History of the World According to the Movies: Part 63 – Life in 1930s Europe

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Tea with Mussolini is a 1999 film by Franco Zeffirelli which is loosely based on his childhood. The Scorpioni was a real group of English women in Florence (but there were no Americans) but I’m not sure if one of the members had tea with Il Duce. Still, what Zeffirelli said about the leader of the group greatly explains why Maggie Smith was so perfectly cast. Though she’s called Lady Hester Random in the movie, he said, “I don’t remember if she was called Hester, but I remember this terrible, fantastic woman. She was the dowager of the community. I remember the many outrageous things she did because she could afford to be arrogant and bossy.”

1930s wasn’t a great place to live since tough economic times had brought political troubles along with it since several authoritarian regimes emerged in many European countries like Italy and Germany but they weren’t the only ones. Mussolini and Hitler were just the most memorable because their delusions of grandeur led them to invade countries like Ethiopia and Poland. Then there’s Russia which is ruled by the iron fist of Josef Stalin but we don’t see 1930s Russia in movies because we have some idea the guy’s either starving his people, staging purges, sending people to gulags, and other atrocities. Yes, Stalin was a paranoid beyond all doubt except that one time when he signed a non-aggression pact with that guy from Germany but I’ll get to that later. Then there’s the matter with Spain in which a simmering of a decades long ideological conflict in the nation had exploded into a civil war between the Nationalists led by Generalissmo Franco, which was backed by both Italy and Germany and the Republican Loyalists backed by the Soviet Union. Of course, we remember this war for many of the people who signed up to fight there like Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell as well as for Pablo Picasso’s heart-wrenching Guernica. It was a nasty war but Franco won and managed to rule Spain until the 1970s. Still, there are plenty of things the movies would get wrong about Europe in the 1930s which I shall take time to list accordingly.

France:

Georges Melies didn’t receive much recognition for his film work until 1931. (His prestige in the film world started to grow in the late 1920s and in December 1929, there was a gala retrospective of his works at the Salle Pleyel. He was made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and received a medal by fellow filmmaker Louis Lumiere {of the Lumiere brothers}. However, none of the enormous praise he received helped his livelihood or decreased his poverty. Still, his renewed recognition had nothing to do with a young orphan boy rediscovering his automaton.)

Georges Melies lived with his granddaughter Isabelle during his later years. (His granddaughter’s name was Madeleine Malthête-Méliès. However, she wasn’t technically Mama Jeanne’s granddaughter though but you wouldn’t know that from watching Hugo. Also, by the time Hugo takes place, Melies had only been married to Jeanne for five years as his second wife, though she was his longtime mistress before then but you can’t include that fact in a movie catered for kids.)

The Spanish Civil War:

The Republican Loyalists were the good guys in the Spanish Civil War. (Sure the Franco Nationalists weren’t the good guys in this conflict and were allied by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. But this doesn’t mean the Republican Loyalists were exactly nice guys either. Both sides committed atrocities and the Republicans were backed by Stalin.)

The Republican Loyalists believed in democracy. (Some of them did as did many people outside Spain who fought on their side. However, the Loyalist side also included Stalinists, Trotskyists, and Anarchists who you could hardly call democratic supporters. You could say that the Republican side was united in that they didn’t want Franco to rule.)

Francisco Franco was a Fascist. (He claimed he was and undoubtedly had Fascist support, but many historians think he was just after power and just wanted to introduce his own brand of totalitarianism.)

American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War received Purple Hearts for their service there. (Though you wouldn’t know it from My Dog Skip, there were no military personnel in that war, only volunteers who didn’t receive military awards of any kind. So Willie’s dad was probably lying.)

Fascist Italy:

Benito Mussolini was friends with Adolf Hitler. (They were more like frenemies, which The Great Dictator pretty much sums it up perfectly. Mussolini was jealous of Germany’s military strength that he made many stupid mistakes as well as things way above his pay grade in order to keep up with Hitler. As TTI says, “Despite their similar ideologies, Mussolini always had a fractious relationship with Hitler. In 1935 he threatened to intervene during the Nazis’ first attempt to occupy Austria, and signed the Stresa Front with Britain and France to block further Nazi aggression. It wasn’t until the Spanish Civil War that Il Duce and Der Fuhrer found themselves on the same side. Even during the war, Mussolini and Hitler distrusted each other so much that they often didn’t make the other privy to major military operations {Mussolini didn’t tell Hitler about his plans to invade Greece, for example}.”)

