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Hitler’s Children (DVD Review)

21 Dec, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive       
$21.99 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Tim Holt, Bonita Granville, Kent Smith, Otto Kruger.

Though it’s probably not a household name to any but the most inveterate TCM watchers, we’re looking here at the biggest sleeper in the entire history of RKO — bigger, even, than the one I’d have guessed claimed that honor (Cat People, which came out a year earlier and also featured Kent Smith in the cast). How big? Well, according to both the AFI Catalog for the 1940s and the estimable coffee-table classic The RKO Story, this Nazi Youth potboiler took in $3.5 million and change in old-school dollars on a production cost of $205,000 — more than the money amassed by Little Women, Top Hat and even King Kong, to name three blockbuster predecessors from the RKO hall of fame. No one ever said Der Fuehrer wasn’t box office, and especially in 1943, when this picture opened the very first week of the year.

The success of Hitler’s Children also helped get director Edward Dmytryk out of ‘B’ pictures, and by late year he was doing Tender Comrade (screenplay by the currently newsworthy Dalton Trumbo), followed by the noir all-timer Murder, My Sweet. Again according to the AFI Catalog, Dmytryk replaced director Irving Reis, who is said to have stormed off the set over his inability to work with leads Tim Holt and Bonita Granville, whatever that meant. The two are certainly adequate enough here and a dramatic contrast in hairstyles. My archive collection contains two hours of old Lustre Crème Shampoo commercials from the 1950s and early ’60s, and even after her character’s extended tenure in a Nazi work camp, Granville’s lustrous blonde locks here could have been included. Holt, meanwhile, sports the latest in modified Nazi Youth buzz-cuts.

Based on the memoirs of an American educator and onetime broadcaster who taught at an American school in Germany, Children offers a familiar role for actor Smith, who always came off on screen as someone who probably emerged from the womb smoking a pipe. One of his prized students is Granville, who becomes a childhood friend of Holt (at this point mostly but not fully into his country’s Youth movement). But as years go by and Hitler’s ways become more entrenched into society, this isn’t a romantic union that can sustain itself — especially when Granville barely avoids a full-fledged concentration camp in favor of a relatively benign “work” facility that tries to indoctrinate her wayward self into serving the Master Race and its leader. There’s actually a scene here where one female prisoner says she hopes to endure painful child delivery so that it will demonstrate her party loyalty — pretty wild movie stuff for 1943 (Otto Preminger’s The Moon Is Blue suffered censorship hassles 10 years later for including the word “pregnant” in its script). It has been said that Hollywood censors looked the other way with Children in the name of anti-Nazi propaganda (a rare case when the Hays Office was on the side of the angels).

I owned a copy of the Griffith and Mayer coffee-table book The Movies when it came out in 1957, and I can recall being disturbed as a 10-year-old seeing the still photo in it of Granville taking lashes by Nazis (lashing being the exclusive movie province of male victims in seafaring fare like Mutiny on the Bounty and Two Years Before the Mast, or so I had thought). This may have been movie sensationalism with a cause, but it was still sensationalism, and it’s easy to see why the picture became a breakout smash. But little did anyone know of the real Holocaust horrors that would eventually be divulged (unless I was sleeping, I don’t think there’s a single variation on the word “Jew” is in the Children script).

Despite the movie’s popularity, it didn’t really propel the two leads to any mass popularity. Granville, a onetime child actress, had already gotten an Oscar nomination for playing the evil little girl that even Mother Teresa would want to bitch-slap in William Wyler’s These Three — the non-lesbian first screen version of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, though ironically a much better movie than Wyler’s own more faithful remake. I had forgotten that she grew up to be quite attractive as an adult — in part because she eventually gave up acting to become a very successful TV producer of “Lassie” with her husband. The two also bought the rights to “The Lone Ranger,” where their two sins against society were forbidding Clayton Moore to wear his iconographic LR outfit in personal appearances and also producing 1979’s bomb-o-rama The Legend of the Lone Ranger starring Klinton Spilsbury (now there was a career).

And speaking of careers, Holt had one of the oddest in movie history — starring primarily in ‘B’ Westerns at RKO (which were quite high-end of kind) but also managing to appear in three of the best films of 1940s Hollywood: The Magnificent Ambersons, My Darling Clementine and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Eventually, he bailed after 1957’s The Monster That Challenged the World (yeah, that would do it), an-is-what-it-is creature feature that Kino actually has brought out on Blu-ray. For years, it was listed in sources as his final film, though IMDb.com has come up with a half-a-hand’s worth of subsequent pavement scrapers, including a little-seen time machine cheapie about a Nazi scientist who travels back to wartime Germany. Even if, like Hitler’s Children, it had made back 16 or 17 times its cost, that still would have been only $4.98.

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