Released in July 1940, a little over two years after Austria had been incorporated into Nazi Germany and ceased to exist as an independent state, Bernard Vorhaus's Three Faces West takes a bold stand on contemporary issues through its Austrian-American romance. The filmmakers use the dire situation of farmers in a drought-ravaged area to elicit sympathy for the refugees from Europe and to challenge nativist and isolationist attitudes. The film features two refugees from Vienna, Austria—a renowned surgeon (Charles Coburn) and his attractive daughter (Sigrid Gurie)—who must adjust to living in a rural community in the American heartland. When the celluloid Americans meet these foreign individuals, serious cultural commentaries emerge. The promise of unity between foreigners and American-born is most pronounced when the young Austrian woman and the handsome, farmer protagonist (John Wayne) fall in love. In this rare Austrian-American romance set in the United States, the filmmakers counter perceptions of the refugees as alien others and suggest that cultural differences can easily be overcome. By weaving together the stories of the Austrians fleeing Hitler and their American counterparts fleeing the Dust Bowl, the film proposes a radical alternative to the misery of the displaced Americans familiar from the news and presented most graphically in John Ford's filming of John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath (March 1940).

When Austria became a part of Germany after the Anschluss in March 1938 and the number of those fleeing Nazi Germany increased, President Roosevelt initially pushed for higher immigration quotas. However, he was soon dissuaded when his vice president reported on the resistance he would face in Congress.1 Considering the nation's widespread isolationist sentiments, it is likewise not surprising that refugees from Nazi Germany rarely appeared on the Hollywood screen.2 Although members of the Hollywood community involved in activities to inform the public of the dangers of fascism must have viewed the Anschluss as yet another indication of Hitler's bellicose inhumanity, studios shied away from directly attacking Nazi Germany until the United States declared war on Germany.3 Consequently, Republic Picture's Three Faces West stands out among Hollywood productions with its explicit pro-immigrant, anti-Nazi messages.

Released in July 1940, a little over two years after Austria had been incorporated into Nazi Germany and ceased to exist as an independent state, Three Faces West features two refugees from Vienna, Austria—a renowned surgeon (Charles Coburn) and his attractive daughter (Sigrid Gurie)—who must adjust to living in a rural community in the American heartland. When the celluloid Americans meet these foreign individuals, serious cultural commentaries emerge. The filmmakers use the dire situation of farmers in a drought-ravaged area to elicit sympathy for the refugees from Europe and to challenge nativist and isolationist attitudes. The promise of unity between foreigners and American-born is most pronounced when the young Austrian woman and the handsome, farmer protagonist (John Wayne) fall in love. In this rare Austrian-American romance set in the United States, the filmmakers counter perceptions of the refugees as alien others and suggest that cultural differences can easily be overcome.4 By weaving together the stories of the Austrians fleeing Hitler and their American counterparts fleeing the Dust Bowl, the film proposes a radical alternative to the misery of the displaced Americans familiar from the news and presented most graphically in John Ford's filming of John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath (March 1940).

In light of the studio's profile, the progressive messages are particularly noteworthy. Formed in 1935 and considered a studio between “Poverty Row and the Majors,” Republic Pictures had managed to cut out a niche for itself with “its B action movies, Westerns, country musicals, and serials.”5 According to Richard Hurst, “Republic was not really concerned about ideas in its films. Republic was concerned not about influencing its audience, youthful or mature, simple or sophisticated. Rather the studio was concerned with making an exciting, entertaining, and therefore, it hoped, profitable product for a certain type of theatre and audience.”6 Home of singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and female action heroine Tiger Lady, launching pad for stars such as John Wayne, who plays the romantic lead in Three Faces West, Republic was “governed first and foremost by the profit imperative.”7 With profits in mind, Republic Studios tailored its films to its audiences, which were concentrated in the Midwest, the South, and the Southwest and were consequently more conservative than audiences on the coasts.8

