Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
American audiences weren't ready for the humanist message of John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, and had little use for John Cromwell's similarly downbeat So Ends Our Night. In February of 1941 America was ten months away from war and movies reminding them of the bad news in Europe weren't universally welcomed. Neither were strident anti-Fascist tracts like the somewhat embarrassing 1938 Blockade, in which a young Henry Fonda pleads directly with the audience to acknowledge the plight of Spain under the fascist boot: "Where is the conscience of the world!?" With the German-American Bund warning about the threat of Communism, many Americans preferred to put off the bad news from Europe and dismissed these movies as alarmist or just plain Red-inspired.
But by 1940 even the big studios were making a few anti-Nazi films. Margaret Sullavan had already appeared in The Mortal Storm, an MGM tearjerker about Germans escaping to Switzerland. So Ends Our Night was adapted from a novel by the prestigious German expatriate Erich Maria Remarque. His novel about WW1 All Quiet on the Western Front had already become an icon for pacifists. Although we see Nazi swastikas, the Hitler gang and its crimes is never mentioned, perhaps because United Artists still hoped to receive some European bookings.
Synopsis (some spoilers):
1937. With Germany outlawing Jews and dissidents, a growing underclass of refugees struggles from country to country without passports or official papers. Embittered ex-army officer Josef Steiner and young Ludwig Kern (Fredric March and Glenn Ford) meet in a Viennese jail and are deported to Czechoslovakia. Steiner remembers leaving his wife Marie (Frances Dee) with the admonition that she divorce him, so as to avoid persecution. Steiner wins enough money in cards to buy a fake passport and re-enters Austria to work in a carnival. Ludwig meets and falls in love with fellow German student Ruth Holland (Margaret Sullavan), a chemist. When the Nazis annex Austria Ludwig follows Ruth to Switzerland and eventually on to Paris, where they meet Steiner again. For a while they seem to be scraping by. Ludwig tries to get Ruth to marry a Frenchman, thereby securing her future. Hunted by the Gestapo agent Brenner (Erich von Stroheim), Steiner learns that Marie is dying in a German hospital. He decides to use his forged passport to return to the Nazi homeland, well aware he'll almost certainly be caught.
It is entirely understandable why the public didn't embrace the beautiful So Ends Our Night. It addressed topical politics that the public didn't want to face -- Americans in 1941 were hoping that the European war would somehow simply go away. More importantly, although the film has plenty of light moments as the refugees find one another again or enjoy patches of good luck, a cloud of doom hangs over the entire story. We all know that the ending cannot possibly be a good one. Despite its glamorous film stars and beautiful settings, the movie is dead serious about its subject.
Director John Cromwell keeps things on an even keel, aided at every turn by the superb designs of William Cameron Menzies and the special effects of Jack Cosgrove. Some of the exterior setups are reminiscent of For Whom the Bell Tolls: Dark trees blot out big sections of the frame as Fredric March and Glenn Ford flee the Czech border guards. Dozens of briefly seen interiors rush by yet make their proper impression on the viewer. As the differences between Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, France and Germany are essential to the story, it's a miracle that the script and the production design could help keep it all straight. On all counts, the film is a credit to producer Albert Lewin.
We can tell that the actors believe deeply in their roles. Sullavan helps Glenn Ford make a strong early impression while Fredric March convinces as a man ready to die rather than desert his principles. They're also a bit cocky and foolish at times, although the story isn't so cruel to have any of them be foiled by a silly mistake. The fugitives are lucky that the various local officials do not cooperate with the German agents, as March's Steiner is an escapee from a concentration camp with known underground contacts. A helpful doctor or a gendarme who looks the other way can help the heroes out of specific binds, but not solve their overall dilemma.
Our refugees strive to reach the supposed safety of Paris, which in hindsight makes So Ends Our Night all the more painful. When the movie came out the Nazis had already occupied Paris, but it wasn't until 1942 that the mass deportations of Jews and undesirables would begin. These bold anti-Fascist movies tried to bring home the full truth of the growing calamity in Europe, but even they could not predict the coming Holocaust.
