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Film production didn't falter during WW2, and in fact became more intense. Government offices consulted on the content of big-studio films about the war, whereas smaller outfits were often left to their own devices. In 1942 and 1943 quite a few propagandistic pictures were released from the Gower Gulch Poverty Row studios. Some were just compilations of documentary footage accompanied by new voiceover scripts referencing Nazi and 'Jap' war crimes. Almost every studio big and small produced a shocker or two that sensationalized sex angles in the war front news. What happened to all the English women and American nurses captured by the Japanese in the Far East? Probably fueled by stories of mass rapes that came out of occupied China, screenwriters made sure that American audiences were aware of Yankee maidens in peril.
Chinese-American actors found steady work portraying subhuman Japanese monsters, but Hollywood told even more stories of Nazi crimes in Europe. Displaced refugees and (mostly talk of) concentration camp horrors had been featured in pictures since 1940, but as the war dragged on morale-boosting titles found no lack of exploitable new angles. A couple of inexpensive shockers about Nazi villainy were huge hits. RKO's Hitler's Children cast adorable All-American girl Bonita Granville as a German girl stripped and whipped by nasty Nazi zealots; it turned out to be one of the most successful pictures of the war. P.R.C produced Hitler's Madman on a shoestring. It came out so well that MGM bought it outright and promoted it into another huge hit, launching the American career of its director. Douglas Sirk had been making pro-Nazi German pictures back in his homeland just four years before.
Monogram's Women in Bondage is a schematic but effective dramatization of conditions for German women under the Nazis -- not captives per se but ordinary wives and sweethearts. It has a very good cast, and among its filmmakers are several notable European émigrès. As always in these shows, Camp elements crop up -- at one point the movie replays the Bonita Granville whipping scene, with its tormented heroine Nancy Kelly, later star of The Bad Seed (photo, right). In 1943, showing a young actress with the back of her shirt ripped off was dangerous, everybody-in-the-theater-hush subject matter.
Think of the movie as Mrs. Miniver, except that the main character is a "good German woman." Upscale, decent hausfrau Margot Bracken (Gail Patrick) is married to SS officer Ernest Bracken (Roland Varno), off fighting in Russia. She returns to his stately country house to help support the homeland, and finds the SS in charge of everyday living. Because of her social stature Margot is immediately made section officer for a group of local girls organized into a Hitler Youth-like service organization. She immediately clashes with the cold and inhumane officers around her, including her own sister-in-law Ruth (Tala Birell) and the matronly District Director Schneider (Gertrude Michael). The Girls' Corps is overseen by the SS and Margot is expected to enforce some awful regulations. Young student Herta Rumann (Rita Quigley) runs around with uncouth ordinary soldiers, and her aged mother Rita (Gisela Werbisek) begs Margot to intervene. The authorities frown on Margot's response to this, and also her friendship with war widow Grete Ziegler (Maris Wrixon), who has a new baby. Pastor Renz (H.B. Warner) is forbidden to baptize Grete's child because the SS demands that the son of a fallen comrade be given a Nazi baptism. Brother-In-Law Otto (Alan Baxter), another SS officer, saves Margot from trouble, but she again intervenes in the case of Toni Hall (Nancy Kelly), whose marriage to officer (Bill Henry) is forbidden because she has poor eyesight: Hitler wants the SS to breed a new super-race. When Toni becomes hysterical, Margot helps her to escape. Margot's own troubles multiply when Ernest comes home paralyzed. Director Schneider and the SS authorities decide to relieve Margot from military work, and instruct her to go home and breed babies for Hitler. Since Ernest is out of action, she's told that his brother Otto will father her children!
"BLUEPRINT FOR SHAME!" shout the posters for Women in Bondage, also released as Hitler's Women. Yet the movie is rather restrained in performances and direction. Gail Patrick, the audience surrogate, calmly does as she's ordered as a wartime necessity, while maintaining a sweet disposition that the other German women have lost. Ruth and Schneider are militaristic automatons that reject all feminine. The mean-faced nurses treat Toni like damaged goods when they determine that she's myopic. She's told that she can marry an ordinary soldier, but not an SS man. When Toni appeals to him, he tells her to get lost. The old grandmother is thrown out of the director's office for begging that her daughter not be turned into a tramp, but Der Führer apparently encourages 'easy' girls to spend time with soldiers. The widow's new baby is fated to become more cannon fodder for the German war machine. His mother must dedicate his life to Hitler by swearing an oath over a sword. The ultimate horror, being turned into a baby farm for Hitler, is more than Margot can take. In a single afternoon she converts from Good German to a one-woman resistance saboteur. Scratchy stock shots of night bombers need guidance from the ground to find their targets, and Margot is there to light the way.
