"Summer Storm" isn't one of Sirk's masterpieces, but it's no throwaway programmer.
Summer Storm is the second American film of Douglas Sirk and his second independent production with producer Seymour Nebenzal, a fellow exile from Hitler’s Germany. It’s his first film with actor George Sanders, who displays the talent for multi-faceted roles that would go even farther in their collaboration on A Scandal in Paris, one of the great films of the ‘40s. It’s enough to make one sad that Sanders was quickly typecast as a suave villain, although he was perfect as such.
Summer Storm isn’t one of Sirk’s masterpieces, but it’s no throwaway programmer. Despite the conventions of its era, this is a literate, witty, and stylish entry.
In the new Soviet Russia of 1919, the impoverished former Count Volsky (Edward Everett Horton) finds a publisher and tries to sell a manuscript by his friend Fedor (Sanders). The publisher turns out to be Nadena (Anna Lee), Fedor’s old fianceé. The manuscript recounts events of seven years earlier, the summer of 1912, leading to the main story in flashback.
That’s a dream of Old Russia with idle, decadent aristocrats, their servants and serfs, and the Holy Mother Church. (Many of these scenes employ the visual expertise of Eugen Schüfftan, presumably the rainbow shot and the shot of onion domes through Fedor’s window.) Fedor is a local judge engaged to Nadena. The Count is avoiding his debts and pressing his attentions upon his maid.
One day during a thunderstorm, Fedor and the Count meet Olga (Linda Darnell), a peasant girl who, in typical Hollywood style, is also a stylishly made-up vixen. She talks like a halfwit about the “heavenly electricity” that took her mother to Heaven and is bound to do the same with her. However, she’s not so simple as she seems. She had been aware of their presence as they came upon her sleeping in the greenhouse, and everything she does from that moment is calculated to catch one or both of them in her ambition not to stay poor. She’s not quite a femme fatale, but paves the way to Darnell’s similar roles in Fallen Angel and Forever Amber.
Her fiancé is the Count’s overseer (Hugo Haas), who arranges with her grasping father (Sig Ruman) to marry her off in a scene staged with loving elaboration by Sirk. The Count, who loves “the unusual, the bizarre”, throws an embarrassing wedding party for her as a spectacle for snobs. Fedor is hopelessly snared, and the situation only becomes intolerable when he realizes Olga is playing him off against the Count to hedge her bets. She’s quite practical.
The last act occurs during the Count’s shooting party, when the story becomes a murder mystery. We return to the framing story for the final outcome of Fedor’s fortunes.
Mavens of Russian literature will recognize the plot of Chekhov’s novel The Shooting Party, which is now recognized as a curious precursor to Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (Apparently there’s only been one other film version, from the Soviet Union in 1978.) Sirk and writer Rowland Leigh have even kept the frame and flashback structure, though it’s been interestingly modified and not only to appease the censors.
The novel had nothing to do with being before or after the Revolution. That 1885 work was a contemporary tale, while a straight filming during World War II would have made it merely a period piece. By introducing this post-Communist element, with posters of fighting soldiers on the walls, the film has a contemporary resonance while still managing to be a period piece. Indeed, now it’s all the more about an irrevocably vanished past, and the implication is that no one will miss it. This is evidence of the wartime alliance between the US and USSR.
Sirk’s camera paces around smoothly and especially likes to follow people through doorways. There are suggestive compositions, like Olga’s grinning father milking a goat under the stairway while his daughter ascends, her bare feet peekaboo-ing through the slats. This carries a startling suggestion of the pimp-whore relationship suggested in their dialogue, as though he might look up her dress and she might be pausing to tease him about it.
Another early composition places Fedor, as he hears about Olga’s marriage, in front of a skinned cat hanging on the wall. Will he be the skinner or the skinned? There are moments of picturesque grace and ritual, and of course Sirk isn’t afraid to build up to a dramatically underlined moment. At least one moment of such potential, during the courtroom scene, is wittily undercut by a spectator’s gesture.
The large cast of excellent character players includes several other European refugees, and an intelligent decision is made in the casting. The uneducated peasants and serfs are played by actors who speak with Euro-accents (Haas, Rumann, Lori Lahner as the maid), while the educated characters have no accents. The single exception is Darnell, a thorough peasant and woodcutter’s daughter who speaks like a Hollywood starlet. This reinforces the credibility of her desire to move upward and her ease of doing so. It’s as though Nature has made a mistake and she’s really been born into the wrong class.
In this story, she couldn’t have been considered by the upper class for more than a fling if she talked like a peasant, although she does often deliver her lines with a vulgar tilt. Thus, what might merely be a Hollywood convention becomes a telling detail in the conception.
This film was distributed through United Artists, not one of the major studios, and that’s probably why this DVD doesn’t have the shot-yesterday clarity of other ‘40s films put out by Fox or Warner Brothers; they’re working from negatives in the studio vaults, while this film is evidently from a print. It looks good enough to make one wish it were sharper, because even subtle differences in image and sound are enough to make a film seem lustrous or dull, classic or mediocre, stylish or leaden.
The score by Hungarian emigré Karl Hajos was nominated for an Oscar, and it deserves a crisper audio track to be appreciated properly. Perhaps we’ll never see a better copy, but this will do. The only extras are a trailer for a different movie (an American version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya) and a brief audio interview with author Bernard Dick.