...a solid collection of dramatic works, but Watch on the Rhine is the one you might want to watch first.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

It is unfortunate that female movie stars have often had short careers as leading ladies in Hollywood. While male stars well into their fifties and sixties might still be romancing female co-stars half their age, women are usually past their starring prime by their mid thirties, and studios often then relegate them to smaller character parts, mothers, or grandmothers.

But there are the exceptions. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn are examples that come to mind. And since it's Bette Davis who is the subject here, take a look at a starring career that spanned six decades, starting in 1931 with "The Bad Sister" and ending in 1989 with "Wicked Stepmother." In between there were any number of classics like "Waterloo Bridge" (1931), "The Cabin in the Cotton" (1932), "Of Human Bondage" (1934), "The Petrified Forest" (1936), "Jezebel" (1938), "Dark Victory" (1939), "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" (1939), "The Little Foxes" (1941), "Now, Voyager" (1942), "Watch on the Rhine" (1943), "Deception" (1946), "All About Eve" (1950), "The Star" (1952), "The Virgin Queen" (1955), "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962), "Dead Ringer" (1964), "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964), "Death on the Nile" (1978), "The Whales of August" (1987), and probably a dozen more of your own favorites that I missed.

Ms. Davis's career included romances and romantic adventures, gushy melodramas, so-called women's pictures, straight serious dramas, and gothic mysteries. She was, indeed, an actress of many talents and temperaments.

In honor of her position as one of Tinseltown's major leading ladies, Warner Bros. have put together yet another "Bette Davis Collection," this one Volume Three, a box set of six more of her pictures. It does not include what I consider her very best film, "All About Eve," because the studio issued that title separately on DVD a few years earlier, but it does contain "The Old Maid," "All This and Heaven Too," "The Great Lie," "In This Our Life," "Deception," and the film I'm examining here, "Watch on the Rhine."

"Watch on the Rhine" (1943) is probably the most-celebrated film in the collection. Directed by Herman Shumlin (best known for his work on Broadway); produced by Hal B. Wallis ("Casablanca," "Yankee Doodle Dandy"); adapted from a stage play by Lillian Hellman ("The Little Foxes"), with a script by Hellman's longtime companion, Dashiell Hammett ("The Maltese Falcon," "The Thin Man"); and accompanied by a musical track by Max Steiner ("King Kong," "Gone With the Wind"), the movie won a Best Actor Academy Award for its star, Paul Lukas, and got three more Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Writing (Hammett), and Best Supporting Actress (Lucile Watson). Today, many people have all but forgotten or never known about "Watch on the Rhine," a circumstance I hope the movie's appearance on DVD helps to alleviate.

Ms. Hellman premiered her play in 1941 as a wake-up call to America, which had not yet entered the Second World War. She wrote the story as a warning to Americans to beware of fascist Germany and Italy because there were still strong antiwar sentiments in the U.S. By the time the movie opened in 1943, the point was somewhat moot, but its larger meaning--that people must take a stand against evil and injustice--remains important to this day.

Paul Lukas stars as Kurt Muller, a man of German birth, an engineer who experienced an epiphany of sorts in the early 1930s and spent the next seven years of his life fighting fascists in his own country, in Spain, and throughout Europe. As the movie opens in 1940, he is bringing his family--his wife (Davis) and three children--to America for a rest. They are going to live with the wife's mother on her estate just outside Washington, D.C.

It's at the mother's house that the conflict begins. The mother (Lucile Watson) is a widow in whose home are currently two other guests: a young woman (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who has been a lifelong friend of the family and her husband (George Coulouris), an impoverished Romanian count, who also just happens to be a Nazi sympathizer and collaborator. So, we've got an antifascist resistance fighter and a would-be Nazi spy living under the same roof. The friction soon develops.

As the antifascist Kurt Muller, Lukas puts in an impassioned performance deserving of the Oscar he received. His character is at once gentle, kind, and intelligent on the one hand and dedicated, determined, and strong-willed on the other. It's easy to see the parallels between Lukas's Kurt Muller in this film and Paul Henreid's Victor Lazlo in "Casablanca," a film that producer Hal Wallis had made a few years earlier. Muller's decision at the end of "Watch on the Rhine" may come as a shock, but it is one that is inevitable.

As Mrs. Muller, the wife, Bette Davis takes a back seat to Lukas; it is really a lesser co-starring role for the actress, who puts in a most restrained performance. Ms. Davis does not display any scene-stealing histrionics but places her portrayal of the dutiful, loving wife completely in the service of the script. Interestingly, Davis plays a woman here older than her real age. The movie describes her character as being in her late thirties, when the actress herself was only in her mid thirties. Also of interest, the movie describes Paul Lukas's character as a man between forty and forty-five, at a time when Lukas himself was in his fifties and looked it. When the movie begins, we might excuse audiences for wondering momentarily if Davis's character is the wife or the daughter of the Lukas character.

"Watch on the Rhine" is quite the talky film, owing no doubt to its origins as a stage play. It's a movie about ideas rather than actions or even characterizations, and as such it is weighty and influential, a film resonating with implications for our own modern world. The playwright suggested in 1940 that people in America were too far removed (physically and psychologically) from Europe to understand completely what was going on there, to comprehend fully the horror of the Nazi fascist threat. One might say the same thing of America today; despite better communications via television and the Internet, we are so far removed from Europe, Asia, and Africa that the problems there seem a universe away, resulting in widespread apathy. But sometimes the troubles of the world have a way of reaching us all, as the war in Iraq points up. It's at this juncture that many people, like Kurt Muller in the play and movie, take a stand.

Or as Ms. Davis's character says, "When the time comes, I will do my best."

As you might expect, the picture is in black-and-white, with a standard 1.37:1 screen ratio of the day. It shows up fairly well in this 1.33:1 transfer, the B&W not looking particularly deep or vivid but clear of age marks, specks, or lines. A small amount of natural film grain accompanies the image, hardly noticeable. No complaints from me; no plaudits, either.

Not much to say about the sound. Warner Bros. have processed the film's monaural soundtrack in Dolby Digital 1.0 and achieved probably the best results they could get. It's fairly ordinary, content mainly to reproduce dialogue, with reasonably quiet backgrounds. If you turn up the volume, you'll notice some slight noise, but not much. Otherwise, voices are natural, and the sound is smooth, if a little bland.

Most of the films in the box contain audio commentaries, and all of them contain a "Warner Night at the Movies," including vintage newsreels, vintage short subjects, vintage cartoons, ample scene selections, and original theatrical trailers. English is the only spoken language Warner Bros. make available, and there are French subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Specific to "Watch on the Rhine" we find an authoritative audio commentary by Professor Bernard F. Dick, biographer of both Hellman and Wallis; a theatrical trailer for "Watch on the Rhine"; and a Warner Night at the Movies." The latter includes a trailer for "Mission to Moscow"; a vintage newsreel, "Bombs for Hamburg"; a nine-minute vintage musical short, "Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra"; and a vintage, Technicolor Looney Tunes cartoon, "Wise Quacky Duck," with Daffy.

Parting Thoughts:
This box set is a solid collection of dramatic works, but "Watch on the Rhine" is the one you might want to watch first. Ms. Heller was a well-known leftest who mistrusted the Nazis throughout the 1930s, and for good reason. The play and the movie remain powerful testaments to the importance of personal conviction, of standing up for right and justice, of not looking the other way. "Watch on the Rhine" is as important today as its was in 1943.


Film Value