Benito Mussolini had a popular following in Italy. (He was never especially popular in Italy {as shown by what his own people did to him and his mistress in World War II}. However, he was initially and surprisingly admired abroad, not just by fascists like Hitler and Franco, but many British and American politicians, journalists, and intellectuals viewed Il Duce’s outwardly efficient and well-organized regime as a potential role model. That is, until Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia.)

Benito Mussolini made the trains run on time. (He claimed to have done this but some observers called Il Duce out on this.)

Poland:

Poland was a free country before Hitler invade it. (It had been under a military dictatorship since the 1920s but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the movies. Still, at least it was a dictator from their own country and not some other nation like Germany or Russia.)

Stalinist Russia:

The Moscow Trials between 1936 and 1938 were fair. (They are seen this way in Mission to Moscow {which is a Hollywood movie made in 1943}, but the actual Moscow Trials were nothing more than for show in which Stalin used to rubber stamp the executions of his old Bolshevik comrades. The charges against these people were basically trumped up and the defendants were tortured into confessing. The trials are often considered a part of Stalin’s Great Purge. Yeah, they were totally fair, not.)

The notion of Stalinist Russia being a backwards tyranny was just a silly prejudice. (Stalinist Russia may not have been considered a 3rd world country but it was still very much a tyranny under the rule of a very brutal man who went to great lengths to establish absolute power in Russia. No wonder Mission to Moscow’s screenwriter was blacklisted after World War II.)

Stalinist Russia was a plucky place working toward the day when it would be a democracy, which was a day just around the corner. (Really, Mission to Moscow? Democracy just around the corner in Stalinist Russia, a corner of a Siberian prison cell or gulag that is. Besides, under Stalin, the prospect of Russia being a democracy was at its nadir at this point. I mean Russia was more likely to become a democracy under the Czars than this guy.)

Madame Molotova still had her swanky perfume works at this time. (She actually had her business confiscated and nationalized by the Bolsheviks and in Stalinist Russia, produced only one scent Red Moscow.)

Austria:

Austria had been a free country before the country fell to the Third Reich. (Before the Anschluss, Austria had been under a fascist dictatorship for four years. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from watching The Sound of Music.)

The Von Trapp Family:

The von Trapp family escaped Salzburg by going through the Alps to Switzerland. (They actually didn’t go through the Alps which would put them at Hitler’s springtime retreat at Berchtesgaden in Germany. So the Alpine trek was out of the question. In fact, the von Trapp family just took a train to Italy since the dad was born in an area that used to be part of Austria prior to World War I. Thus, they could claim Italian citizenship but who wants a beloved singing family to escape to another country held by a fascist dictator?)

Captain Georg von Trapp was a strict disciplinarian as well as a humorless and emotionally distant father. (Actually contrary to his Christopher Plummer portrayal, the actual George von Trapp was a kind man who greatly enjoyed musical activities with his kids and even rocked the violin during family concerts. He’d also make handmade gifts for his kids in his workshop. Also, the reason why he used a whistle to call his kids was that he had a weak voice as well as about half-dozen kids on a large estate. His family was greatly annoyed but this portrayal because he was the cool dad, while Maria von Trapp was the strict one and was said to have a terrible temper. But having Julie Andrews playing the strict parent would be unthinkable! Besides, having Georg as the strict disciplinarian allowed Christopher Plummer to be as miserable as he wanted. However, the real Maria did like Christopher Plummer even if the guy couldn’t care less doing The Sound of Music, which made him a star.)

Captain Georg and Maria von Trapp were married right before the Nazis moved into Austria. (Uh, by the time the Nazis moved into Austria, Georg and Maria were married for nearly 10 years with a couple of kids. Also, while Christopher Plummer was 35 when he played Georg, the real guy was 47. The real Maria was 22 so I don’t blame the casting agency.)

