institutionalized several times later in her later life, the actor fatally overdosed on barbiturates in 1950. In the years following her death, two of her three adult children (with Broadway producer and agent Leland Hayward) also committed suicide. The third child, Brook Hayward survived to write the family tragedy as “Haywire” (1977), a powerful memoir of a major American theatrical family.

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Movies in the Mountains (in Exile) is presented by The Independent, the Tijeras Public Library, and Frank Cullen, co-founder of the American Vaudeville Museum and 2010 honoree of the New York City Theater Museum for ‘excellence in the preservation of theatre history.’