Women in Bondage almost seems tame now. The SS men are ordinary officers; nobody makes hateful pro-Aryan speeches or froths at the mouth while swearing to expunge the enemies of the Reich. Back from the front and apparently no longer potent, Margot's husband sits as calmly in bed as Dagwood Bumstead. Although the whole point of the movie is that Nazidom is a threat to womanhood, even on the home front, the regimentation, order and unity of the Nazis is disturbingly attractive. The tailored uniforms look sharp. The movie could have used some lighter strokes to demonstrate other ways that the Reich is a noxious, totalitarian threat. Told that the state is ordering her to have sex outside her marriage, a furious Margot gives her older supervisor an immediate slap. I honestly think that, even though Nazi intrusions into the private sex lives of its citizens had angles far more disturbing (namely, Lebensborn), Margot would surely have already known what the state expected of her... that's the kind of stuff they'd be teaching in the Girls' Corps, no doubt. The SS-organized Lebensborn program had been up and running since 1935 -- "SS couple" Ernest and Margot would surely know all about it.
H.B. Warner (Jesus in the original King of Kings) is on hand to show how the Nazis tried to supplant Christianity with Hitler-worship. The rest of the cast consists mainly of toilers in the low-budget trenches. Blonde Tala Birell rat finks on Margot at every opportunity. The better-known actress Gertrude Michael plays the Girls' Corps director as if she'd rather be a man; she seems far too personally pleased when she instructs Margot to have sex with her own brother-in-law. Maris Wrixon played leads in a score of poverty-row horror offerings; here she's the noble widow and mother, her blonde hair up in a bun. Getting the most attention will be Nancy Kelly, the ex- child actress that had played opposite Tyrone Power in Jesse James. Kelly's major claim to fame The Bad Seed will more likely than not add a Camp thrill to her panicked fraülein in Women in Bondage.
Director Steve Sekely is now known almost exclusively for his later noir thriller Hollow Triumph (The Scar) and the popular science fiction tale The Day of the Triffids. He came straight from the Hungarian film industry, where he already had been turning out five movies a years since 1930. The story idea comes from Frank Wisbar, a refugee who made a legendary German horror film called Fährmann Maria; in a couple of years he would remake it in English as Strangler of the Swamp. The producer is Herman Millakowsky, whose two German film companies were confiscated by the Nazis. These men were non-celebrity filmmakers, whose careers never fully recovered after being interrupted by the war. 1
The main town street appears to be the 'ghetto' set built at Charlie Chaplin's La Brea studio for The Great Dictator. I could be wrong, but it looks identical, right down to the walled courtyard and stairs where Paulette Goddard's character lived. That alone gives Women in Bondage a boost beyond Monogram's usual modest production means.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Women in Bondage is a fine transfer of a picture from the darker days of WW2. The B&W image looks fine and the sound is clear. Although the titles definitely identify the picture as a Monogram production, the first thing up on the screen is a Pathé logo. Was it a re-release, or was this negative located in England? Do rampaging Pathé logos invade studio negative vaults, promiscuously attaching themselves to movies at random? I'm sure the real explanation isn't as exciting.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Women in Bondage rates:
1. Good Trivia for horror fans: Ernest Bracken is played by Roland Varno, a Hollander who lived on Java before returning to Europe and acting in some German films. He played one of the delinquent students in the Von Sternberg classic The Blue Angel. Varno almost immediately came to America and continued in small parts, eventually playing Germans in several WW2- era films. Roland's son is soundman Martin Varno... who just happens to be the young screenwriter of the Roger Corman / Bernard L. Kowalski "Z"-grade sci-fi horror movie Night of the Blood Beast. Do all roads lead to Roger Corman?
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T'was Ever Thus.