Captain Georg von Trapp had no trouble turning down the Nazis when they offered him a post in the Kriegsmarine when they moved into Austria since Georg had anti-Nazi beliefs {but so did most of the Austrian nobility}. (Though it’s true that Georg didn’t like Nazis, he was offered a job in the German Navy before the Anschluss. The Nazis wanted to recruit him because of his extensive experience with submarines and Germany wanted to expand its U-Boat fleet. Still, unlike in The Sound of Music where Georg tells the Nazis where they could shove it, the real Georg seriously considered taking their offer since his family was in desperate financial straits and he had no marketable skills other than his training as a naval officer. He decided that he couldn’t serve the Nazi regime but the Nazis continued to woo him.)

The von Trapp family had to flee Austria because the Nazis had threatened to arrest Georg. (Georg was never in serious danger of being arrested by the Nazis since he turned down the Nazis’ offer before they took over the country. They couldn’t arrest him even if they wanted to. Also, after the von Trapps left in 1938, he and his family returned for a stay for several months in 1939 before departing for good without incident.)

The von Trapp family had to flee Austria after the Salzburg Music Festival before the borders closed. (Actually Hitler took over Austria in March of 1938 while the Salzburg Music Festival is in June. The von Trapp family couldn’t do both.)

Max Detweiler was the von Trapp family’s music director who gave up his life to save them. (Max is a fictional character. Their music director was their priest Reverend Franz Wasner who acted as such for over 20 years and accompanied them when they left Austria.)

Maria Kutschera gave up her dream of becoming a nun when she fell in love with Georg von Trapp. (Actually, she fell in love with the man after their marriage, though she did like him and his kids a lot. Still, she had to be pressured by the Mother Superior to accept his proposal for she wanted to get her out of the convent anyway. Their marriage was more about practicality.)

George von Trapp was a baron. (His hereditary title was “Ritter” which means “knight” in German and is an equivalent for baronet. Also, in 1919, the nobility was abolished in Austria so his legal name was “Georg Trapp” yet he continually used the von as a particle of courtesy.)

The villa at Aigen in Salzburg, Austria was the von Trapp family’s ancestral home. (The von Trapp ancestral home was in Pola which is in present-day Croatia, which they were forced to abandon due to World War I. Besides, by this point, they had lived in homes in Zell Am See and Klosterneuburg. The von Trapps moved to their Salzburg home in 1922 after the death of Georg’s first wife. Also, the home wasn’t as grand as depicted in The Sound of Music.)

The von Trapp family became the Von Trapp family singers before they went to America. (The whole Von Trapp Family Singers thing started because they lost their life savings thanks to the Nazis damaging the Austrian economy as well as Georg’s poor business decisions that left the family virtually bankrupt. Since they were in need of funds, they entered a music competition which was Maria’s idea {she was a very resourceful lady}. Yet, entering the music business caused Georg a lot of embarrassment.)

While a convent novice, Maria Kutschera was hired as a governess for Captain Georg von Trapp’s children. (She was hired as a tutor to the young Maria Franziska {a. k. a. Louisa} who had come down with scarlet fever and needed her lessons at home.)

Miscellaneous:

Upper-class dinner parties in the 1930s had men and women seated separately. (Actually most upper-class dinner parties in the 1930s were seated on a boy-girl-boy-girl basis. And it wasn’t unusual for people to sit next to someone of the opposite sex who wasn’t their spouse.)

Catholic clergymen wore the poncho style chasuble in the 1930s. (Actually they wore the “fiddle back” style at the time. Poncho style chasubles are modern.)

Flapper and sheik clothing was popular in 1931. (These styles were popular from 1925-1928. By 1931, they’d be considered outdated. Yet, this is the Great Depression so those outfits were probably some of the good ones some people had at the time to go to the club.)

It wasn’t unusual for barber shops to be open on Sundays during the 1930s. (Depends on the location but certainly not in the American South.)

Measles vaccines were in existence at this time. (They weren’t until at least the 1970s or later.)

Most European countries at this time were relatively free. (Unless you live in Britain, France, Scandinavia, Switzerland, or the Low Countries, you were probably living under a dictatorship by 1939 either run by Fascists or made use by them. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from movies set at the time.)

1930s straitjackets had buckles on them. (Straitjackets wouldn’t have buckles until the 1980s, before then, they were laced with eyelets.)
Radios played almost immediately after turned on. (Before the radio transistor, all radios used tubes which took many seconds to warm up before providing any sound.)

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One response to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 63 – Life in 1930s Europe

  1. Those must have been very tense times in Europe. I had heard that the Von Trapp family wasn’t quite what they seemed in the movie!

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