This essay is one of two contributions Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is making to the March-in-March “Free-For-All”—a subsidiary of the same blogathon being hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence from March 15-31. For a list of the participants you are invited to click here; for the individuals contributing essays as part of Fence’s “guests” click here.
Of the many wonderful performances actor Fredric March gave during his lengthy film career, I’ve always considered his role as minister William Spence in the 1941 film One Foot in Heaven to be my very favorite. Heaven was the second of three films to feature the actor that year; the final being the screwball comedy Bedtime Story, which co-starred Loretta Young in an entertaining if frothy vehicle about a divorced Broadway playwright determined to win back his actress wife. But I’d like to focus on the movie that started off 1941 for the Oscar-winning actor: So Ends Our Night, a suspense drama adapted from Flotsam, a novel by author Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front).
It is 1937, and refugees Josef Steiner (March) and Ludwig Kern (Glenn Ford) find themselves in a
jail cell for the crime of not having passports. Both men have fled Vienna under Nazi rule; Kern is the son of a Jewish mother (now dead) and Aryan father, whom Ludwig hopes to contact in Germany . Steiner is Aryan but because his politics clashed with the ruling party he was sent to Prague, Czechoslovakia ; he managed to escape and is now on the run though he had to leave his wife Marie (Frances Dee) behind. Steiner’s nemesis from the old country, a Nazi named Brenner (Erich von Stroheim), has offered Josef the incentive of a valuable passport if he provides Brenner with the names of the members of the underground who assisted him in his escape from the concentration camp. Josef is no rat, and he refuses despite his longing to be with Marie again. Dachau
Josef and Ludwig are deported and once on the border, Kern makes tracks for
while Steiner sneaks back into Prague …there he wins money gambling and is able to buy the Austrian passport of a deceased man, which he parlays into a job as a barker at a carnival run by Leopold Potzloch (Joseph Cawthorn). Meanwhile in Austria , Ludwig makes the acquaintance of a young Jewish chemist named Ruth Holland (Margaret Sullavan), who, like he, is also a refugee (they meet one evening when Ludwig mistakes her hotel room for his). They strike up a friendship but it soon becomes more than that; they must also say their goodbyes because she has a job waiting for her in Prague ; he tells her while she’s there to look up his good friend Josef. Vienna
Learning that his father is no longer living in
(he’s committed suicide), Ludwig makes his way back to Prague and Josef wangles a job for him at the carnival. The three refugees become close chums, but when Ruth is told by her professor friend Meyer (William Stack) that he can no longer employ her because she has no passport, she must continue on to Geneva. Ludwig goes after her, and because the Nazis have annexed Austria Josef, too, must seek asylum elsewhere when a bounty is put on his head. Austria
Ludwig and Ruth endure hardships in
—at one point Ruth takes ill and must be hospitalized, placing both of them in peril. Though Ludwig is arrested while in Switzerland for having no passport, he makes several trips back and forth between the French-Swiss Border until she is well, and the two of them locate a room in Geneva . They soon find themselves joined by their old friend Josef, and it looks as if the refugee trio and their equally disadvantaged friends will finally find shelter in the City of Paris . Lights
Josef and Ludwig get work on a construction crew, but one day at lunchtime a man brings Josef a letter from his wife Marie—she is dying, and despite the risk of being captured, Josef vows to return to Germany to see her one last time. He meets up again with his nemesis Brenner, who agrees to allow him to spend a final two days with Marie before she dies in exchange for the underground information he’s seeking. When Marie expires, Josef is able to outwit Brenner at the final moment, foiling Brenner’s relentless hunt.
Ludwig is picked up by the
police for not having a passport. Before his arrest, he beseeched Ruth to marry a Frenchman named Durant so that she might obtain one for herself, but she refused, proclaiming that she loved only him. By blackmailing Durant’s uncle (Edward Fielding), she is able to get herself the necessary legal papers, but since Ludwig has been arrested there is little hope for him. Paris enters the young couple’s lives in the form of a sum of money Josef left for them with a mutual friend (Allan Brett), and when Ruth gets to Ludwig before he’s deported to the Swiss border, they both decide that the only place that will provide security for them is Providence . America
So Ends Our Night was released in February 1941, ten months before the
officially entered World War II after the attack on U.S. Pearl Harbor. Hollywood had been reluctant to alienate its lucrative European film market with movies that were anti-Nazi, only occasionally touching upon the subject in releases like The Mortal Storm (1940; which also starred Sullavan) and The Great Dictator (also 1940). At the time of Night’s premiere, the country simply wasn’t ready for the message of a film that, while ending on a mildly optimistic note, is often chillingly grim and downbeat.
