Here's another wartime drama with an air of sophistication (think Watch on the Rhine or Mrs. Miniver) - Fox's 1943 production The Moon Is Down is based on John Steinbeck's popular World War II novel of ordinary Norwegian villagers fighting back a ruthless invading army. The stirring propaganda flick has become part of Fox's Cinema Archives program of made-to-order DVD editions of otherwise hard to find titles from their vintage film library.
Steinbeck's novel deals with a tight-knit community responding to the terror of an invading army. While the book never specifically mentions fascism or the Nazis, Fox's film does, repeatedly - destroying any sense of nuance or subtlety in the process (it's entertaining in its own hamfisted way, though). The tone is set by an introductory shot of a map of Norway on a desktop, a (dying?) man's clutched hand pounding the surface. On a set recycled from the massive hillside mining town built for How Green Was My Valley, our story opens with Nazi troops engaging a surprise attack on the town in order to take over the mine for their own purposes. The troops' devious leader, Colonel Lanser (Cedric Hardwicke), installs a base of operations in the home of Mayor Oden (Henry Travers). The takeover is put in motion with the help of subordinates and a local Nazi sympathizer, George Correll (E. J. Ballantine). As they set up a master-servant oligarchy, tensions between the villagers and the Nazis escalate and turn murderous. Despite the reasoned negotiations of Orden and the town doctor (Lee J. Cobb), Lanser stages public executions of the more unruly locals as a way of frightening them into submission. With miners working punishing shifts and their wives dealing with dwindling wintertime supplies and harassment from the Nazi officers, the situation looks dire - until potential salvation comes via a parachuted supply of dynamite.
Despite its heavy-handedness, The Moon Is Down benefits from some fine performances. Cedric Hardwicke makes for a good, nasty Nazi officer, while Henry Travers embodies the villagers' quiet dignity and resilience as the mayor (although it's impossible to think of Travers as anything other than Clarence the angel in It's a Wonderful Life). There's also a remarkably candid, tough scene with actress Dorris Bowdon as the widow of one of the slain Norwegian soldiers. Bowdon's character, Molly Morden, is visited in her home by Lieutenant Tonder (Peter van Eyck), a Nazi officer desperate for normalcy. While Tonder yearns for simple talk and company, the disgusted Mrs. Morden sees the officer as a rapist and cynically calls him on his intentions. Bowden (who was married to the film's screenwriter, Nunnally Johnson) delivers an intense monologue here, in what was ultimately her final film (van Eyck is good, too). Aside from that scene, however, the film is a business-as-usual treatment of a story played out in countless inspirational World War II dramas.
There's another reason for The Moon Is Down's vague familiarity. One of its box office competitors was Edge of Darkness, starring Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan as two residents of a Norwegian fishing town staging a tense battle with invading Nazis. Since that film was released just a month after The Moon Is Down, this may have been a case of competing studios (Fox and Warner Bros.) trying to outdo each other with similar projects. Although Moon can lay claim to being first, the polished excitement of Edge of Darkness (which came out on DVD as part of a Flynn box set in 2010) makes it a far more memorable picture.
The picture quality is a little more raggedy than the other vintage '40s Fox Cinema Archives release I've reviewed (Golden Hoofs, 1941). Nothing too drastic, but there are the continuous dirt flecks, and even a few splices to deal with. The picture balance is decent if a little too murky at times.
Just the film's original mono soundtrack here, which is in decent shape but subject to frequent distortion, pops and static. No subtitles.
None. As with other Fox Cinema Archive discs, chapter stops are inserted every ten minutes in the film.
Nail-biter The Moon Is Down takes moviegoers into a John Steinbeck-conceived scenario dramatizing bullying yet tactless Nazis invading a humble Norwegian mining village. While it contains good performances from Cedric Hardwicke, Henry Travers and the obscure Dorris Bowdon, the film on the whole is as routine and un-subtle as wartime propaganda gets. Fox's m.o.d. disc edition is typical of their output. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.