For most of the 1930s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) steered clear of politics, declining, for instance, to produce a cinematic version of Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist takeover of the U.S. That changed in 1940 with the production of A Mortal Storm, recently restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It tells the story of a German Professor Roth whose life, and that of his family, is upended by Hitler’s rise to power. Thomas Doherty writes:
Professor Roth (played by Frank Morgan) is an esteemed scholar-scientist, . . . a man beloved by his family, worshipped by his students, and honored by his profession. [But] the professor is “non-Aryan.” “Non-Aryan” is as close as the film will come to designating what the new regime would call professor Roth’s racial type. At no point is he explicitly identified as a Jew; at no point is the word uttered on the soundtrack. Still, one would have to be a very dense spectator indeed not to understand what makes him a born enemy of the Third Reich. Later, when Roth is hauled off and imprisoned in a concentration camp, the sleeve of his prison uniform will bear a conspicuous “J.” . . .
One of the most chilling—and, these days, resonant—scenes in The Mortal Storm takes place in the university lecture hall. . . . He is teaching what he has always taught: the biological unity of all mankind, “the scientific truth” that blood is blood. His once-admiring students are now a squad of menacing brownshirts who will not tolerate his heretical rebuke to Nazi eugenics. They storm out of the lecture hall and call for a boycott of his classes. . . .
As the highest profile of the anti-Nazi films [released between the beginning of World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor], the film was a ripe target of opportunity for the extreme edges of the political spectrum, right and left. . . . In the wake of The Mortal Storm, Nazi officials tersely informed MGM that its pictures would henceforth be banned in the Greater Reich and the occupied countries. Stateside, fifth columnists in the German American Bund sought to intimidate exhibitors playing anti-Nazi films with bomb threats and vandalism. . . . Taking dictation from Moscow, the official organs of the Communist Party USA [in the heyday of the Nazi-Soviet pact] lambasted Hollywood’s anti-Nazi [films] as errant warmongering by capitalist merchants of death. . . .
In Washington, a bipartisan cohort of isolationist U.S. senators eyed Hollywood’s anti-Nazi cycle and saw . . . an insidious propaganda campaign designed to sucker America into the European maelstrom.
Brought before a Senate committee holding hearings about “propaganda” in the film business, Nicholas M. Schenk—the president of Loew’s, which owned MGM—was asked by the isolationist Senator D. Worth Clark if he thought The Mortal Storm “contributed to harmony and national unity.” Schenk retorted, “I don’t think you want unity with Hitler.”