Watch on the Rhine (1943)
A film directed by Herman Shumlin, Hal Mohr

Genre: Drama / War

Film Review

Watch on the Rhine photo
For America, the darkest year of World War II was 1943, so it is perhaps fitting that the two most prominent films of the year to be made in Hollywood had a strident anti-Fascist theme: Casablanca and Watch on the Rhine. As examples of wartime propaganda, these two films could hardly be more different, and whilst Casablanca has a timeless quality that has allowed it to become an enduring classic, Watch on the Rhine is rooted very firmly in the here and now and has been all but forgotten. Yet both films are of interest from a historical perspective, as they reveal how seriously America faced up to the threat of Fascism, having adopted an isolationist stance in the early years of the war. Warner Brothers' Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) was the first film to alert America to the dangers of home-grown Fascists, but its message fell mainly on deaf ears. It wasn't until Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 that America woke up to the greatest threat western democracy has ever faced, 'shaken out of the magnolias', as Watch on the Rhine succinctly puts it.

One prominent writer who was very much aware of the threat posed by Fascism (having had first hand experience of it during the Spanish Civil War) was Lillian Hellman, the left-leaning author of the stage play Watch on the Rhine, which enjoyed considerable success on Broadway in 1941. Hellman had previously earned a certain notoriety with her scandalous play The Children's Hour, which revolved around two schoolteachers in a suggestively lesbian relationship, and scored a notable success with The Little Foxes. The most politically conscious of the big Hollywood studios, Warner Brothers saw that Watch on the Rhine would make a prestige propaganda film and immediately bought the rights, although Hellman was under contract to another studio (Goldwyn) at the time and was unable to work on the screenplay.

The scripting duties were passed to Hellman's partner and mentor, Dashiell Hammett, the celebrated crime writer who is now best known for his novel The Maltese Falcon. It was Hammett who opened up the one-set play, adding additional scenes to shed more light on the principal characters and including a coda which strengthened the film's central propaganda message, namely that Fascism could not be defeated without sacrifice. An attempt by the Hays Office to alter the ending (so that the central character was punished for killing the main villain) was successfully resisted by Hellman. (A final scene in which Kurt Muller returns to Nazi Germany, to face certain death, was written and shot, but never used.)

Herman Shumlin, the director of the original stage play, was hired to direct the film, even though he had had no prior experience of filmmaking. For Shumlin, this was to prove a very steep learning curve and it was not long before he fell out with his cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad, who was soon replaced by Hal Mohr. There were also difficulties on the casting front. Paul Lukas, Lucile Watson and George Coulouris were chosen to reprise the roles they had played very successfully on stage, but as none of these actors was a bankable star Warner Brothers was obliged to cast one of the studio's star actors in what had originally been a supporting role, that of the central character's stoical wife, Sara Muller. Irene Dunne and Margaret Sullavan would each have been ideal for the part, but both turned turned it down. In the end, the part went to Bette Davis, who gladly agreed to take on what was a secondary role because of her intensely anti-Fascist views. Unfortunately, Davis was physically and mentally exhausted after completing filming on Now, Voyager and this made her more temperamental than usual. She had a particularly bad working relationship with Shumlin, who had an uphill struggle to prevent her from stealing the focus from the lead actor Paul Lukas. Davis also had a major falling out with Lucile Watson over their differing political views (Watson was a staunch Republican, Davis a committed Democrat). Eager to capitalise on Davis's star status, Warners gave her top billing, something the actress disapproved of as hers was patently a supporting character.

Despite its grim subject matter, Watch on the Rhine enjoyed considerable commercial success, and critical reaction was as favourable as it had been to Hellman's original play. The film was nominated for four Oscars in 1944, in categories of Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Lucile Watson) and Best Screenplay, and took the award for Best Actor, with Paul Lukas winning out over Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Gary Cooper  in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Herman Shumlin would direct only one other film, Confidential Agent (1945), whilst Lillian Hellman continued to make a name for herself as a screenwriter, with such films as The North Star (1943), until she fell foul of the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1940s, which effectively ended her career in Hollywood.

One of the most effective and intelligently scripted wartime propaganda pieces to come out of Hollywood in the 1940s, Watch on the Rhine is distinguished most by its blisteringly authentic central performance from Paul Lukas. Even though he was himself apolitical (and had proven he was just as adept at playing villains as heroes), Lukas is harrowingly convincing in the part of the dedicated anti-Fascist Muller, not a fanatic but someone who knows what must be done in order that future generations may be spared the tyranny of Fascism. Muller's evil counterpart is played with just as much intensity by George Coulouris, who is utterly chilling as the amoral Rumanian count who attempts to blackmail Muller just so that he can buy his passage back home.

On the supporting front, Lucile Watson has almost as much impact as the benign mother of the household, a character who is at first completely oblivious to the evil that Muller is committed to destroy, but who ends up seeing that she too has a part to play, once she has been shaken out of the magnolias. Whilst she has a slight tendency to turn her character into too much of a martyr, Bette Davis gives a solid performance and finally comes into her own in the final scene, delivering a speech that appears to come straight from the heart and which would have had an immediate resonance with every wife and mother in America. "When the time comes... When it comes... I will do my best.
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In 1941, in the summer before America enters WWII, Sara Muller returns to her comfortable family home in Washington D...
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Film Credits

Directed by Herman Shumlin,
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Lucile Watson, Beulah Bondi
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