Wednesday, March 15, 2023

WWII Watch: Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Watched:  03/12/2023
Format:  TCM
Viewing:  First
Director:  Herman Shumlin, Hal Mohr (uncredited)

I had never seen Watch on the Rhine (1943), which is a bit odd.  It stars Bette Davis, who is tops in my book.  But, the real reason is: back in the early 1990's I was a high school drama kid.  In the spring of 1992, I worked tech support and understudy on Watch on the Rhine, which my school took to UIL One-Act Play competition.  We trimmed the show down to a 40 minute version of the 1941 stage play,* which I guess I ran through dozens and dozens of times.

The play was a formative experience  for multiple reasons, not least of which included pondering the content of the play every day for months on end.  But, still, I was sixteen when I read the play and just turned 17 when the experience was over.  So my perspective was widened but life hadn't come at me.  I didn't yet fully grasp the forces at work, what had happened in the decade or more before the war, how WWI led directly to WWII, and that the world is not a simple place and always 100 times more complex than you believe at first blush, ways that inform the movie and play.

Watch on the Rhine takes place prior to US involvement in WWII.  In the year before the war, the play spoke to complacent Americans of what's coming and who has already been fighting the good fight against legitimate forces of darkness in the form of Nazism and Fascism.  It was a rallying cry in a time where Americans were still deeply reluctant to see how they played a role in the Pacific or European theaters.  The films was released mid-war as a reminder to those on the American homefront of the rightness of our participation, and a reminder to folks in their comfortable homes that Europe hasn't had the luxury of being an ocean away.   Some were fighting for their homelands taken over by mad men.

The film stars Bette Davis (who was vocally anti-Nazi) as Sara - an American who left her cushy life for Europe after the death of her father at age 18.  There she met a German, Kurt (Paul Lukas) and married him.  By 1934, Kurt became involved in the resistance movement against the Nazis and the family of five has been moving around Europe as Kurt routinely makes incursions into Germany and fighting Nazis across the continent while sticking to the shadows.  Sara brings her family to her birth family's mansion in the suburbs outside of DC - where they find the American wing of the family are unaware of the genuine state of Europe and oblivious to what Kurt and Sara have been doing - and aren't even sure what side they'd be on.

A scheming Romanian count married to one of Sara's childhood friends is staying with the family as refugees, and he seeks to exploit the situation, igniting the drama of the film.

Sara's mother is played by Lucille Watson, a society woman with charmingly skewed perspectives and priorities.  Sara's brother is played by Donald Woods, their housemaid by Beulah Bondi, her childhood friend by Irish-born Geraldine Fitzgerald.  The Romanian count, the perfectly cast George Coulouris.

The three children are little adults, made mature by their life experience, with the elder son more than ready to join his father in the fight.  It manages to be charming more than annoying, Hellman finding the right balance of knowing eye rolling at the younger son.

The play was originally written by Lillian Hellman, famous for shows like The Little Foxes, and was adapted for screen by Dashiell Hammett (Hellman and Hammett's romance is one of those legendary literary things where you watch a genius fall apart).  There's significant additional material added to the film, and my memory of the play itself is both hazy after 30 years and the product of a script cut down to run 39 minutes.  But I do feel the movie's additional scenes do much to take the script into the wider world and provide context delivered entirely through dialog in a play that's locked down to a living room and patio.

I was unclear if my welling up at Sara's arrival was a memory kicking in from high school I hadn't touched in 3 decades or Bette Davis being amazing.  Probably both.  There's a lot tied up in the film, play, memory and what you know if you're already familiar with the characters - although it works phenomenally well on a first viewing.  Bette Davis can convey a thought or idea with a degree of a smile or glance of the eye. 

But, really, watching the film now plays very differently than how the it hit in the early 1990's where it felt like a relic from a black and white era of my grandparents and their parent's concerns, when I hadn't quite figured out how history works.  And, I think a replay of the film or a remake would be a fascinating exercise now - though I wouldn't bother to update it to the modern era (but would certainly find a better way to deal with the Black characters in the film).  The movie says what it says about America and it's worth hearing.  But whether anyone wants to pay attention or remain in the magnolias is what we're all waiting to find out.

*my starring part was playing the play's singular gun-shot.  Blanks and real guns were not allowed, so we had to create the sound by taking a broom stick and smashing it down over a big, wheeled empty box we carried our props in when we traveled.  I got remarkably good at making a loud sound of some kind - it didn't sound like a gun - and only went through about 10 brooms during the play's run.  I also developed my still phenomenal Tetris-like organizational skills loading the van when we packed our set and props for competition at other locations.

No comments: