Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) is a leader of an underground movement, but recently things have gotten so bad for him that he and his family decide to flee to America. Kurt’s mother-in-law, Fanny Farrelly (Lucile Watson), lives there with her other children. She prepares excitedly for her family to arrive. She hasn’t seen her daughter (Bette Davis) in eighteen years and has never met her children. What a happy family reunion! Fanny thinks that they are simply leaving the country to avoid the rise of Nazi power, but they have been fighting it for years and moving around frequently to keep hidden.
Fun little game in mid-review: Describe Snidely Whiplash in two words. Quickly, no time to think! If you said mustache and pointy nose, that also describes the Duke, our villain sporting the classic villain look.
Duke Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris) is a Romanian Count currently residing in the Farrelly household with his wife. This is never clearly explained, but we assume either he or the wife is on friendly terms and we can assume that this is a way to help them during their financial crisis. The Duke is constantly hanging out at the German Embassy, gambling with the Nazis and learning the latest from Germany. Anyway, now we’ve got a wannabe Nazi in the same house as an anti-Nazi underground group leader from Germany. Cue tension!
Now, the first half of the film just feels muddled. We see Fanny running around for her daughter’s arrival and picking up candy for her grandkids, so we think this will become a fun comedy with a full house. But then the Duke gets snoopy and we learn more about Kurt’s past, then it switches to the utmost seriousness. Meanwhile, the kids are being entertained and the littlest one is especially cheeky and long winded. Yes, it’s hard to tell where this story is going to end up for a while.
I believe this whole confusing part is to show the difference between American thinking and European thinking. In Europe, everyone is experiencing everything going to hell first hand. Whereas, in America, they can only read about it in the papers and can just go about their day worrying about candy. There’s even an interesting line right after Fanny and her son leave the room, leaving only Kurt and the Duke where they say, “The New World has left the room.” Only then can they discuss European matters with the brutal truth.
Watch on the Rhine has some good ideas to present and the whole family motif is meant to show sacrifice, but the one word I found to fully describe this film was, “Meh.” Take it or leave it, I wasn’t engrossed, but I wasn’t bored and begging for it to end. In fact, it’s in the last half hour that I enjoyed it the most. If you enjoy stories about fleeing German Nazis or rebellion in WWII, go for it, otherwise, just watch Casablanca to check off ’43.
Sorry for the confusion during the mid-review game, I guess that was three words. Those of you who guessed “top hat” can have an extra point for my mistake.