Wednesday, December 12, 2012



There were many anti-fascist propaganda films in the 40s. Most of them are exactly that, cautionary tales, propaganda that fail to be any more or less complex than old “duck and cover” cartoons from the post war 50s. But there were a few that were able to rise above the rest with complex stories and characterization that allowed them to break free from the confines of the genre. One of these was 1943’s Watch On The Rhine, starring Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Lucile Watson, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Beulah Bondi and George Coulouris.

From Left to Right: George Coulouris, Donald Woods, Lucile Watson, Davis and Lukas
Set just before America enters WW2, the film is about Lukas and Davis as a husband and wife involved in the anti fascist movement. The film begins ominously as Lukas, Davis and their three kids are about to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. Their passports are stamped and there is a clear look of relief on all their faces as they cross over. Lukas is one of the top men in the anti fascist movement. Old, tired, scarred and wounded, he is taking Davis and the kids to Davis’ family home in Washington DC for a short rest. Lucile Watson plays Davis mother and she is simply brilliant in this. Watson is happily preparing for her daughters homecoming. She hasn't seen Davis in almost 20 years. Also staying at Watson’s home is her son, the daughter(Fitzgerald) of an old family friend and the daughters husband (Coulouris), an aristocratic former Romanian diplomat who has had to leave Europe under mysterious circumstances.

George Coulouris
Fitzgerald and Coulouris are estranged and not in love. She has eyes for Watson’s son and is glad to be in the states and away from the growing presence of the Nazis in Europe. Coulouris longs for his old life among the aristocrats in Romania and is willing to do almost anything to get that life back. There is a brilliant scene that takes place in the German embassy. Coulouris is playing poker with people who represent all the facets of fascism. At one of the poker players, a Nazi, tells the aristocratic German who despises him "you're too cynical to be really dangerous". Finally we get to Davis' homecoming and what a scene it is. After the hard life of being on the run from the Nazis and bouncing all over Europe, when Davis enters her family house, she is overwhelmed, silently and delicately touching familiar family items as we see the memory of her old life slowly return. Everyone meets and is reunited. Davis reunion with her mother and the family maid (Bondi) is especially poignant. However, while they've returned so Lukas can rest and heal from wounds, Lukas finds no rest and discovers that even in Davis' idyllic home there are enemies. No sooner does the weary family settle in than they are thrust into danger once more.

Bette Davis in Watch On The Rhine
This film is extraordinary. There is so much here going on, yet its not overblown or too melodramatic. It's given time to breath and to explore the big ideas about fascism, patriotism, the human spirit, family, love and sacrifice. I normally don't like Davis in "nice girl" roles. I usually prefer roles like The Little Foxes and the like. But in this film, she makes me a believer. Watson slam dunks her best supporting actress nomination. She is truly amazing in this. As Davis mother, she is smart, perceptive, loving, sassy and wise. She is the wife of a former supreme court justice and a DC mover and shaker and she relishes that role.

Paul Lukas
It would be a mistake to dismiss this film and lump it in with other, far less subtle and far more pedestrian anti fascist propaganda films of the day. Like Casablanca, this isn‘t just a movie about fighting the good fight against cartoonish caricatured villains. In fact, this movie, released the same year as Casablanca, could be considered almost a sequel. In Casablanca, we see the Paul Henried character from the outside...through the eyes of Bergman and Bogart. A symbol more than a man who is still young and still full of fight for the cause. In Watch on the Rhine we get to see the toll that the battle might take on someone like that as well as their family. Lukas could be considered an older, battle weary version of Henried’s character. He's tired to the bone but fights on. He's consumed with guilt that he's sacrificed his children’s innocence and Davis happiness because of his battle and he's even sickened by his own actions taken in that battle. As much as I love Casablanca and Bogart, Lukas earns his best actor Oscar here. He is fantastic. However, had Lukas been pitted against Bogart’s performance in Maltese Falcon, I’d sing a different tune.

Lucile Watson in Watch On The Rhine
The showdown at the end between Davis, Lukas and the villain is unique, surprising and suspenseful. Ideas are discussed, behavior and consequences, duty, heroism and cynicism are examined through the characters. Terrible things happen in this once oblivious, happy home that shake even the unflappable Lucile Watson to her core when at the end she says in a stunned voice..."Well, we've been shaken out of the magnolias".   Davis also has a very memorable scene.  After settling in her family home and taking off her drab, worn black dress, Bondi fits her in a beautiful white gown. Davis looks at herself in the mirror, smiles and says quietly.."Me. I'd forgotten"

Bogart isn't happy about losing the Oscar to Paul Lukas
It's a powerful movie that reminds me of La Grande Illusion with regards to its themes. There is a scene between the Romanian aristocrat and his wife that is similar to one seen in Grand Illusion with Strohiem. The wife acknowledges that the world is changing and she wants to be part of that change, while her aristocrat husband can't acknowledge the coming change and clings desperately to a doomed ideology. The composition in this film is flawless. You can literally hit the pause button at any moment and see a perfectly framed and shot scene full of character nuance and visual beauty. Dashiell Hammett works with Lillian Hellman to adapt Hellman’s stage play of the same name. It’s directed by Herman Shumlin and photographed by Hal Mohr.

Watch On The Rhine is showing on Turner Classic Movies on Friday, December 14th at 3:45 PM Eastern Time. As always, check your local listings.


  1. A very nice review which makes me quite interested in checking this film out. Hopefully in 2013!

    Best wishes,

    1. Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words, Laura! Sorry you missed this one last week. I know Paul Lukas has a birthday coming up in May and Davis has one in April. Maybe TCM will show it again then as part of a marathon. Be sure to come back and let me know what you thought!