WOMEN IN BONDAGE (1943) from Warner Archive: Hitler Wants Your Baby!

GailIf Lifetime had made movies during World War II, they might have resembled WOMEN IN BONDAGE (1943), a heavy-handed hybrid of soap opera, war movie, and women-in-prison picture from Poverty Row powerhouse Monogram. This rarely seen programmer recently made its home video debut on manufacture-on-demand DVD from Warner Archive, and it’s an oddity that’s worth a look.

Statuesque Gail Patrick, delightfully icy as Carole Lombard’s scheming sister in Gregory La Cava’s MY MAN GODFREY (1936), is somewhat miscast here as Margot Bracken, a good-natured German expat who returns to the Fatherland to live with the family of her husband, a soldier who’s been forced to the front. Lots of things have changed during her decade-long absence, as she discovers when she steps off the Stock Footage Express in a Berlin suburb.

“We’re going to make a real Hitler woman out of you,” sister-in-law Ruth (Tala Birell) promises ominously, as Margot chuckles. “You don’t know what’s in store for you. It’s all been arranged.”

First rule for female characters in movies: beware of anyone who says “it’s all been arranged,” particularly when those arrangements involve you and your reproductive system.

Despite her objections and complete lack of qualifications, Margot is placed in command of a female paramilitary unit whose sole mission appears to be marching around tiny sets and preparing to procreate. Loudspeakers blast propaganda as the teenaged soldiers stand at attention.

“We are superior to all other women, and motherhood is our sacred goal! Yours is the greatest destiny to create the Master Race! Work, marry, and obey! Heil Hitler!”

Women_in_bondageBefore the fertile forces can deploy to das schlafzimmer for their baby making missions, they must first undergo the 1943 equivalent of genetic testing to determine if, in fact, they are Master Race-y enough.

“Fortunately for you, the points of your ear tips are below the base of your nose,” a grim-faced inspector informs half-naked Toni Hall (Nancy Kelly, later to be the mom of THE BAD SEED), as she is impolitely poked and prodded. “Otherwise Semitic blood would be indicated.”

Toni may have passed the purity test but, when she flunks the eyesight portion of the exam, controversy begins to swirl. In most cultures this would mean a visit to the ophthalmologist and some corrective eyewear. But in Nazi Germany, at least according to WOMEN IN BONDAGE, nearsightedness meant shame and ostracism. It also meant that Toni could not marry her longtime boyfriend Heinz (Bill Henry), a member of the S.S.

“For the building of the super Master Race, only physically perfect women can be permitted to marry the cream of German manhood,” the inspector informs her dispassionately.

Heinz apparently loves the Führer more than his fiancée, because he barely misses a beat when he learns the news.

“I can’t see you again,” he tells Toni, which is an unfortunate thing to say to someone who’s getting dumped due to poor eyesight.

Toni’s myopia earns her a stint in military lock-up and whippings at the hand of sadistic torturers. But nothing hurts more than watching Heinz canoodle with a Nordic blonde as Toni is transferred in shackles. She escapes, and is gunned down in the street.

“Oh Heinz,” she laments, as she’s cradled in the arms of Grete Ziegler (Maris Wrixon). “They were right about my eyes. I can’t see anymore.”

When Margot’s efforts to help Toni prove unsuccessful, she turns her attention to Grete, a flower shop owner whose husband was killed in battle. The widow’s efforts to baptize her newborn in the Christian faith are thwarted when German soldiers raid the church and drag her and the infant off, along with the priest (a 13th billed H.B. Warner, who played Christ Himself in DeMille’s KING OF KINGS in 1927). Margot is saved from arrest by her brother-in-law Otto (Alan Baxter), who has some stern advice for her.

