Escape, 1940, is playing on Wednesday, January 22 at 2:15 p.m. on Turner Classic Movies. Not closed captioned.
This relatively unknown star vehicle is unusual for a number of different reasons. Although top billed, MGM Studio Queen, Norma Shearer’s role is substantially smaller than co-star Robert Taylor’s heroic turn as an American son desperately attempting to save his mother from a German Concentration camp. His mother is wonderfully played (and occasionally overplayed) by Nazimova, one of the great theatrical legends of the early 20th century. It’s an interesting footnote, that it was Irving Thalberg who helped cut short the meretricious Nazimova’s strange film career while his widow, Shearer, graciously allowed the former star to appear to great advantage in one of Shearer’s last screen appearances. Conrad Veidt plays Shearer’s Nazi lover and while he appears as icy and unyielding as he would two years later in “Casablanca”, his character is softened somewhat by his un-disclosed illness and by Shearer’s devotion to him. This film was one of the few made in Hollywood prior to the war which was openly critical of the Nazis (although they do hedge their bets by having a sympathetic German doctor, which gives the impression that more than a few intelligent German’s disagreed with the Nazis. Significantly, this character does appear in full Nazi drag towards the end of the picture). Robert Taylor is given a very tricky part to play as a man determined to save his mother against all odds. With his masculine demeanor and his controlled sensitivity he gives a performance of great passion and conviction. Norma Shearer, looking regally beautiful and every bit the Countess, manages to convey the situation of a woman who desperately wants to help Taylor and leave her adopted country, but realizes that she must stay out of duty to Veidt, in spite of her true feelings. Felix Bressart also appears as the Nazimova’s frightened but faithful servant, who helps Taylor escape. Bressart, who made a career of playing befuddled foreigners, is best known as one of the three Russian Communists in Ninotchka. Interesting casting was Bonita Granville, best known as the screen’s all-American girl detective, Nancy Drew, here playing the role of a pro-Nazi student at Miss Shearer’s finishing school (she would play a similar role in 1943’s wartime propaganda film, “Hitler’s Children”). The film was sumptuously mounted and stylishly directed by Mervyn Leroy the same year as he directed “Waterloo Bridge” also starring Taylor with Vivien Leigh. “Escape” is effective, at times shocking, but always vastly entertaining. Interesting footnote: Norma Shearer would turn down “Pride & Prejudice” and “Mrs. Miniver” both of which would turn Greer Garson into an MGM star much in the the same vein as Miss Shearer. Norma Shearer’s last film, “Her Cardboard Lover” would also be opposite Robert Taylor. Review by brisky from Glendale, CA for the IMDB.