Way up north…
Quebecois Norma Shearer was an unlikely film star, at least in the sense that she didn’t fit the mold of the perfect movie goddess. She had short legs, one of her eyes had a slight cast, and the critics regularly poked fun at her delivery. On the other hand, in regards to the power of presentation, Norma Shearer’s career is Exhibit A. When it came to her time on the big screen, MGM took Shearer’s so-called flaws and used them to everyone’s advantage, resulting in a filmography that included both silent movies and talkies, with a whole lot of variety in the roles Shearer played. She easily could go from costume pictures to drawing room dramas to dark horse character parts to comedy, and the public loved her. One of Shearer’s best-remembered films is 1940’s Escape, an edge-of-the-seat thriller about Nazi Germany, made at a time when many studios were hesitant to portray the Nazis with any sort of realism.
We first see former actress Emmy Ritter (Nazimova) lying sick in a concentration camp infirmary on the outskirts of the Bavarian Alps. The year is 1936. Emmy tries to help a patient eat her soup and the nurse slaps her back into bed. The kindly Dr. Ditten (Phillip Dorn) helps her get comfortable and Emmy wants to know why he’s being nice to her. Ditten remembers going to see her on the stage as a boy, and he has warm memories of the beautiful words she said. He even keeps her picture in his drawer. Emmy wants to know what other picture he keeps in his drawer nowadays, which leads to a veiled discussion of Hitler.
Even though they vehemently disagree, Ditten offers Emmy a chance to write to her family, on the proviso that he will only send it in the event of her death.
At the same time, though, Emmy’s son, Mark Preysing (Robert Taylor) has come to Germany looking for his mother, and no one will give him a straight answer. They’re either afraid or hostile, and everyone tells Mark to go home. His mother came back to Germany to sell her house, which, to the Nazis, makes her guilty of treason.
The friendliest face he finds is the Countess von Trek (Norma Shearer), an American expat who married a German count. She’s now widowed and runs a finishing school. She’s also a good friend of General Kurt von Kolb (Conrad Veidt), and after talking to Mark she’s curious about Emmy Ritter. After a little bit of prodding the General tells her that Emmy is set to be executed.
When the Countess finds Mark at his hotel, she’s reluctant to tell him anything about his mother, and Mark is crestfallen when he sees how many friends she has among the Nazis. He thinks he’s being watched everywhere he goes, and he’s disappointed the Countess won’t use her influence to help him.
The General already knows about Mark and thinks he’s up to no good. Nothing Mark does will change Emmy being executed anyway. The Countess sends a message to Mark to meet her at the theatre, which he does almost at the end of the show. Even though it’s quiet and there’s no one around, she still won’t tell him anything. Mark is perturbed and thinks the Countess is a coward.
In the theater lobby the two of them meet up with some of the Countess’s friends, who invite her to dinner. Mark, on the other hand, meets up with Dr. Ditten, who asks if he’d like to go for a drink. As the two of them talk, Ditten and Mark reveal who they are, and Ditten hands Mark his mother’s letter. Just like everyone else, though, when pressed, Ditten runs. There’s nothing Mark can do except go home.
Mark gets back to his hotel room to find his childhood friend and former servant, Fritz (Felix Bressart) who tells him more about his mother’s arrest. He’s the guy the Nazis have conscripted to bury her, and he had to get permission to bury Emmy outside the camp when the time comes. Mark is too overwrought and frustrated, so he kicks Fritz out of his room. If Fritz can’t help Mark get to his mother, than Mark doesn’t want to see him.
Actually, maybe Fritz can. As can Dr. Ditten. And the Countess. How it all shakes out is completely unexpected, chair-gripping and maybe, just maybe, roof-raising.
Escape had to walk all the fine lines. The novel’s author, Ethel Vance, was really named Grace Zaring Stone. She had a daughter and son-in-law living in occupied Europe, and according to TCM, kept her true identity under wraps as much as she could. Others in the cast had to take similar steps. The composer of the film’s score, Franz Waxman, was also uncredited due to having relatives living under the Nazi regime, as did many of the actors. Conrad Veidt was one who didn’t, though, even though he’d had to flee Germany himself, along with his wife.
Escape sticks pretty close to the book, which was a best-seller in 1939, and it brings all the suspense. Arch Oboler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Marguerite Roberts, really did himself proud, and I’m not just saying that because I’m an Oboler fan, either–there were some scenes when I was literally holding my breath. I’m sure audiences in 1940 had a similar reaction, because the film is that good–it made a $345,000 profit at the box office, or roughly $6.4M in today’s money. The March 15, 1941 edition of The Motion Picture Herald said, “They don’t come any better than this one. Excellent.”
Naturally, the only people who hated the movie were the Nazis. Although they weren’t mentioned by name a single time, they were incensed at the way the film criticized their philosophy and methods, so they banned it. When MGM continued going after the Nazis, the European market was closed to them completely until the Nazis fell at the end of the war.
Norma Shearer plays a fantastic part as the Countess. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time, and we never hear her character’s first name, but it doesn’t matter. Her role is remarkably restrained yet forceful and focused as we see her juggling her association with Mark and with the General, even when the two of them are in the same room together. Even at the most critical moments she doesn’t break for a second. She’s ably matched by Robert Taylor, who is so convincing as Mark Preysing that he cries real tears upon seeing his mother’s last letter. Their relationship seems tacked on in spots, but like many aspects of life in Nazi-occupied Europe, it also feels pressed for time and unwasted.
After she made Escape, Norma Shearer basically lost interest in acting. She was one of the highest paid stars at MGM, but none of it mattered anymore, and she retired after making two more movies, the last of which, 1942’s Her Cardboard Lover, was a real disappointment. She remarried, this time to a ski instructor twelve years her junior, became an active socialite, and died in 1983 at the age of eighty. Shearer is buried beside her first husband, Irving Thalberg.
Norma Shearer had a long, interesting life and a long varied career. For those who are new to her work, especially those who may not know much about her, I would definitely suggest watching Escape. Just don’t forget to breathe.
For more of the O, Canada Blogathon, please see Ruth at Silver Screenings and Kristina at Speakeasy. Thanks for hosting, ladies–so glad you brought this one back! As always, thanks for reading, everyone, and hope to see you tomorrow for Silent-ology‘s Buster Keaton Blogathon…
Escape is available on DVD from Amazon.