There are occasionally movies that I purposely postpone seeing for one reason or another. Being an enormous fan of Casablanca (1943), I have always avoided Watch On The Rhine (1943) because I knew that Paul Lukas had beaten Humphrey Bogart for the Best Actor Academy Award. The funniest thing about having a movie that I let sit on my shelf for years (and years), is that I often learn that my misguided, uneducated judgments were wrong, and the only person who missed out on a wonderful movie is myself.
Directed by Herman Schumlin (who had also directed the stage play), Watch On The Rhine is the story of a German born engineer, Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas), and his American wife, Sara (Bette Davis). During WWII they, along with their three children, have journeyed to America to live with Sara’s wealthy mother, Fanny (Lucile Watson). When they arrive, Fanny has a young couple that is also staying at her home as her guests. Teck and Marthe de Brancouis (George Coulouris and Geraldine Fitzgerald) are Romanian, but Teck is a Nazi sympathizer and advocate. Teck is suspicious of Kurt and begins to investigate his mysterious past.
Based on the play by Lillian Hellman, and with a screenplay by the great Dashiell Hammett, Watch On The Rhine is the perfect WWII propaganda film. The film is inspirational even today, and by the end of the film I was filled with the overwhelming desire to go on a Nazi killer spree. (Or at least watch some of Quentin Tarantino’s 2010 film, Inglorious Bastards.)
What stands out most today is the performances from Bette Davis, Lucile Watson and especially Paul Lukas. Bette Davis is a passionate actress to begin with, but it is obvious that she didn’t make Watch On The Rhine for any reason other than her belief in the importance of the story and in getting this message out to the world. Her character isn’t the star of the film and she argued (to no avail) that she didn’t deserve top billing. The fervor and enthusiasm that she brings to this film is so high that it actually becomes overwhelming at times. She seems over the top in many of her scenes, and even a little melodramatic. Oddly enough, she almost appears to be attempting to overtake some of the scenes, but I don’t think that was her goal at all. Her intensity is so high, and her natural charisma is so overwhelming, that it is hard to see anyone else, even if the other actors are luminous too. It just proves that some people weren’t meant to play supporting roles, and Bette Davis is one of those people.
Lucile Watson, on the other hand, takes this opportunity to show exactly what a supporting character can accomplish. Most of the characters in Watch On The Rhine don’t go through many personal changes. Watson, however, plays the pretentious mother of Sara who towards the beginning of the film seems to fill her days with endless amounts of gossip and one meaningless task after another. By the end of the film, however, her entire world has been turned upside down and it is obvious that her life is forever changed. Watson was nominated for a much-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and this role stands out as the best of her beautiful career.
And then finally we come to the Academy Award winning performance of Paul Lukas. He is an actor that I recognize when I see him, but he has never left a lasting impression on me. Now that I have seen Watch On The Rhine, I will never forget him again. His performance is remarkably touching and deeply emotional. I fully believe that he put everything he had into this role, and he has left a performance that should be remembered much better than it has been. It is hard to say that anyone could beat Humphrey Bogart’s iconic portrayal of Rick in Casablanca because that role and movie have become so much more than just a solitary performance, but I can now say that I, at the very least, understand why Paul Lukas won the award, and I am delighted that he was recognized for his work.
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