Watch on the Rhine was a stage play first—written in 1941 by Lillian Hellman, and directed by Herman Shumlin (who would direct the film). It ran for a respectable 378 performances on Broadway. The play starred Paul Lukas as the dignified, philosophically austere, German anti-fascist Kurt Muller, husband to his passionately devoted wife, Sara (Mady Christians in the play, and Bette Davis in the film).
Despite the studio’s wanting Charles Boyer for the role of Kurt Muller, Lukas would go on to win three important awards for his powerfully reserved performance in the film: an Academy Award for Best Actor, a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor (in a Motion Picture Drama) and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.
The superbly taut and movingly eloquent screenplay fur Watch on the Rhine was written by Hellman’s longtime, on-again-off-again partner, writer Dashiell Hammett.
Wikipedia tells me about trouble on the set of the film: about how Bette Davis repeatedly clashed with director Shumlin because, although he had directed the play, he clearly had no experience as a film director (though in fact things seem to have worked out pretty well in that regard), and about the difficulties she seems to have had with actress Lucille Watson, who played the role of the mother, Fanny Farrelly, in both the play and the film. The Davis-Watson difficulties seem to have originated only from the fact that Watson was a Republican, while Davis was an impassioned Democrat and F.D.R supporter (feelings ran understandably high on the set of an intensely anti-Nazi film, made in Hollywood in 1943!).
Here’s a skimpy plot outline. The above-mentioned Kurt Muller (Lukas), his American wife Sara (Davis), and their three children journey back from Europe—where Kurt has been actively and rather famously engaged in anti-fascist activities—to visit Sara’s brother and, in particular, her mother (Lucille Watson) in her comfortable home in Washington: a brief haven for Novak and his family from the encircling terrors of Nazi Europe. The entire film—like the play—takes place mostly in the drawing room of the mother’s home—a brilliantly unusual site for the work’s harrowing examination of the issues of fascism and the war against it.
The visit is made problematic by the presence in the house of Teck de Brancovis, a Nazi-sympathizing Romanian count. Why he is in the house at all is, admittedly, a little peculiar, but his presence conveniently generates the eloquent and profoundly moving discourse that makes up most of the film—within which Novak and de Btrancovis anatomize the European situation in 1942 and come inexorably to their inevitable showdown.
Novak is riveting. So is Davis, of course, but what is most absorbing about her performance in Watch on the Rhine is the way she deliberately defers to Novak—without losing her commanding presence in the film. It’s a masterpiece of sustained performative tact, and it’s fascinating to watch.