Watch on the Rhine

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Watch on the Rhine
File:Watch on the Rhine poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Herman Shumlin
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Written by Lillian Hellman
Screenplay by Dashiell Hammett
Based on Watch on the Rhine (play)
Starring Bette Davis
Paul Lukas
Geraldine Fitzgerald
Lucile Watson
Beulah Bondi
George Coulouris
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Merritt B. Gerstad
Hal Mohr
Edited by Rudi Fehr
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • August 27, 1943 (1943-08-27)
Running time
114 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Watch on the Rhine is a 1943 American film drama directed by Herman Shumlin, starring Bette Davis. The screenplay by Dashiell Hammett is based on the 1941 play of the same title by Lillian Hellman.


In 1940, German-born engineer Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas), his American wife Sara (Bette Davis), and their children Joshua (Donald Buka), Babette (Janis Wilson), and Bodo (Eric Roberts) cross the Mexican border into the United States to visit Sara's brother David Farrelly (Donald Woods) and their mother Fanny (Lucile Watson) in Washington, D.C. For the past seventeen years, the Muller family has lived in Europe, where Kurt responded to the rise of Nazism by engaging in anti-Fascist activities. Sara tells her family they are seeking peaceful sanctuary on American soil, but their quest is threatened by the presence of houseguest Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris), an opportunistic Romanian count who has been conspiring with the Germans in the nation's capital.

Teck searches the Mullers' room and discovers a gun and money intended to finance underground operations in Germany in a locked briefcase. Shortly after, the Mullers learn resistance worker Max Freidank has been arrested, and because he once rescued Kurt from the Gestapo, Kurt plans to return to Germany to assist Max and those arrested with him. Aware Kurt will be in great danger if the Nazis discover he is returning to Germany, Teck demands $10,000 to keep silent, and Kurt kills him. Realizing the dangers Kurt faces, Fanny and David agree to help him escape.

Time passes, and when the Mullers fail to hear from Kurt, Joshua announces he plans to search for his father as soon as he turns eighteen. Although distraught by the possibility of losing her son as well as her husband, Sara resolves to be brave when the time comes for Joshua to leave.


The Lillian Hellman play had enjoyed a respectable run of 378 performances on Broadway.[1] Feeling its focus on patriotism would make it an ideal and prestigious propaganda film at the height of World War II,[2] Jack L. Warner paid $150,000 for the screen rights.[3][4][5]

Because Bette Davis was involved with Now, Voyager, producer Hal B. Wallis began searching for another actress for the role of Sara Muller while Hellman's lover Dashiell Hammett began writing the screenplay at their farm in Pleasantville, New York. Irene Dunne liked the material but felt the role was too small, and Margaret Sullavan expressed no interest whatsoever. Edna Best, Rosemary DeCamp, and Helen Hayes also were considered.

For the role of Kurt Muller, Wallis wanted Charles Boyer. He, however, felt his French accent was wrong for the character,[5] so the producer decided to cast Paul Lukas, who had originated the role on Broadway and had been honored by the Drama League of New York for his performance.[4]

Meanwhile, Hammett was sidelined by an injured back, and by the time he was ready to resume work on the script Now, Voyager was close to completion. Wallis sent Davis, a staunch supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a fierce opponent of the Nazi Party, the screenplay-in-progress and she immediately accepted the offer.

With Davis cast as Sara, Wallis encouraged Hammett to embellish what essentially was a secondary role to make it worthy of the leading lady's status as a star,[5] and to open up the story by adding scenes outside the Farrelly living room, which had been the sole setting on stage.[4] The Production Code Administration was concerned that Kurt Muller escaped prosecution for his murder of Teck de Brancovis, and the Hays Office suggested it be established Kurt was killed by the Nazis at the end of the film in order to show he paid for his crime. Playwright Ross objected and the studio agreed Kurt had been justified in shooting Teck, and the scene remained.[3]

Filming began on June 15, 1942, and did not go smoothly. Beginning only a week after Now, Voyager had ended production, Davis was working without a substantial vacation and was on edge. As a result, she immediately clashed with Herman Shumlin, who had directed the play but had no experience in film, and tended to ignore his suggestions.

