Escape (1940): LeRoy’s Agit-Prop Political Thriller, Starring Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor, Conrad Veidt and Alla Nazimova

Set in pre-World War II Nazi Germany, Escape is a political thriller about an American who, upon discovering that his mother is in concentration camp, tries desperately to free her.

Poster - Escape (1940) 01.jpg

Starring Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor, Conrad Veidt and Alla Nazimova, Escape was adapted from the novel of the same name by Grace Zaring Stone.

Nazimova plays a famous German stage actress, Emmy Ritter, held captive in a Nazi concentration camp. She is scheduled to be executed soon, but the sympathetic camp doctor Ditten (Philip Dorn), who has been a fan since childhood, offers to deliver a letter from her to her children.

Emmy’s son Mark Preysing (Robert Taylor), an American citizen, travels to Germany in search of his mother. A German official tells Mark that she has been arrested and advises him to return to the US.

The postmark of a returned letter guides Mark to the region where she is being held. There, he meets by chance Countess Ruby von Treck (Norma Shearer), an American-born widow, but initially she also does not want to become involved. But later on, she asks her lover, General Kurt von Kolb (Conrad Veidt), about Emmy and learns that Emmy has been judged a traitor in a secret trial and sentenced to death.

At a concert, Mark encounters Doctor Ditten, who delivers Emmy’s letter. Then, Ditten drugs Emmy into a coma, making it appear as if she has died.

Mark sends family servant Fritz Keller (Felix Bressart) to collect the coffin, but the police is suspicious, and he is brought to the camp. He is allowed to take his mother’s body away. The road is blocked by snow, and Mark is forced to find shelter for his mother at the countess’ house.

When Mark and a disguised Emmy leave for the airport, von Kolb confronts the countess. She begs him not to interfere, but he is implacable.  She taunts him with her love of Mark, which provokes a heart attack, clearing the way for her friends to escape.

The film was a commercial success due to its timely subject and all-star cast. Made on a budget of $1.2 million, Escape was profitable at the box-office, both domestic and international.

Norma Shearer as Countess Ruby von Treck
Robert Taylor as Mark Preysing
Conrad Veidt as General Kurt von Kolb
Alla Nazimova as Emmy Ritter
Felix Bressart as Fritz Keller
Philip Dorn as Dr. Berthold Ditten
Albert Bassermann as Dr. Arthur Henning
Edgar Barrier as the Commissioner of Police
Bonita Granville as Ursula, a student of the Countess
Elsa Bassermann as Mrs. Henning
Blanche Yurka as Emmy’s concentration camp nurse-matron
Lisa Golm as Anna, Emmy’s ill cellmate


Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Produced by Mervyn LeRoy and Lawrence Weingarten (uncredited)
Written by Arch Oboler, Marguerite Roberts, based on the novel by Grace Zaring Stone
Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography: Robert H. Planck
Edited by George Boemler
Distributed by MGM
Release date: November 1, 1940
Running time: 98 minutes


I am grateful to TCM for showing this film on January 22, 2020.