Monday, May 2, 2016

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Director: Herman Shumlin


Bette Davis headlines this anti-Nazi feature, a product of staunch determination to share negative views towards peoples with beliefs to destroy the freedoms of society around the world. This production based on a successful Broadway play was the product of sharing of the resolute anti-fascist mindset that brought Europe to the great conflict which stained the continent for over a decade. Featuring the director and major players for the original Broadway production, this film adaptation altered to suit motion picture audience would not be a smooth production, but in the end received high praises for its work at that time.

Watch on the Rhine is a drama about European family seeking refuge from fascism in the United States with fellow extended family when a house guest reveals to be a Nazi sympathizer. German-born Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) in effort to find sanctuary from the rise in Nazism in his homeland travel with his American wife, Sara (Bette Davis), and children to live with Sara’s mother, Fanny (Lucile Watson) in Washington DC. There they meet a house guest of Fanny, a Romanian Count named Teck (George Coulouris), who secretly a Nazi loyalist. Ever the opportunist, Teck confirms Kurt to be an activist in anti-fascist movements in Europe and demands financial compensation for not sharing his information with his Germany embassy friends. For his and his family’s safety Kurt kills Teck and must flee and secretly return to Germany to rescue a friend and fellow activist. A period of time passes with no word of Kurt, when eldest son Joshua (Donald Buka) intends to find his father and return him home, much to the distraught reaction of Sara who must remain emotional brave for her husband and now for her son.

The picture at times plays out very slow, meandering for periods as the plot trickles through the two hour long feature, but for the time period when the film was released it was looked onto with a very different light. Watch on the Rhine is a result of world affected by war waging that was still current. Watching this picture years later it may not hit the audiences with the same residency as the world and motion pictures have both changed.

“Watch on the Rhine” firstly was a rather successful Broadway play that ran from April 1941 to February 1942, straddling the timeline before America joined the war to the months just following Pearl Harbor. Its anti-Nazi stance was praised and gave the production notoriety which Warner Bros. looked to adapted into their own highly praised motion picture.

To help translate the play to the screen many components of the successful play were hired to reprise their roles for the feature. This included Paul Lukas in the main character role Kurt Muller, Lucile Watson as Sara’s mother Fanny, and even director Herman Shumlin who was hired to direct in this, his first motion picture. To add to the box office appeal Bette Davis was cast as Kurt’s wife, which is a surprise being it is actually only a supporting role for such a headlining star. In any case Davis wanted to take part in this production because she felt it was an important picture to be a part of. Warner Bros. would put Davis’ name squarely on the top billing of the picture and ordered the fleshing out of her role within the production even though the story still focuses on the tale of the activism of Kurt.

Immediately production would hit a snag as Davis was held up while concluding her work on the tail end of Now, Voyager, causing start dates to move back. When production commenced legends of Davis difficulty to work with became evident as her style clashed with the likes of director Herman Shumlin. Meanwhile conflicting political views between Davis, a democrat, and Lucile Watson, a republican, kept the two actresses ever at odds on the sound stage. On many occasions Davis’ times on stage was cause for great moments of tense friction, despite she worked rather well with fellow co-star Paul Lukas.

Despite the added scenes and dialogue to the role which Bette Davis appears the picture as a whole remains more intact with the overall story of an anti-fascist activist who is threatened and continues to fight on in efforts for freedom. In a world where Nazis and Hitler were a very real threat Watch on the Rhine was a terrifying reminder that there was the possibility of Nazi sympathizers amongst the American population and the film was meant to rally against any such individuals.

To 1943 audiences the film was dramatic and frightening, winning over many audiences and critics. Many believed it one of the finest movies of the year, including nominations for the Best Screenplay and Best Picture that the Academy Awards, while being honored as the finest film of the year by the New York Film Critics. With Bette Davis somewhat forced augment role of Sara it remained Lucile Watson and Paul Lukas who shined through in their performances they had refined on stage and adapted for the screen, receiving the most praise. Watson would be nominated for her supporting role, but Lukas came out as the paramount actor of the year as he received an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and a New York Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.

As time goes by Watch on the Rhine would fade into the background. The melodramatic performance of Davis does feel a bit out of place amongst the other players in the picture who captured the heart of the source material. Looking back, the feature remains a reminder of what passed through the minds of frightened audiences during a period of the global conflict, but now we can see the hints of propaganda that spearheaded why this picture was made, and why audiences lapped it up as a drama. It is not Bette Davis’ finest work, but reminds us of her firm presence in Hollywood and the public at large as the film was a result of not just a studio, but her as an influential star as well.

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