The movie's strongest emotional scenes are about forced separation. When Margaret Sullavan is hospitalized, Glenn Ford sneaks below her window at a pre-determined time, just share a long-distance wave in the dark. Even this gesture leads to an arrest. Even more powerful are Frances Dee's brief but unforgettable appearances as Maria Steiner. Until the conclusion, she's seen only when her husband sneaks up behind her in the marketplace, to whisper a few words before moving on. They can't so much as look at one another without risking exposure and arrest. Dee handles the moment beautifully.
The whole point of So Ends Our Night is to show the desperation of people caught in a horrible political mess, while elsewhere in the world life continues in complacent normality. There are no speeches about class-consciousness, although each character does stop to make an ironic statement or two. Glenn Ford refuses to show gratitude when a proper work permit appears out of nowhere, but instead observes how cruelly arbitrary it all seems: Just a day before he had no legal right to exist. The original source book describes these desperate refugees as Flotsam. We get a strong idea of what it means to be set adrift because of the erosion of basic civil liberties.
The smaller players are particular interesting. The beautiful Anna Sten plays Lilo in the Liliom - like carnival sequences. When police overrun the fairgrounds she quietly sacrifices herself to help Fredric March escape. Erich von Stroheim's Brenner is a hiss-able but frighteningly practical nemesis; we're afraid that March's hurried return to Germany may be a cruel trick on Brenner's part. Leonid Kinskey (Casablanca) and Alexander Granach are lovable co-refugees, Roman Bohnen (The Best Years of Our Lives) is Glenn Ford's father, and Ernst Deutsch (The Third Man) the helpful Swiss doctor. We also noted Joe E. Marks, who bargains for March's fake passport in the same way that he haggled over a prop snake in his last film, The Night They Raided Minsky's -- he's also 'Pappy' in the musical Li'l Abner.
VCI's DVD of So Ends Our Night is a presentable edition of yet another early United Artists release tragically abandoned to the vagaries of the Public Domain. As with other potential classics like Our Town, Hangmen Also Die! and The Moon and Sixpence, no prime elements seem to exist. The version seen here is a fairly good copy of a 1948 reissue by "Favorite Films Corporation." Although broken by only two or three splices, the film's first title card is hacked off along with the opening bars of Louis Gruenberg's emotional score. The dramatic main titles are interrupted by frozen frame to insert the new Favorite Films credit.
VCI adds a title card claiming a video restoration, which translates as a good effort to maximize a marginal print. Image contrast is basically good and the audio has been cleaned up nicely. We can hear when some abrupt volume changes occur in the track, which, knowing how these things work, may have been the reason this print survived in the first place.
The framing may be a bit tight; there's a crucial bit of action near the end that is almost framed off-screen. On a small screen that cannot reproduce the full effect of William Cameron Menzies' designs one might not see exactly what happens, so be ready with the reverse speed button on your remote. 1
So Ends Our Night appears to originally have been several minutes longer. Stills exist of a scene in the carnival where Anna Sten's Lilo tells her story, and of Frances Dee's Marie being 'visited' by the menacing Erich von Stroheim. Original posters looked just like the inane feel-good photo collage on the DVD cover, an eyesore that alone could account for the film's lack of popularity. The New York Times review (Feb. 28, 1941) called it well intentioned but far too somber and slow. It doesn't seem that way now.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
So Ends Our Night rates:
Video: Fair ++
Sound: Good -
Supplements: text bios
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 17, 2006
1. (BIG SPOILER): This action scene is the resolution of Fredric March's story. (REAL SPOILER, beware) Trapped by the Nazis, Steiner talks Von Stroheim's Brenner into allowing him to be at Marie's bedside while she dies. Surrounded by Nazi guards, Steiner is told that he'll now be tortured into revealing what he knows about the resistance underground. (NOT KIDDING WITH THE SPOILERS) Instead, in a setup very similar to one in Invaders from Mars, Steiner tackles Brenner and tumbles with him through a glass wall several stories up. The slight cropping now makes it difficult to see what has happened. We have to think that the rather hyped dramatic gesture may have been forced by hypocritical censors: If Steiner just threw himself to his death to avoid torture, that would be suicide, a cowardly no-no. But killing Brenner as well is a glorious, aggressive act of selflessness.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson