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All kinds of war-themed movies were made during World War II: pictures "explaining" how the conflict came about, pictures encouraging enlistment, morale boosters, even escapist "fun" espionage movies. Made in 1944 just as the success of D-Day insured a victory in Europe, RKO's The Master Race is a dramatic thriller that looks forward to the immediate postwar situation, an enormous political problem as hotly debated as the war itself. In general the film's predictions are fairly accurate, if somewhat biased -- The Master Race examines the occupation of liberated Europe from a very liberal point of view.
The movie has a splendid performance from the underappreciated character actor George Coulouris. But it has become better known as a veritable shooting gallery for the House Un-American Activities committee. The director, one of his writers and an actor or two were former or practicing members of the Communist Party, and suffered the injustice of the blacklist.
The show begins with the (predicted) fall of Berlin. The top generals have finally abandoned Hitler. Nazi military kingpin Colonel Friedrich von Beck (Coulouris) orders his high command to take their escape routes and assume prepared identities to blend in with the millions of displaced European refugees. Von Beck goes to Belgium and installs himself in the household of collaborators now hated by their community: Martha Varin (Helen Beverly) and her innocent daughter Nina (Nancy Gates). Anti-Nazi partisans like young Frank Bartoc (Lloyd Bridges) are finally returning to the bombed-out town. Frank initially shuns his sweetheart Nina because her family prospered while his was decimated. Frank's mother is dead, his father sickened, and his sister Helena (Osa Massen) has a young daughter fathered by a marauding German soldier. Helena fears the return of her husband John (Herbert Rudley of Decoy).
Occupation commander Major Carson (Stanley Ridges) encourages the locals to start growing crops and helps organize church services; it may be a while before the local mill (previously owned by the Varins and run for the Nazis) will be rebuilt. Pretending to be recuperating in the Varin house, von Beck encourages disgruntled town leader Josef Katry (Paul Guilfoyle) to sow dissent and distrust in opposition to the Allied assistance programs. This is the aim of the "defeated" Nazis, to subvert the Peace and keep Europe in chaos, in hopes of a fascist rebirth. Major Carson receives help from a stranded Russian doctor, Andrei Krystoff (Carl Esmond), but von Beck goads Katry into blowing up the stockade for German prisoners, so he can blame the act of terror on the American occupiers.
The Master Race is a reasonably good drama of intrigue. George Coulouris' Nazi is a credible fanatic who reveals his true side when he molests the daughter of his hostess. Young Nancy Gates (Some Came Running, Comanche Station, World Without End) makes a strong impression, as does the Danish beauty Osa Massen (who later teamed with this film's Lloyd Bridges in the Sci-Fi film Rocketship X-M). Massen's character is a rarity in an American film, a rape victim unsure whether her husband will accept her and the child. The husband's first reaction is, "Why didn't you kill yourself?" Paul Guilfoyle specialized in sad sack gangsters and other losers; he was later immortalized as the poor dope in the car trunk "given a little air" by James Cagney in White Heat.
The openly leftist Herbert Biberman directs the picture without any great distinction, having the most trouble near the end when several conflicts are resolved in an "everybody on stage" talk-a-thon. Although it probably only became apparent in hindsight, Biberman's placement of a Russian army doctor (Esmond) in Belgium seems a little forced. Clearly welcoming a harmonious future with our brothers on the Volga, Biberman's script makes the Soviet sawbones a cheerful, positive ally, an all-around Good Ivan. Stanley Ridges was possibly chosen for the role of the humanist Allied occupier because of his positive association with the movie Sergeant York, where he played the kindly officer who helps Gary Cooper to turn to his Bible to resolve his pacifist "problem". Biberman invests screen time in the re-establishment of the town church, managing at one point to create a rather obvious Bible visual of the Bartoc family returning home with their nameless illegitimate daughter (Gigi Perreau as a tiny tot) riding on a donkey. In another loaded image, an army jeep is used to pull a plow after the troublemaking Katry withdraws his horse from communal service.
The Master Race warns that the appalling inhumanity of the Third Reich will not simply evaporate with a surrender. Herbert Biberman's thoughtful story gets many details right. Untold numbers of displaced persons had to find their way back to their lands of origin, where they might find their families dead or their homes destroyed. But the film's politics can't penetrate beyond the menace of the Nazi boogeyman. It can't predict the squabbling among victors and the Cold War that begun when former Allies locked horns and the Soviets imposed political control over the territory it "liberated". The atom bomb was still a complete secret, and the true nature of Stalin's rule wouldn't be verified for years. The film's Major reforms the Belgian town's agriculture effort along collectivist lines. He behaves like a humanitarian camp counselor. Most actual military officers given the tough job of helping out in occupied areas were too busy dealing with new bureaucracies and solving complicated logistical and political problems to get so personal with the locals. In the slow and frustrating recovery period, the old conflicting political divisions re-emerged.
The film isn't really Communist propaganda but an anti-Nazi thriller with some provocative situations. Unfortunately, being Anti-Nazi wasn't a politically safe position in postwar Hollywood. In the Commie witch hunt, one didn't have to espouse Communist ideas or laud Stalin to be targeted by the HUAC. Just being a supporter of the Spanish Republic or otherwise a "premature anti-Fascist" was enough for one to lose the right to make a living. A look at the themes of most WW2-era movies reveals little more than vague sentiments in favor of an improved, more idealistic post-war America. When the U.S. allied with defeated German authorities in the effort to oppose our new enemy the Soviet Union, previously filmed positive images of Stalin and Communism were regarded as part of a Red plot to infiltrate Hollywood.
Biberman was a strongly leftist producer, writer and director who became one of the original Hollywood Ten. His brief career came to an abrupt end with the blacklist, as did that of his Oscar-winning wife, Gale Sondergaard. Other blacklisted members of the cast were Morris Carnovsky and Lloyd Bridges. Bridges was "cleared" by the F.B.I. and didn't suffer too severe of a break in his career. But a less well-known personal story gives the full picture. Screenwriter Anne Froelick had started with Howard Koch and the Mercury Theater. Like many others, she became interested in the Communist Party in the 1930s when it was the only political organization protesting Fascism and supporting labor unions. Ms. Froelick had just established her screenwriting career when she was denounced as a Red, on the last day of the Committee's last trip to Hollywood. She lost everything. Her husband, an aircraft engineer, had already been ejected from his job as a supposed security risk. In an interview Ms. Frolick remembered The Master Race as her most political film. 1
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of The Master Race is an acceptable transfer of this RKO production. Russell Metty's cinematography is sharp and the audio clear, but contrasts are a little heavy in places and there are a couple of instances of light film damage.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Master Race rates:
1. The Anne Froelick interview is in Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle's book Tender Comrades, St.Martin's Press 1997.
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