TCMFF 2021: Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart in early Anti-Fascist Works
Black Legion (1937) and The Mortal Storm (1940)
It is always fascinating and astonishing to look at works of art that come out of war time or political turmoil while the events are still ongoing. If you look at the war films made during World War Two and released while the war was still on, or just after, there is a breath-taking range of nuanced work, much of which is anti-war, or at least critical of many aspects, including government decisions and leadership. It is hard to imagine the same happening today. Some people still consider it too soon for films to come out that deal with 9/11, for example, an event which will turn twenty years old this September. Many people have also expressed disgust that film and television shows have already been released that take place during the pandemic (or a pandemic) – such as Adam Mason’s Songbird and Doug Liman’s Locked Down.
We’re currently in a period of global upheaval (even before Covid-19), where fascism is on the rise again throughout the world – with far-right policies succeeding in the UK (Brexit), a far-right game show host becoming President in the US and a Prime Minister who is known for his harsh anti-immigration policies in Australia (Scott Morrison), as well as Bolsonaro in Brazil, Marine Le Pen in France and far-right parties gaining seats in Polish elections – to name just a few. So, it was interesting to see two anti-fascist films at TCM Classic Film Festival 2021 (which took place on the TCM channel and HBO Max, 6-9 May 2021) which were made during the 1930s – a period when the likes of Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain, Oswald Mosley in the UK and obviously Adolf Hitler in Germany were gathering (or maintaining) popular support for their fascist ideas.
The Mortal Storm was released in 1940, but is set in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. It is set in a sleepy Alpine town, where a (non-Aryan) professor (played by the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan) is beloved by both his large family and the students at the university. When it becomes ‘normal’ for the young men of the town, including the professor’s students and step-sons Otto and Erich to start wearing the swastika and greeting each other with Heil Hitler, the professor comes under pressure to teach eugenics and the superiority of the Aryan race in his science class, something he refuses to do. Central to the plot are the professor’s daughter Freya (Margaret Sullivan) and her childhood best friend-turned-love Martin (Jimmy Stewart). Martin also refuses to be a puppet of the Nazi party and so his simple farming life, his home and family are all threatened. It is kind of extraordinary that this film was released by MGM (something that got all of their films banned in Germany) in 1940 – before the US had entered the war and before the full extent of Hitler’s evil (the Holocaust) was widely known.
Black Legion (1937) deals with fascism of a different stripe – this time, on home soil – a shadowy organisation that split off from the KKK during the 1930s and gained a foothold in the Midwest. The real-life murder of Charles Poole in 1936 inspired the film, again an example of a contemporary event being turned into a film incredibly quickly. While the KKK are obviously known for their anti-Black operations in the South, the Black Legion also targeted Jewish and Catholic immigrants, who were very much viewed as “coming over here and taking all our jobs” – sound familiar? In the film, a Polish immigrant gains a promotion at the car factory where Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) works – a role that Taylor believed he was a shoe-in for. His resentment means he is an easy target to be recruited by the Black Legion, a violent hooded gang of thugs (but with the faces of respectability and power during the day, of course) who terrorise foreigners. For those of us who lived through the rhetoric that built up in the UK and led to the Brexit vote, it is quite the experience to hear the same propaganda coming from an American organisation in the 1930s (in a film released in that same time-period, but clearly critical of this thinking). It is a poignant and pertinent reminder that everything old is new again – just dressed up in old Etonian Savile Row suits this time, instead of white hoods and cloaks.
I guess the closest equivalent that has been released nearer to our time would be something like This is England, but that was set in 1983 and released in 2006, before the right-wing media had fully got their way in the UK. Also, crucially, there was a twenty-year gap between the ‘skinhead’ culture being depicted and the release of the film. This is also why I continue to make the case that The Riot Club is one of the most important films of the last decade, as it reveals many of the ingredients in the toxic soup that produced David Cameron and Boris Johnson. What The Mortal Storm and Black Legion are doing is commenting on events that are either extremely recent or even on-going. While Black Legion, in particular, has an idealistic ending and The Mortal Storm centres around a typically “gee shucks” Jimmy Stewart character, they were still tackling current events in ways that were brave for the time.
In our current climate, with the rise of the far-right globally once again (just as it was during the inter-war period), it is so interesting to look at these two time-capsules from the 1930s and how they tackled fascism, as it was happening around them. Two of classic Hollywood’s biggest stars – James Stewart and Humphrey Bogart – stood up for what they believed was right at the time, in a way that is perhaps hard to imagine today. While many actors are outspoken about their political views, it is rare that we see them expressed in films that address current political events and if they are made (such as films attempting to incorporate the pandemic), they are often heavily criticised for being crass, cringey and opportunistic.
We seem to value hindsight much more now, but maybe there is something to be said for art that dares to tackle urgent contemporary issues. It appears that we need to look to television shows such as The Good Fight for this at the moment, but where are the filmmakers and studios willing to take these same risks? There have been a few good takes on the BLM movement eg. Blindspotting (2018) and The Hate U Give (2018) but it is still rare to get urgent, modern voices addressing society’s problems NOW. We also have veteran filmmaker Ken Loach still striving to make films about contemporary Britain with I Daniel Blake (2016) and Sorry We Missed You (2019). We need to uplift those who are willing to put up a mirror to the audience and force them to address uncomfortable truths about the lives we are currently living and how we got here, just as the filmmakers and studios did in Black Legion and The Mortal Storm in the 1930s.