Despite its more conservative constituents, Republic, like the other Hollywood studios, had its share of politically and socially engaged employees. For example, the film's director Bernhard Vorhaus never made a secret of his leftist leanings. Vorhaus, a Hollywood scriptwriter in the twenties and director in England in the thirties, returned to the United States when Hubert Yates, the owner of Republic Studios, offered him a contract as producer-director. His ability to make fast-paced entertaining films on a tight budget made him a perfect match for the studio, where he worked from 1938 to 1947.9 One of the scriptwriters, Samuel Ornitz, who had been a social worker in New York before he became a writer, was also known for his attention to progressive social issues.10 Neither hid their concern for Hitler's rise to power. Both Vorhaus and Ornitz were members of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and involved in left-wing organizations, an involvement for which they later suffered dire consequences during the McCarthy era.11 Moreover, the two were probably not the only outspoken anti-Nazis working on the film. Scriptwriter F. Hugh Hubert and producer Sol Siegel had important input in the most outspoken anti-Nazi scene in the film.

The portrayal of the Austrian refugees in drought-stricken North Dakota has its seeds in a script entitled “We Begin Life Again.” In the synopsis from a Republic employee dated September 7, 1939, the story follows “the hardships and troubles of several hundred people from the dust bowl [of Iowa] who migrate to California but are refused jobs, and return to the dust bowl and make their section productive again.”12 Among the group are a German refugee doctor and his daughter, who settle in Iowa and move to California when the community relocates. In this scenario, the doctor is accidentally killed in a confrontation between workers. His daughter falls in love with an American farmer but is then conflicted when her former fiancé, believed to have died in a concentration camp, shows up. However, she returns with the group to Iowa and ultimately marries the American farmer. The moral of the story, explicitly stated in the synopsis, is to show “that in the United States, it is possible to make a community what the people wish it to be—and that it is better for people to stay where they know conditions than to rush around the country to new places which also have their problems.” Rather than proposing an alternative to their situation or directly addressing the challenges facing refugees, this early version of the story advocates accepting fate rather than seeking change. Moreover, the script reveals with the doctor's death the challenges of imagining the integration of professional immigrants into the American story.

What originally appears as a response to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath slowly developed into a more nuanced piece over the next six months.13 By the final version significant changes were made. The foreign protagonists are no longer German refugees but a famous Austrian surgeon and his daughter fleeing Vienna after the Anschluss. They are called to a North Dakotan community that has no doctor. After some initial difficulties, both begin to feel at home. When dust storms ravage the land, the farmers must decide whether to stay, go to California as laborers, or set out to Oregon as new pioneers. By changing the nationality of the refugees, the filmmakers call to mind the exacerbated refugee crisis since the Anschluss. They play with the cliché of Vienna as one-time capital of gaiety and its importance as a center of classical music to lead viewers to consider the refugees' possible sense of displacement and their ability to leave the old cultured society behind and adapt to the New World. The writers also highlight the positive contributions the new community members make. At the same time, they argue that strength lies in community cohesiveness, and in an election year they present in a positive light the opportunities for farmers implemented under Roosevelt.

Attuned to their audience and the studio's profile and working within the confines of a low-budget studio, those involved in making the film had to be careful in packaging messages that might run counter to the conservative politics of their audience. The title, having gone through a couple of changes, proved to be of continued concern. In the month preceding its release, the forthcoming film was widely advertised under the title “The Refugee.” In a letter to exhibitors dated June 8, 1940, Walter Compton, Republic's director of publicity, announced the forthcoming movie. “THE REFUGEE is the type of motion picture that makes us here at Republic proud to be a part of the great motion picture industry. It is compelling and uncompromising in its dramatic theme. We sincerely believe that in this film we have a piece of entertainment that every human being owes it to himself to see.”14 In line with this rhetoric, a poster with hyperbolic language and dramatic scenes from the film had been prepared. Yet, the singular “Refugee” of the title was not consistent with the poster's two people embracing, possessing a “burning love” and “primitive passions.” Nor did it correspond to the poster's images of a community in distress.

