16 January 2009 | bkoganbing
Vagabonds For A Cause
Watch On The Rhine started as a Broadway play by Lillian Hellman who wrote the film and saw it open on Broadway at a time when the Soviet Union was still bound to Nazi Germany by that infamous non-aggression pact signed in August of 1939. So much for the fact that Hellman was merely echoing the Communist party line, the line didn't change until a couple of months later. Lillian was actually months ahead of her time with this work.
The play Watch On The Rhine ran from April 1941 to February 1942 for 378 performances and five players came over from Broadway to repeat their roles Frank Wilson as the butler, Eric Roberts as the youngest son, Lucile Watson as the family matriarch and most importantly villain George Coulouris and Paul Lukas.
Lukas pulled an award hat trick in 1943 winning an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and the New York Film Critics for Best Actor. Probably if the Tony Awards had been in existence then he would have won that as well. The Oscar is even more remarkable when you consider who he was up against, Humphrey Bogart for Casablanca, Gary Cooper in For Whom The Bell Tolls, Mickey Rooney in The Human Comedy, and Walter Pidgeon for Madame Curie. Every one of his competitors was a bigger box office movie name than he was. Lukas's nomination is usually the kind the Academy gives to round out a field.
Jack Warner knew that which is why Mady Christians did not repeat her Broadway part and the role of Lukas's wife was given to Bette Davis. Davis took the part not because this was an especially showy role for her, but because she believed in the picture and just wanted to be associated with it. It's the same reason she did The Man Who Came To Dinner, a much lighter play than this one.
Davis is the daughter of a late American Supreme Court Justice who married a German national back in the Weimar days. After many years of being vagabonds on the continent of Europe, Davis Lukas, and their three children come to America which has not yet entered the European War. They're made welcome by Lucile Watson who is thrilled naturally at finally meeting her grandchildren.
The fly in this ointment are some other house guests, a friend of Davis's from bygone days Geraldine Fitzgerald and her husband who is also from Europe, a Rumanian diplomat and aristocrat George Coulouris. Coulouris is a wastrel and a spendthrift and he smells an opportunity for double dealing when he suspects Lukas's anti-fascist background.
His suspicions are quite correct, it's the reason that the family has been the vagabonds they've become. Lukas fought in Spain on the Republican side and was wounded there. His health has not been the same since. His family loyally supports him in whatever decision he makes. Those decisions affect all the other members of the cast.
Adding quite a bit more to the Broadway play including some lovely fascist creatures was Dashiell Hammett who was Lillian Hellman's significant other. Coulouris playing cards at the German embassy was a Hammett creation with such loathsome types as Henry Daniell, Kurt Katch, Clyde Fillmore, Erwin Kalser and Rudolph Anders.
Coulouris is truly one of the most despicable characters ever brought to screen as the no account Runmanian count. He was a metaphor for his own country who embraced the Nazis with gusto and then equally repudiated them without losing a step after Stalingrad.
Lucile Watson was up for Best Supporting Actress in 1943, but lost to Katina Paxinou in For Whom The Bell Tolls. Dashiell Hammett was nominated for best adapted screenplay and the film itself lost for Best Picture to that other anti-fascist classic, Casablanca.
Though it's an item firmly planted in those specific times, Watch On The Rhine still packs a stern anti-fascist message that bears repeating infinitely.