“Escape” is what I planned to offer you as this week’s entry of Overlooked Films on Tuesday; I had selected the 1948 feature starring Rex Harrison and Peggy Cummins, because I recently purchased a DVD copy from my very good friend Martin Grams, Jr. at his Finders Keepers website. I have not seen the film—I’m not all that familiar with the movies that have aired on FXM/The Fox Movie Channel, so it might have turned up there at one time. I did see it listed once among the offerings on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, but we didn’t have TCM then.
Saturday morning, I popped the DVD into the player…and the first thing I see is Leo the Lion, growling as though he missed breakfast. Which I thought sort of odd, because I knew that Escape was a 20th Century-Fox release. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now…this Escape was the 1940 motion picture based on the best-selling book by The Bitter Tea of General Yen author Grace Zaring Stone (under her nom de plume Ethel Vance…which she used in order to protect relatives still living in Germany). In the distance, I could hear a faint chortling…as if the Classic Movie Gods were suffering from a severe case of having their sides split as a result of enjoying my experience. (They’re a regular riot, Alice.)
Before I venture into this any further…I need to let you know that I e-mailed Martin about this snafu, and because he’s a stand-up amigo he is rectifying this error as you read this. (We will visit with the 1948 Escape another Tuesday.) But I thought: well, I’ve already rented the hall, and the motto on the coat of arms for Castle Yesteryear reads (from the French): “Quand la vie vous donne des citrons, faire de la limonade.” And it’s a good thing I like limon…er, lemonade because two of my classic film bête noires are in Escape (1940): Robert Taylor and Norma Shearer.
In the case of Mr. Taylor, he portrays Mark Preysing, who journeys to pre-World War II Germany (the time is 1936, and the place is the Bavarian Alps) in search of his mother, renowned actress Emmy Ritter (Nazimova). Madame Ritter is in a concentration camp; she was pronounced guilty of treason after trying to smuggle money out of the country after the sale of her husband’s estate (strictly verboten) and she’s sentenced to be executed. An understanding doctor at the camp, Ditten (Phillip Dorn), has promised Emmy that he will get a letter out to her son…but only after she’s shuffled off this mortal coil. (Compassion only goes so far whenever Nazis are involved.)
Preysing isn’t able to get any answers as to his mother’s whereabouts, and he keeps running into walls where the bureaucracy is concerned. Even the old family retainer, Fritz Keller (Felix Bressart), claims not to know Preysing; he attacks him with a whip when Mark stops him on the road. The only person to offer a sympathetic ear is Ruby von Treck (Shearer), an American-born woman who married German nobility (she’s a countess) and now runs a finishing school out of her home. Yet Ruby demonstrates the same willingness to help Mark as does Fritz and his handy horsewhip.
There’s a reason for Ruby’s reticence. She’s heavily involved in a romantical way with General Kurt von Kolb (Conrad Veidt), a top Nazi officer who spills the beans to his paramour that Madame Ritter is languishing in a concentration camp…but not for long. Ruby’s loyalty to her adopted country will be tested when she finally agrees to help Mark and his mother…and the wheels are set in motion for the titular crashout with a chance meeting between Ruby, Mark, and Dr. Ditten at a concert.
I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed Escape. Here’s the irony: I actually DVR’d this one when we still had TCM…and then for some reason deleted it. So it’s as if I got a reprieve from the Governor. Escape was one of M-G-M’s first anti-Nazi films, and it was a gutsy move for the studio whose most daring attempt to tackle social commentary at that time was the never-released Andy Hardy Gets a Cold Sore. The reason why the major studios were reluctant to make these kind of motion pictures is because they didn’t want to miss out on that sweet, sweet overseas box office money. As you can predict, Escape was banned in Germany…and other anti-Nazi efforts from M-G-M (The Mortal Storm) would soon receive the same cold shoulder.
I have to be honest: Escape has not made me a Robert Taylor convert (I’m sure, with application of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™, there must be one movie he was in that I like—Devil’s Doorway is pretty good, so maybe I just answered my own query)—I’ve just always found him a bit too stiff and wooden. But he’s fairly decent in this (even if he is wearing the moustache that normally belongs to Conrad Veidt), and Shearer gives an equally solid performance as the woman who slowly starts to realize that Veidt’s Nazi is not the man for her (many Shearer fans consider her turn as the Countess one of her finest performances). (I like a lot of Shearer’s silent films, but for some odd reason I’m not nearly as wild about her “talkies.”)
Speaking of Veidt—this is how I like my Conrad, cartooners; he’s at his nasty “Major Strasser” best and provides the movie much needed menace (the only nitpick I have is that they saddle him with a heart condition…which they have to do in order for this film to have a somewhat happy ending). Director Mervyn LeRoy wanted Veidt from the get-go, but when the actor was unavailable LeRoy had to go with Plan B and Paul Lukas. Lukas lasted a week as von Kolb; he wasn’t terrible but he just wasn’t interpreting the role the way Mervyn had envisioned…and once Lukas was out, Veidt was then available.
Felix Bressart is also first-rate as a sniveling coward who finally does what’s right at the risk of his own life. In addition, you not only get Albert Bassermann in this picture (a small role, but a most effective turn) but Mrs. B as well—Elsa Bassermann, in her film debut, plays the wife of Bassermann’s character, a lawyer. Bonita Granville is great as a cute little Nazi-in-training ready to rat out any of her fellow finishing schoolmates who refuse to toe the line, and OTR veteran Edgar Barrier appears in one of his earliest film roles as a German official who is of little help to Taylor in his desperate inquiries to locate his mama.
Purportedly, producer Leonard Weingarten wanted Alfred Hitchcock to sit in Escape’s director chair…and though the Master of Suspense was intrigued with the idea of working with Shearer he ultimately took a pass (I’d gamble he wasn’t too keen on having to deal with the M-G-M style of moviemaking). Mervyn LeRoy got the tap (he also got the producer credit), and while it would have been interesting to see a Hitch version of Escape I can’t deny that Merv does right by the material; the last half of the film is nail-bitingly suspenseful. The script was co-written by Lights Out maven Arch Oboler, who sneaks in a little propagandistic speechifying in Nazimova’s character at the very beginning before wisely tapering off and letting the film continue its gripping premise by its lonesome.
I chose to scrap the original title for this post—“Grey Market Cinema: Escape (1940)”—in favor of an old-time radio pun because Escape is available as a MOD DVD from the folks at the Warner Archive. Of course, it also makes the occasional rounds at TCM.