Escape (1940)

After many letters to his mother, German actress Emmy Ritter (Alla Nazimova), are returned marked “address unknown,” her son Mark Preysing (Robert Taylor) decides to go to Germany and make sure she’s all right.  At first, nobody is willing to tell him where she is or help him find her.  Eventually he finds out that she has been arrested by Nazis for helping German refugees and been sent to a concentration camp.  The only lead he has is a postmark on a returned letter, so he goes to the city on the postmark.  One day he meets Countess Ruby von Treck (Norma Shearer) and asks her if she knew what happened to Emmy or could find out for him.  At first, she really doesn’t want to get involved in this ordeal.  But later when she sees her boyfriend Nazi General Kurt von Kolb (Conrad Veidt), she asks about Emmy and finds out that she is indeed in a concentration camp.

When Ruby tries to tell Mark where she is, she doesn’t have the heart to break the news to him.  But she changes her mind when she later finds out that Emmy is set to be executed very soon.  She tells him to go back to America, it’s too dangerous to get involved with, but then he meets Dr. Ditten.  Dr. Ditten is a physician at the concentration camp where Emmy is being held.  He doesn’t realize who Mark is at first, but he happens to be a fan of Emmy’s and has been secretly trying to help her any way he can.  When he realizes Mark is Emmy’s son, he asks Mark to come see him the next day and gives him a letter she had written to her children that was supposed to be delivered after she died.  The next day, at the concentration camp, everyone thinks that Emmy has died on her own.  What they don’t realize is Ditten had given her a drug to just put her into a coma and signed the papers declaring her dead, even though she’s actually still alive.  When Mark goes to see Dr. Ditten, Ditten explains what he’s done and that he’s arranged it so that Mark could come claim the body for burial and Emmy could be taken out of the concentration camp in a coffin.  Mark calls up Fritz, one of Emmy’s former servants, to come help him with this plan.  They arrange to meet up in a tavern, but while waiting for Fritz to arrive, Mark is questioned by some Nazis.  Their questioning makes him nervous and the Nazis don’t buy his answers so they bring him to the concentration camp for further questioning.  He ends up finding Fritz there and it comes out that he was really looking to claim his mother’s body.  They do let Mark and Fritz take Emmy, but not without making them jump through a bunch of hoops first.

As soon as they think they’ve successfully got Emmy to freedom, the only road they can take turns out to be blocked.  Not willing to give up, Mark remembers that they are close to Ruby’s home and they head there.  Again, Ruby is hesitant about having them in her house, but has too much sympathy for Mark to throw them out.  By now, Emmy has come out of her coma, but is very ill.  Ruby runs a boarding school out of her house, so to avoid being caught, she sends all but one of her students to go skiing for a day (one was too ill to go).  Kurt isn’t as easily fooled, though, and is suspicious when he sees Mark at her house.  After she gets rid of Kurt, she helps Mark and Fritz disguise Emmy and steals a passport for Emmy.  But just as they’re about to leave, Kurt returns and Ruby sneaks them out through the back while she distracts him.  She tells Kurt that she doesn’t love him, she loves Mark instead.  The shock of the news gives Kurt a heart attack and he dies, giving Mark, Emmy, and Fritz ample time to escape for good.

I picked Escape to watch today because I had actually recorded it last year when it was part of Norma Shearer day but I had never gotten around to actually watching it.  After finally seeing it today, I’m not sure why I put it off for so long.  This was an excellent drama, very taut and suspenseful.  Lots of great performances to be seen here.  Even though Conrad Veidt was a staunch anti-Nazi, he sure played Nazis chillingly well.  I tend to prefer Norma’s pre-code and silent roles, but she was pretty amazing in Escape.  At first, I was a little disappointed because it seemed like she wasn’t getting much screen time, but she did start getting more time as the movie progressed and by the time the movie was over, she was at the top of her game.  I’m so, so glad that I finally got around to this one, I loved it.


  1. Oddly enough it also took me a long time to get around to seeing this one, even though I adore both Nazimova and especially Veidt. But when I did see it, boy, I loved it. You’re right, it’s just so perfectly suspenseful!

  2. Two more titles to go, and Norma says goodbye to films, and this was the last one with dramatic meat on the bone. The final showdown scene between Norma and Veidt is as worthy as anything out of Hitchcock.

    Her final two films, We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover (which reunited her with Taylor) were weak comedies. Not terrible, but hardly worthy swansongs for a retiring queen of MGM. Fatally, for the principal reason of appeasing her vanity, Norma turned down Mrs. Miniver, because at 40, she didn’t want to play the mother of Army-age son. That’s one, I think, makes every Shearer fan like me, hang their head. Kay Miniver would have surely revitalized Norma’s career at least another half-decade.

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