Monty Woolley inadvertently “accumulates” children in need and tries against increasing odds to help them escape Nazi-occupied France.
The Pied Piper (1942) was suggested to me by regular reader and frequent commenter John, as part of the “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Movie Challenge” (aka make me watch & review a movie).
Monty Woolley is a gruff and grouchy Englishman on a fishing vacation in Switzerland when the Nazis invade France. He’s talked into taking back to England (and safety) the two children (Roddy McDowall and Peggy Ann Garner) of the diplomat also staying there. Woolley resists but his hard shell cracks to reveal his soft center, and he reluctantly takes the kids on what becomes a long, complicated and increasingly dangerous trek through France to England. As the enemy tightens their grip, train lines are blocked, routes shut down, then a bus and refugee convoy are strafed and bombed, then a secret escape is uncovered by the Nazis, Woolley keeps unintentionally “accumulating” more children, a couple more French and one Dutch, all lost and alone and seeking freedom.
This is a simple movie with a lot of pleasures ranging from cute to deeply touching, foremost being Woolley’s performance, for which he was properly Oscar nominated. He starts by arguing bitterly with little McDowall about whether Rochester is a state or a city, which sets them both up as stubborn and prickly, but as they try to cope with the horrors of the war and death around them, they both grow “toward” each other. Woolley comes to understand the kids are wise and open, direct and resourceful, and that listening to them can (as in the case of them choosing to sit by the river which saves them from the Luftwaffe attack) have its benefits. McDowall grows from a smart alecky brat (his imitation of his sister barfing is hilarious) into a more polite, responsible and caring young man who respects Woolley and takes charge when he has to.
On the way through France, Woolley and company stop to get help from a family he met last year on vacation, where the daughter Anne Baxter escorts them to a relative (J. Carrol Naish) who might arrange a boat across the Channel. There is a heart wrenching moment where Woolley reveals that his son has been killed in the war, while Baxter reveals that not only does she remember Woolley’s son, but that they had a romance. Woolley’s intense pride at the fact that it took “three Nazi pilots” to bring down his son is something concrete he can hold onto in his grief, and that grief goes a way to explaining his aversion to children and the warmth and memories they undoubtedly bring him. Woolley and Baxter don’t overplay that powerful little scene, which demonstrates their great acting talent and serves the plot, since they are trying to be valiant in front of each other, strong adults in front of the children and inconspicuous under the observation of the ever-present Nazis.
Every acting choice of Woolley’s is just right, as he faces some grim scenes of sudden, brutal and random death, and always has the welfare of the children in mind regardless of how much he professes to hate them on principle. At the beginning of the movie he says he “reported for war duty” but was rejected for everything because of his old age. Because he’s made to feel useless, and mocks those lesser jobs he was offered, you often wonder if he even realizes that by helping these children he IS serving in a vital and most honorable way. And of course long before he admits it openly, he gives many signs that he definitely knows and takes it seriously, though he’ll never brag about it.
As impressively grown up as the children can be, they can’t avoid arguing about a petty little thing in public, which leads to their capture and imprisonment. The Nazi Commander incessantly questioning them is none other than Otto Preminger, who is convinced they are part of some elaborate spy ring. He’s stubbornly slow to see the truth, even slower to grasp that someone could just be concerned about a bunch of random children’s safety. Actually he just seems slow. Turns out he’s thoroughly testing Woolley’s resolve and hearing out his plans, because he has his own reason to be sure Woolley is for real. Pied Piper probably had greater impact on 1942 audiences but it still touches today because it’s sweet without being overly saccharine, conveys common truths about war and common links of humanity, and brings together things only the naive and innocent can see, as well as realities only the mature and experienced can understand. …”Nicht mehr “Heil Hitler.” Thanks John for a great pick!