Maybe it was the surprise release of Triumph of the Will on Blu-ray from Synapse Films that inspired them. Or the rise in popularity for certain presidential candidates and the decidedly questionable policies they employ about (among other controversial ideals) what to do with refugees. Perhaps it was a combination of both ‒ we may never truly know. But for whatever reason, the Warner Archive Collection decided now was the time for all classic B movie audiences to come to the aid of the anti-Nazi party with two World War II propaganda films from 1943: the MGM-released piece Hitler’s Madman, as directed by German refugee filmmaker Douglas Sirk, and RKO’s Hitler’s Children, directed by future Hollywood refugee Edward Dmytryk.
While the man behind the camera for Hitler’s Madman, Douglas Sirk, fled his homeland due to his political and cultural reasons in 1937, Canadian-born Edward Dmytryk wound up becoming one of The Hollywood Ten: filmmakers who were blacklisted by the US Government for refusing to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 (just three years after helming Hitler’s Children). In a way, both directors could not have been more qualified to make their respective filmic stance against the infamous German dictator and his bloodthirsty, maniacal quest for world domination, even if Edward Dmytryk’s example is seen from a purely retrospective point of view today.
Considering the usage of Der Führer‘s name in a motion picture title during World War II was the contemporary equivalent of assigning Bill Cosby as Head of Women’s Sleep Studies at a party-happy college town today, both Hitler’s Madman and Hitler’s Children managed to reap a hefty sum at the box office back in ’43. They also told two similarly dissimilar tales ‒ one based on historical fact, the other inspired by a novel ‒ in an effort to convince Americans the folks in Nazi Germany were up to no good. (Granted, it only took a raid on Pearl Harbor by Germany’s Japanese axis partners in order to wake us up to the fact something war-like might be going on in the rest of the world.)
The first film, Douglas Sirk’s Hitler’s Madman, began ‒ interestingly enough ‒ as a Poverty Row offering, before MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (the second “M” in “MGM,” for those of you who face difficulties when it comes to acronyms) bought the production. Mayer even reshot a number of scenes on the MGM lot after acquiring the title from PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), though ‒ just as the film’s protagonists are unable to escape the cold, icy grip of the Gestapo ‒ there is no denying the Poverty Row origins. Another thing you cannot dismiss ‒ or run away from, for that matter ‒ is the magnificent performance of second-billed B movie horror legend John Carradine as real life Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich.
Sporting a blonde buzz-cut and looking perhaps just a bit too much like the real deal himself, Carradine’s rail-thin frame casts an enormous shadow of death across the small town of Lidice, Czechoslovakia (see: History), where he is the acting “protector” ‒ a title far worse than the kind of security certain members of Nazi Germany’s other axis partners, the Italians, would famously offer to small business owners. In another instance of things to come, raven-haired actress/singer Patricia Morison gets the B-unit production’s illustrious “marquee star billing” (read: top); a fate that would later befall Mr. Carradine as his career descended into one Z-grade drive-in monstrosities (but of course, that’s the reason many of us remember and love him today!).
Alan Curtis, the handsome leading man of several lesser pictures in the day and romantic male lead in Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates, once again plays the good guy (and romantic lead). After his return to hometown Lidice after living in Britain, Curtis tries to band his simple, disheveled, fearful townspeople together to strike back against the Nazi peril. It only takes multiple deaths in order for anyone to start taking a stance, and soon, even B movie stalwart Ralph Morgan is joining him in the planning of Operation Anthropoid (again, see: History). Howard Freeman receives prominent billing for a cameo as Heinrich Himmler, while famous Laurel & Hardy foil Edgar “Slow Burn” Kennedy gets a rare dramatic role worthy of serious examination.
While Hitler’s Madman was wrapping up its initial shoot at PRC studios, the folks at RKO Radio Pictures were already releasing their own propaganda film, Hitler’s Children. Edward Dmytryk was brought in to direct the feature after its original assigned director, Mr. Irving Reis (who later made a personal favorite of mine, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer) experienced an altercation with the film’s associate producer, Robert Golden (who, in addition to producing the original Lassie TV series, made another WWII propaganda film the following year, The Master Race, which ‒ fascinatingly ‒ enough was directed by another future member of the Hollywood Ten, Herbert J. Biberman).
Based on the novel Education for Death by Gregor Ziemer (Walt Disney produced an animated propaganda short based on the same book nine days after Dmytryk’s film hit screens), Hitler’s Children begins with a solemn composite shot of a indeterminately finite mass of Hitler Youth circling a large bonfire (of books, presumably). Kent Smith (who starred in RKO’s Cat People the previous year) describes what is going on before taking us back in time to when things were still slightly hopeful for the freethinkers in Deutschland. We are then introduced to Smith as the professor of an American Colony School in 1933 Berlin, whose students constantly clash and fight with the youth of the forming Nazi Party.
Were that not enough to already warrant a one-way ticket out of town, Smith’s top-student, played by blonde beauty Bonita Granville (in what would go on to be one of her favorite roles in a career of mostly small roles as adolescents) becomes the object of desire to neighboring Nazi school student Tim Holt (yes, that Tim Holt). Sadly, the attraction is mutual, despite each party’s (heh) wanting to convert the other. As the years progress slower than the madness that spread throughout the country, Holt grows up to be a lieutenant in the Gestapo, where he serves under the one and only Otto Kruger (who does not miss a single beat). Seizing the opportunity to politically kidnap Granville because of her Aryan heritage, Holt does so in order to protect the woman he loves ‒ even if his methods are all wrong.
This sends Prof. Smith out on a mad trek to locate his missing student turned aide turned would-be sweetheart, leading him into the hands of a seemingly foolish Lloyd Corrigan, who knows a lot more than he lets on. H.B. Warner has a memorable part as a Bishop who tries to help Granville in an impromptu escape, Hans Conreid is a sterilization-happy doctor whom even Ben Carson would find nuts, and former German refugee/future German cinema icon Peter van Eyck (who can also be seen in Hitler’s Madman) has a small part as an arresting officer. Dracula nemesis Edward Van Sloan also has a bit role in this ‒ another movie you would do wise to not expect an overly happy ending from.
The Warner Archive Collection presents this double dose of WWII propaganda from the Allied side to DVD-R as individual releases. Both titles look remarkably well, considering their age and the reputation they’ve earned since 1943 (none). There are a few blemishes during Ms. Granville’s escape in Hitler’s Children that will definitely not go unnoticed, though the remainder of both features look very crisp and clear. Each film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio with 2.0 mono audio, while Hitler’s Madman is the only title to include its original theatrical trailer as a special feature. Either way, both of these forgotten titles ‒ which just may serve as a reminder and/or warning to current generations ‒ come recommended.