Even after the film was publicly announced as “The Refugee,” something prompted its ultimate renaming between mid-June and June 27. When the name change to Three Faces West was announced in a short article in The New York Times entitled “Screen News Here and in Hollywood” on June 27, 1940, Douglas W. Churchill references an even earlier name change and suggests that “the title was changed to ‘The Refugee,’ but because of its war inference (the story is concerned with our dust bowl), the latter title was scrapped.”15

The name change to Three Faces West appears a strategic marketing decision. Disregarding the possible allusions to the war in Europe, “The Refugee” fails to capture the film's emphasis on community. Indeed, “The Refugee” sounds as if it is focused on one person in particular, and in common parlance it would have referred to someone from Europe. If it were taken as a general study of “the refugee,” it would have hardly spoken to Republic's potential audience. In contrast, the title Three Faces West was more likely to attract the studio's core audience. It suggests a story squarely rooted in the United States and possibly a western. The “three” of the title could pique the public's interest, leading them to ask themselves about what three faces are looking westward and why. Moreover, with the suggested focus on an unnamed triumvirate, the tenor of the title Three Faces West loses the ominous ring of “The Refugee” with its association with an anonymous outsider.

From the very beginning, the film seeks to show refugees in a positive light. The opening scene immediately speaks to and counters Americans' fears that refugees are taking jobs away from Americans. At the same time, it implicitly criticizes the American medical establishment for its treatment of refugee doctors. The first shot of a skyscraper in New York suggests a more urban and urbane story than what is to follow. Then a close-up of the sign of the popular weekly radio show “We the People” immediately takes many in the audience to familiar aural territory. In the real radio show of the same name, “all manner of people appeared, famous and unknown, some with a strange story to tell, others with an appeal for help, others simply to discuss current events” in this thirty-minute “human interest program … composed of a peculiar mix of interview and narrative.”16 Imitating the real show, the pitch for the doctors follows a piano piece played by a blind musician.

In this fictitious radio program the audience is introduced to “Dr. William Thorpe, head of the International Medical Association,” who speaks “for the Association's Committee for Refugee Doctors.” As the camera pans over a stage full of European refugee doctors, Thorpe explains that his committee aims to help them find employment in their profession. Thorpe assures those listening that the foreign physicians and surgeons are willing to relocate to rural communities lacking medical facilities. At the same time, he suggests that the foreign doctors have no desire to take away positions from Americans, thereby implying the resistance that the refugee doctors faced in the United States. Indeed, doctors and professional medical societies in the United States successfully lobbied state legislatures to place impossible hurdles in front of the foreign doctors practicing in the United States. In his study Weimar in Exile, Jean-Michel Palmier writes of the plight refugee doctors faced here, noting that the majority of these highly educated and skilled professionals “remained unemployed, with the exception of the few that had a world reputation.” Much like the doctors in Three Faces West, “they could only obtain temporary hospital posts, or in rural communities where there had not been doctors.”17 The resistance that refugee doctors encountered was just one example of the difficulties foreign professionals fleeing Nazi Germany and Austria faced in the United States.

By presenting foreign professionals willing to work in rural communities where their services were sorely needed, the writers seek to make their audience aware of and garner support for these highly qualified refugees. Thorpe goes on to suggest that the refugee doctors are also modest in their demands. “These men, grateful for the sanctuary that America has afforded them in their hour of need, are prepared to accept posts in just these places and ask nothing beyond their actual living needs and the chance to be of service.” Asking only for a survival wage and the opportunity to work in an underserviced community, the doctors implicitly support a type of privately institutionalized socialized medicine. Yet, even if the American Medical Association were opposed to socialized medicine, it could hardly speak out against doctors willing to work in areas its own doctors avoided.

Thorpe's introduction of Dr. Braun, a famous bone specialist from Vienna, also informs the audience and perhaps reminds viewers from the medical community of the esteem in which the Austrian medical establishment was held.18 “Now, I present to you a most eminent specialist. Dr. Karl Braun of Vienna. There is so much I'd like to tell you about Dr. Braun that I honestly don't know where to begin. Perhaps I'd better just sum it all up by saying that twenty years ago like many other American doctors I journeyed to Vienna for the express purpose of taking post-graduate work under him and his famous clinic there.” Although it is not very realistic that a doctor of such fame and connections would have trouble obtaining a position in the United States, Thorpe's words do more than just highlight the expertise of the foreign doctor. They point to the long-term ties between the medical communities in the United States and Austria that benefited so many American doctors.

As the official from the medical profession, