A Case of Bad Timing

WE ARE NOT ALONE, Paul Muni, 1939

Everyone knows 1939 was a banner year in American cinema and probably the peak of the studio system. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Women, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind were just a few of the iconic American movies that premiered that year. In fact, so many films of superior quality were released in 1939 that it was inevitable that a few of them would fall between the cracks and go undiscovered. One of these was We Are Not Alone which was virtually ignored by the public despite appearing on several critics’ top ten lists. Yet, it seemed to have all the necessary ingredients for Best Picture nominee.

It starred Paul Muni, who was probably the most respected and critically acclaimed American actor in film at that time. He had already been nominated for Best Actor four times, winning the statuette for The Story of Louis Pasteur in 1935. It was based on the popular novel by James Hilton who also adapted it for the screen with co-writer Milton Krims. Hilton had become the most-sought after writer in Hollywood after the success of his 1935 novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips and some of his best-sellers had already been made into films (Knight Without Honor, Lost Horizon) with more to come in the near future (Rage in Heaven, Random Harvest, So Well Remembered).

We Are Not Alone was also a dramatic showcase for Jane Bryan who was being groomed for stardom by Warner Bros. and had previously provided memorable support for Bette Davis in four of her films including The Sisters and The Old Maid. Last but not least, the film was directed by Edmund Goulding who had just come off a three-hit home run with The Dawn Patrol, Dark Victory and The Old Maid.

So why did We Are Not Alone drift into obscurity? I think the reason was perfectly summed up by this viewer comment on IMDB: “This movie could have been an all-time classic, except that it’s timing was disastrous – an anti-war film seeking sympathy for a Germanic heroine released in the second week of 1939!”

Set in a small English village in 1914 just prior to the outbreak of World War I, Hilton’s story introduces us to Dr. Newcome (Muni), an altruistic doctor with a nagging, unhappy wife (Flora Robson) and their highly imaginative but often ignored young son, Gerald (Raymond Severn). Newcome is the sort of kind-hearted idealist who spends more time with his patients than his own family which is obviously a source of his wife’s anger and the reason his son is so needy for attention.

Dr. Newcome (Paul Muni, center) attends to a patient while surrounded by concerned onlookers in We Are Not Alone (1939), based on a novel by James Hilton.

In the course of his work, Newcome meets Leni (Jane Bryan), a young dancer who has injured her leg. Unable to work and with no means of support, Leni soon despairs and tries to kill herself. Newcome helps revive her and bring new purpose and hope to her life when she is hired by his wife to be Gerald’s nanny. But Newcome’s nosy, suspicious maid (Una O’Connor) and idle gossips in the village easily turn Newcome’s wife against Leni with sordid insinuations about the young girl’s past. She is dismissed from her duties but Newcome refuses to let her be driven from his home until he can find another position for her. Meanwhile, relations between England and Germany crumble resulting in a rising wave of intolerance in the village for anyone of German or Austrian origin.

Leni (Jane Bryan, left) feels increasingly estranged from the doctor’s wife (Flora Robson) and the other villagers in We Are Not Alone (1939), a drama about the dangerous effects of malicious gossip.

The second part of We Are Not Alone is a marked departure in tone and atmosphere from the first half and barely prepares us for the tragic chain of circumstances which follow. In some ways the film mirrors the narrative structure of The Mortal Storm, made the following year, which also takes place in a small village where innocence slowly gives way to grim reality as fascism sweeps the nation. It is also a very striking precursor to A Woman’s Vengeance, the 1948 film adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s novel about a respected community member accused of poisoning his ill-tempered, invalid wife.

As for the climax of We Are Not Alone, it goes against the grain of the expected Hollywood ending and was probably another reason for the film’s failure. Hilton was famous for this sort of fatalistic romanticism which was so prevalent in Lost Horizon and Random Harvest and fell out of fashion in the post-war era. Now it seems perfectly in synch with the times again addressing topical concerns such as intolerance, war, homelessness, and even capital punishment. It might not have the stature or recognition of other 1939 dramas such as Young Mr. Lincoln or The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex or Of Mice and Men but in some ways it’s a more interesting film. And the soulful, transcendent fadeout may even move you to tears.

Additional trivia about We Are Not Alone: The film was originally planned as a vehicle for Miriam Hopkins and was supposed to be filmed in England. Due to the sensitive nature of the plot and rising anti-German sentiment in the U.K., the filming location was switched to Hollywood. It was also reported in The Hollywood Reporter that the film went into production with Dolly Haas in the role of Leni but was replaced with Jane Bryan after a week of shooting because she had a nervous collapse due to the “highly emotional nature of the role.” In addition, Bryan trained with famous dancer/choreographer George Balanchine for her ballet scenes.

We Are Not Alone is not currently available on any format for viewing but occasionally pops up on Turner Classic Movies. Since it is a Warner Bros. release, the film may eventually be remastered and released on DVD through The Warner Archive Collection but that is a long shot at best.

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