First Comes Courage (1943): Dorothy Arzner’s Last Film Starring Merle Oberon


Merle Oberon and Brian Aherne star in the WWII propaganda film  First Comes Courage, directed by Dorothy Arzner, the only female filmmaker in Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s to have had a sustained directorial career.

In this feature, which became her very last film, Arzner deviated again from narrative conventions by telling the story of a Second World War spy named Nicole Larsen (Merle Oberon), who works for the Norwegian underground.

She is perceived in town as a traitor because she’s dating a Nazi (Carl Edmond). But she (and we the viewers) know better, namely, that Nicole is trying to get information to the underground.

Melodrama kicks in, when a British, who is smuggled into the country, is captured by the Nazis and needs to be rescued. Guess who’s doing the job.

Like most of Arzner’s films, First Comes Courage features a strong-minded heroine. When Nicole faces disgrace, she decides to meet the challenge head-on, with courage and dignity.

The movie also contains a role reversal: the villain’s love for the heroine is more important than his political allegiance.  By contrast, Nicole’s mission takes precedence over her love for Brian Herne.  But, true to genre conventions, at the end the villain is portrayed as coward.

Most people associate Merle Oberon with romantic melodramas, such as The Dark Angel with Frederic March in 1935, for which she received her first and only Best Actress Oscar nomination, and Wuthering Heights in 1939, opposite Laurence Olivier.

Made at the height of WWII, First Comes Courage is understandably an agit-prop picture. It’s also not a coincidence that several movies centered on the conflict with Nazis in countries such as Norway.  Other movies about the Norwegian Resistance include Commandos Strike at Dawn and some Errol Flynn’s WWII features.



Produced by Harry Joe Brown

Screenplay: Lewis Meltzer, Melvin Levy, based on the novel “The Commandos,’ by Elliott Arnold.

Camera (b/w): Joseph Walker

Running time: 88 Minutes

Release date: Sep 10, 1943