After living abroad for many years, American-born Sarah Muller (Bette Davis) and her family return to the United States. Sarah’s German husband, Kurt (Paul Lukas, Dodsworth), who has been fighting fascism in Europe, is particularly looking forward to a nice rest. Sarah and Kurt are surprised to find pockets of fascism in America.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“We’ve been shaken out of the magnolias.”
This film adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s famous 1941 stage play, adapted by her then boyfriend, celebrated author Dashiell Hammett (The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon), perfectly embodies a specific time in American history. Watch on the Rhine is an interesting time capsule, but there are many reasons why the movie has never been considered a Hollywood classic.
The stage production preceded the attack on Pearl Harbor by eight months, so in that respect you can say that Hellman’s warning about the long tentacles of fascism was prophetic. The movie version was released at the height of WW II and I could only imagine people’s reactions to such a heartfelt story about topical issues. In my opinion, that’s precisely the film’s main problem: Endless speeches about personal responsibility and the evils of fascism today make the movie heavy in the palate.
The beloved and timeless classic Casablanca, which was released around the same time and deals with the same issues, remains fresh and exciting while Watch on the Rhine is a bit stale. Maybe comparing the two movies is not fair, but we have to remember that Watch on the Rhine was once considered better than the other. Casablanca‘s Best Picture Oscar was a surprise; the smart money was on Watch on the Rhine (the movie did win the New York Film Critics Circle’s top award).
Besides its intellectual heaviness, the film has another huge problem: The movie was shot in a rather generic manner by first-time director Herman Shumlin. He doesn’t have a fundamental understanding of film technique. Shumlin has two kinds of shots: close-ups and medium shots, and he never cuts into a speech. I wish Casablanca‘s director, the great Michael Curtiz, would have directed the movie. Cameraman Hal Mohr (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) allegedly directed sections of the movie.
Bette Davis is fine as Sarah Muller, Paul Lukas’s supportive wife. In her 1962 autobiography, The Lonely Life, Davis candidly confesses that she didn’t want to do the film. Even though Hammett deliberately enlarged Davis’s role, Sarah remains a bland and uninteresting character. Davis’s strong screen persona is at odds with her character’s passive attitude. The film can never fully recover from Davis’s miscasting — Hellman’s preferred choice, Irene Dunne (Love Affair), would have been perfect.
On the other hand, Lukas is simply superb. He won the Oscar against some stiff competition, and while I don’t think he was the best of the five nominees (Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine was much better), I’m fine with his trophy. Lukas makes the most of a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity. He never again had the opportunity to shine so brightly. After his triumph at the Oscars, Lukas resumed his career as a wonderful character actor in many films. The actor died in 1971.
The talented cast also includes Geraldine Fitzgerald (Wuthering Heights) as Marthe de Brancovis, George Coulouris (All This, and Heaven Too) as Teck de Brancovis, Beulah Bondi (It’s A Wonderful Life) as Anise and Henry Daniell (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) as Phili Von Ramme. Lucile Watson (The Great Lie), who plays Davis’s mother, received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Watch on the Rhine is good but not great. I liked Hellman’s dialogue and most of the performances were excellent. However, despite the film’s interesting subject matter, the movie itself was shot in a rather lazy manner. Thankfully, Lukas is superb and I believe he alone makes the entire movie watchable. B&W, 114 minutes, Not Rated.