Her emotional overacting prompted Wallis to send Shumlin numerous memos urging the director to tone down her performance.[5] Shumlin threatened to quit because he was unhappy with cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad, who eventually was replaced by Hal Mohr in order to appease the director.[4] Meanwhile, Davis also was at odds with Lucile Watson, who was reprising the role of the mother she had portrayed on stage, because she was a Republican whose political views sharply contrasted with those of the Democratic Davis. She and Lukas, however, got along really well.[5]

Several exterior scenes shot on location in Washington were cut from the film prior to its release due to wartime restrictions on the filming of government buildings.

When Wallis announced he was giving Davis top billing, she argued it was ridiculous to do so given hers was a supporting role. The studio's publicity department argued it was her name that would attract an audience and, despite her resistance, the film's credits and all promotional materials listed her first.[5]

Davis and Lukas reprised their roles for a radio adaptation that aired in the January 10, 1944, broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater.


Critical reception

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "a distinguished film — a film full of sense, power and beauty" and added, "Its sense resides firmly in its facing one of civilization's most tragic ironies, its power derives from the sureness with which it tells a mordant tale and its beauty lies in its disclosures of human courage and dignity. It is meager praise to call it one of the fine adult films of these times." He continued, "Miss Hellman's play tends to be somewhat static in its early stretches on the screen. With much of the action confined to one room in the American home, development depends largely on dialogue — which is dangerous in films. But the prose of Miss Hellman is so lucid, her characters so surely conceived and Mr. Shumlin has directed for such fine tension in this his first effort for the screen that movement is not essential. The characters propel themselves." In conclusion, he said, "An ending has been given the picture which advances the story a few months and shows the wife preparing to let her older son follow his father back to Europe. This is dramatically superfluous, but the spirit is good in these times. And it adds just that much more heroism to a fine, sincere, outspoken film." [6]

Variety called it "a distinguished picture . . . even better than its powerful original stage version. It expresses the same urgent theme, but with broader sweep and in more affecting terms of personal emotion. The film more than retains the vital theme of the original play. It actually carries the theme further and deeper, and it does so with passionate conviction and enormous skill . . . Just as he was in the play, Paul Lukas is the outstanding star of the film. Anything his part may have lost in the transfer of key lines to Bette Davis is offset by the projective value of the camera for closeups. His portrayal of the heroic German has the same quiet strength and the slowly gathering force that it had on the stage, but it now seems even better defined and carefully detailed, and it has much more vitality. In the lesser starring part of the wife Davis gives a performance of genuine distinction." [7]

Davis stated in a 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, that she played the role of the wife for 'name value' because the studio did not consider the film a good financial risk, and that her name above the credits would draw audiences. Davis gladly took the secondary role because she felt the story was so important, and that Miss Hellman's writing was 'super brilliant'[8]

The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures observed, "Paul Lukas here has a chance to be indisputably the fine actor he always has shown plenty signs of being. Bette Davis subdues herself to a secondary role almost with an air of gratitude for being able to at last be uncomplicatedly decent and admirable. It is not a very colorful performance, but quiet loyalty and restrained heroism do not furnish many outlets for histrionic show, and Miss Davis is artist enough not to throw any extra bits of it to prove she is one of the stars." [4]

Awards and nominations

The film won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Picture.

It was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Paul Lukas won the Academy Award for Best Actor, the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama (the first time the award was presented), and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.

Lucile Watson was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress but lost to Katina Paxinou in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Dashiel Hammett was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay but lost to Philip G. Epstein, Julius J. Epstein, and Howard Koch for Casablanca.

DVD release

On April 1, 2008, Warner Home Video released the film as part of the box set The Bette Davis Collection, Volume 3.


  1. "Watch on the Rhine". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2015-08-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Dick, Bernard F. (May 21, 2004). Hal Wallis, Producer to the Stars. University of Kentucky Press. p. 76. ISBN 978-0813123172. Unknown parameter |subscription= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Watch on the Rhine (1943)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2015-08-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Stine, Whitney; Davis, Bette (May 1, 1974). Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis. New York: Hawthorn Books. pp. 170–172. ISBN 978-0801551840.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Higham, Charles (October 1, 1981). Bette: The Life of Bette Davis. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 164–166. ISBN 978-0025515000.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Crowther, Bosley (August 28, 1943). "Movie Review: Watch on the Rhine". The New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Review: 'Watch on the Rhine'". Variety. December 31, 1942. Retrieved 2015-08-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "The Dick Cavett Show: Season 6, Episode 40: Bette Davis". Internet Movie Data Base. Unknown parameter |airdate= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links