“You will be sensible, my dear Margot,” Otto insists. “Do you want us all in a concentration camp?”

women_in_Bondage_2Otto and his men have other plans for Grete’s baby – a Nazi baptism, complete with a roomful of soldiers, giant Swastikas, and a sword. The unsuspecting baby lies on an altar next to a copy of Mein Kampf, as a single candle burns beside him. Desperately fearing for her life and that of her child, Grete is forced to clasp the dagger as she recites the oath of evil.

“As the mother of this child I promise to raise him in the German spirit,” she parrots. “To obey our Fuhrer in life. And death.”

The heroic priest storms in and quickly blesses the child, before he is dragged off once again, this time likely to his demise. Margot attempts to help him, but is restrained by Otto.

“Tell me about the concentration camps, the mercy killings, the assassinations, the brutal murders,” she laments to her brother-in-law. “Come Otto, tell me of these glories.”

“Don’t you realize that everything you do affects your husband,” Otto retorts. “Do you want to dishonor him? To disgrace him?”

Margot’s love for Ernst (Roland Varno) forces her to remain silent, until he returns from battle – paralyzed from the waist down, and unable to father a child. This throws a monkey wrench into the Master Plan for Margot’s Maternity, but only temporarily.

“The fact that Capt. Ernst Bracken has served his Fatherland well does not mean that the Third Reich should be deprived of his wife’s children,” District Director Schneider (Gertrude Michael) tells her. “The man does not necessarily need to be your husband.”

If you know anything about the Motion Picture Production Code, you know a government official coercing a married woman to have extra-marital sex was not likely to pass muster with the censors – even if the official was a Nazi. And that’s one of the great things about Poverty Row pictures. While they were still subject to regional censorship guidelines, B-grade producers like Monogram did not seek the Production Code seal of approval, which allowed them to be more frank in their content. For these films, low in budget but high in entertainment value, it’s as if the Pre-Code Era never ended.

box“You may find it hard to believe that such things are taking place because they could not possibly happen to you,” a cautionary disclaimer proclaims during the opening credits of WOMEN IN BONDAGE. “For that, thank a divine Providence and the country in which you live.”

WOMEN IN BONDAGE is an extraordinarily watchable film. But it’s filled with hyperbolically scripted plot points that are staged in such a matter-of-fact manner it makes me wonder if Monogram was deliberately trying to underplay the overtly political nature of the story. Or perhaps that was a just a necessity of the rapid pace of the low-budget production model. The schmaltzy incidental music, in particular, often softens the edges of veteran screenwriter Houston Branch’s script (based on a story by Frank Bentick Wisbar). Both German native Wisbar and Hungarian director Steve Sekely fled the Nazis, which gives this film a level of depth not often found in Grade B potboilers, despite the occasionally threadbare production values.

The transfer of WOMEN IN BONDAGE has not been restored or re-mastered, but is in remarkably good shape for a 70-year-old Poverty Row quickie. There are, however, two instances of what appear to be editorial truncations. It’s unclear if these were just last-minute censorship edits made prior to the film’s theatrical debut, or if they were content alterations made for subsequent releases or TV syndication. I suspect it’s the former, considering how reliable the Warner Archive Collection is in releasing definitive theatrical versions.

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About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer and classic film obsessive. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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7 Responses to WOMEN IN BONDAGE (1943) from Warner Archive: Hitler Wants Your Baby!

  1. Jennifer says:

    Wild! Makes me think of CAGED. Great write-up, as usual, Will!

  2. good lord, this film sounds like a must-see – how has it missed my camp radar all these years? thanks for a terrific post!

    • willmckinley says:

      I felt the same way. George Feltenstein from the Warner Archive Collection said recently on their podcast that these Monogram films have not been available for decades. If there are others like WOMEN IN BONDAGE in the vaults, sign me up!

  3. John says:

    Sounds like a good film. I always liked Gail Patrick and always wished she had done more films. She had that certain type of voice which included that speaking through her nose type quality. Which to my quirky personality I always found very appealing.

  4. Wow, I think I’m going to have to get this one. It sounds CRAAAAAZY.

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