But that’s what makes this film so remarkable in a modern day context. Because it was an independent production produced by Albert Lewin and David L. Loew (released through United Artists), it fearlessly presents an unwieldy, nightmarish world where people are constantly on the run, always in fear of being rounded up because their “papers are not in order.” There are lighter moments in Night, of course; one of the highlights finds Josef, Ludwig and Ruth reunited in Paris for the purpose of eating, drinking and being merry—two of Steiner and Kern’s former prison mates, identified as “The Chicken” (Leonid Kinskey, the “crazy Russian” from Casablanca) and “The Pole” (Alexander Granach) are ecstatic by the arrival of heaping platters of food (poultry for “Chicken,” hen fruit for “Pole”). But even in moments like these a cloud of doom hangs over these individuals; for example, it is here that Ludwig is told by Professor Meyer that the best way to ensure Ruth’s safety is to have her marry Durant (whom we thankfully never meet).
Much of the story in Night concentrates on the circumstances between Ludwig and Ruth; Ford is first-rate in one of his earliest thespic assignments (and so young—he looks like he’s 12 years old!) and he gets fine support from Sullavan, who was always luminescent in her roles. One of the most romantic scenes in movie history takes place when Ford begs Sullavan to enter the hospital and when she balks at this he promises to be outside her window every night until she is well again. She looks out her hospital room window but cannot make him out in the darkness, which forces him to light a pair of matches to be properly illuminated. (Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of a policeman and Ford soon finds himself on an unwanted trek to the French border.)
March’s story sort of takes a backseat to the romance between the two lovers…but in many ways, I thought his presence in the film was the strongest element. His interrogation scene with von Stroheim is fascinating (I also think this is one of von Stroheim’s finer hours, playing a cool, calculating villain who’s never over-the-top) but the true highlight is his flashback to the time when he was still evading capture in
, and before leaving the country decides he must see wife Marie one last time. The two of them take a stroll in a marketplace, she not daring to look back (she’s being watched) and him telling her that she must divorce him so that she will be safe from the Nazis’ persecution. Dee, who has very little dialogue in her role, is positively magnificent in the part; the anguish on her face is palpable at the thought of having to renounce her vows to her husband to ensure her safety. March gives one of the most convincing performances of his onscreen career as a man frustrated by their separation (he often seems shell-shocked at times, just before he’s able to pick himself up again and survive only by his wits). The advice he gives to Ford’s character as the two prepare to go their separate ways (him back to Germany , Ford to Vienna ) is eminently memorable: the kid has to “toughen up” and “…don’t look for favors. Individuals or nations, it’s all the same—as long as they’re safe and comfortable, they don’t give a hoot what happens to others. There’s the misery of the world…it’s why progress is so slow and things slip back so fast.” Prague
All of the principal performers in Night shine, but a number of the supporting cast members should be singled out as well. Anna Sten, best remembered as the German actress signed by Samuel Goldwyn to be “the new Garbo,” acquits herself nicely as Lilo, Ford’s shooting gallery mentor, in the carnival sequences, and there are equally fine turns by Cawthorn, Kinskey, Granach, Brett and Ernst Deutsch (the phony “Baron” from The Third Man) as the sympathetic doctor who helps Ford and Sullavan in Geneva. I have to come clean here and admit that occasionally I was thrown a few curves in spotting some familiar character faces whom I know from other venues: Philip Van Zandt (who appeared in many a Three Stooges short) is the imprisoned gambler who teaches March a few new tricks, Bernard “Louie Dumbrowski” Gorcey can be seen as a carnival barker, and Sig Ruman a duplicitous Swede who turns Ford into the local constabulary (who promptly turns Glenn loose again). Other individuals with brief roles include Frederick Vogeding (a hissable Gestapo official), Joe E. Marks (as the guy who sells March the dead guy’s passport—you might known him as “Pappy Yokum” in the 1959 Li’l Abner movie musical), Emory Parnell, Georgia Backus, Dick Curtis, John “Moloch” Picorri and Janet Waldo(!).
The poor timing of So Ends Our Night’s release—at a time when audiences weren’t ready to embrace the somewhat depressing tone of the film—earned it mixed critical reception and scanty box office (the misleading poster art, with the cast all smiles, probably didn’t do Night any favors either); had the movie premiered a year later (or even in late December) it might have found a more receptive audience (the movie’s score, by Louis Gruenberg, was the only Academy Award nomination Night could muster). Because if was an independent production, prime elements of the film no longer exist and Night has been plagued with the same ambiguous public domain status that has cursed other noteworthy releases of that era. The version used by VCI for their 2006 DVD release is a 1948 “Favorite Films Corporation” reissue that’s about as good as it’s going to get (the first title card of the movie has unfortunately gone missing).
Be that as it may, I found So Ends Our Night positively engrossing (odd, since a NY Times reviewer complained of its “interminable length”; though surviving stills, depicting scenes not in the current print, would suggest that the film might have even been longer than its present two-hour running time) and intriguingly adult for its era (there’s a casualness about the sexual mores in Night that might interest modern day audiences, in light of a scene where it’s suggested that March’s character has acquired a prostitute for the evening); it’s also available on YouTube for anyone that’s curious. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at another Fredric March performance that has sort of slipped through the cracks in a special Monday “Overlooked Films” edition.