1943 / Best Actor / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actress

Film #161: Watch on the Rhine (1943)

We finish our Bette Davis marathon now, as well as the whole decade of the 1940s, with a film in which the iconic actress isn’t the star. Instead, even though she’s credited first on the poster, Davis plays second fiddle to the Oscar-winning Paul Lukas who here portrays her German husband.

The film, based on a successful Broadway play, sees Lukas and Davis’ Kurt and Sara journey from Germany to Washington to stay with Sara’s mother and brother. Kurt is a staunch anti-Nazi and had been involved in resistance work in both Germany and Spain and he, Sara and their three children had hoped to lie low but because of Sara’s mother Fanny’s other houseguests that wasn’t the case. Also staying with Fanny were the Romanian count Tec and his young wife Marthe who is secretly in love with David. Tec consorts with Nazi Officers and plays poker with them and threatens to reveal Kurt’s whereabouts and his desire to return to Germany unless he is given money. Instead of paying off Tec, David shoots him and then flees to Germany after not hearing from his for five months; Sara’s eldest Son Joshua reveals his plans to return to their homeland and find his father and asks his mother to prepare his younger brother for the time where he may be called to do the same thing.

As always seems to be the case Bette Davis was at war with most of the people involved in the film from the very beginning. She didn’t like the fact that Herman Shumlin, who had originally directed the play, had never directed a film before and also fell out with Lucile Watson who played her mother as they shared different political views. I was shocked that Davis agreed to take the role as it is so small, other actresses such as Irene Dunne had turned it down as they saw it as a supporting role, but she agreed so much with the politics and the staunch anti-fascist message that she was prepared to take the role. She also didn’t agree with the fact that she was promoted as the star of the film as the role was so small and indeed I feel that we didn’t see the best of Davis in this film even though she did bring her larger than life acting style to an understated role. But it is Lukas who really stood out here and did deliver a worthy Oscar nominated performance however whether it is better than Humphrey Bogart’s in Casablanca is questionable. As a film itself I found it very much a piece of two halves, the first half introduces the characters and is mainly involved with getting Sara and her family to Fanny’s house there is a lot of small talk about dresses, opening other people’s post and polishing silverware. However when the film really gets going is when Tec gets manipulative and especially in the final scenes involving the blackmail and the shooting, which again was another contentious point for the critics as they thought Kurt should’ve been killed by the Nazis as revenge to get his comeuppance but eventually agreed that Tec deserved. Not so much a Bette Davis film as a Paul Lukas one this film, involving the Nazi movement, the war and how it affects the family, is a very strong one throughout the 1940s oeuvre and is a perfect way to end the Davis selection and indeed the 1940s portion of the Big Oscar Challenge.


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