Bad Movies · Classic Movies · Where's That Been?

Where’s That Been? – I Escaped from the Gestapo (1943)

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The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?”  Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here.  Enjoy! 
 
About fifty-eight minutes into the wartime programmer I Escaped from the Gestapo (1943), a young Gestapo agent named Gordon (Bill Henry) experiences a series of flashbacks to his previous life in Germany while on board a train headed for Seattle. If you’re quick enough, you can spot actress Frances Farmer in this montage; she’s the woman staring at the camera as she pulls a shawl towards her. This was the film on which Farmer was working before she experienced her breakdown and was subsequently arrested, ending her promising picture career and incarcerating her in mental institutions for the next decade or so. 
 
gestapo-posterGestapo was a King Brothers production released through Poverty Row king Monogram; and in fact, it was made by three Kings, all brothers—Frank, Maurice (Maury), and Herman. Before getting into the picture business, the brothers King were manufacturers of motion picture projectors…they turned to filmmaking in 1941 with their first release, Paper Bullets. (Bullets was re-released in 1946 as Gangs, Inc…and the top billing for the “new” film went to Alan Ladd, who as an obscure actor had a small part in the original production.)  
 
Despite making inexpensive B-films, the Kings were able to put together some fairly impressive features—a 1944 film, When Strangers Marry (helmed by future horror director William Castle), is considered by many film buffs to be one of the best B-pictures ever made (it also boasts a cast containing Robert Mitchum, Kim Hunter, and Dean Jagger). Other films from the King Bros. film factory include cult favorites as Dillinger (1945) and Gun Crazy (1950), and future Oscar-winner (for Best Story) The Brave One in 1956. 
 
I’d like to be able to say that I Escaped from the Gestapo is in the same league as those highly-regarded films…but there are penalties for perjury. Truth be told, Gestapo has no pretensions to be great art: it’s just a fast and cheap picture produced at the height of World War II whose only social message is that Nazis are bad. To hammer this point across, the main character is a counterfeiter-forger named Torgut Lane (Jagger), who’s sprung from stir in order to do Nazi agents operating in America a favor and produce copies of documents and money to help them win the war. The implication here is that even though Lane is, by his own admission, a “rat”—he’s not a Nazi thug, and his ingrained sense of patriotism dictates that he needs to blow the whistle on these goons at his earliest opportunity. (This theme of “I-may-be-a-felon, but-at-least-I’m-no-Nazi” was a popular one in films from that period, notably Seven Miles from Alcatraz and Hitler, Dead or Alive.) 
 
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Lane is forced into helping this Gestapo cell—headed up by a delightfully sinister John Carradine as Martin, the Nazi-in-charge—not only because of his fugitive-on-the-run status but also because those rats are threatening his poor old grey-haired mother. Lane attempts to escape his situation by trying to break down one of his captors, the previously mentioned Gordon, getting the misguided youth interested in a girl named Helen (Mary Brian), who works at the amusement park arcade serving as a front for the Gestapo agents. Gordon, however, falls off that train to Seattle and the money he’s carrying is soon rounded up by the FBI (who collect it from a thief); the Feds find an encrypted message left for them by Lane…and you can pretty much guess the rest. 
 
For a B-picture, I Escaped from the Gestapo has an extraordinary cast; even though there are some who’ll protest my including John Carradine since the actor had a reputation for taking any kind of a role (his ulterior motive being his dedication to funding his theatrical company). But Carradine has always been a favorite of mine, and he plays the head Gestapo agent with a nice urbanity and cool efficiency. Seeing future Oscar winner (for 1949’s Twelve O’Clock High) Dean Jagger is a real treat—his Torgut Lane is a flawed individual who nevertheless feels duty bound in a time of war to fight tooth-and-nail for his country regardless of the stain on his personal character. (The film’s scenarists felt the need to supply Jagger with a tomcat about twenty minutes in order for him to have someone to talk to—apparently, they weren’t familiar with the whole concept of inner monologues.) 
 
Mary Brian, a.k.a. “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures,” is familiar for her roles in movies such as The Front Page (1931) and Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935); she makes a plucky if not particularly inspiring leading lady (I still lament the loss of Farmer) who learns that Jagger’s Lane isn’t really that much of a heel and promises to wait until he gets out of the sneezer at the end of the picture.  

billhenry-williammarshall-charleswaggenheim-johncarradine-sidneyblackmer-deanjagger2
Bill Henry, William Marshall, Charles Waggenheim, John Carradine, Sidney Blackmer and a horizontal Dean Jagger in I Escaped from the Gestapo (1943).

Bill Henry is also on hand as the naïve Gordon (you know him as the creepy Gilbert  Wynant in 1934’s The Thin Man), not to mention Sidney Blackmer (Roman Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby and Theodore Roosevelt in too many movies to mention), Ian Keith (a veteran of many Cecil B. DeMille films, including The Sign of the Cross and The Crusades), and Anthony Warde—one of the best serials henchmen in the business (though he’s missing his “e” in the credits). You’ll also spot former Our Gang star George “Spanky” McFarland as a newsboy…and the train thief who makes off with what the unfortunate Gordon leaves behind is none other than former silent screen comedian ‘Snub’ Pollard. 
 
I Escaped from the Gestapo—which in this Warner Archive release is the print used for UK audiences, where it was titled No Escape—was written by Henry Blankfort (The Underworld Story) and Wallace Sullivan from a story by Blankfort, and directed by Harold Young (The Mummy’s Tomb). And like the modern-day Coen brothers, the King siblings split up their assignments on the film: Herman shared assistant director duties (with Arthur Gardner), Maurice was the producer, and Franklin the associate producer. Gestapo is a time capsule of what movie propaganda was all about back then, but if you park your brain in neutral…I think you’ll enjoy what it has to offer.

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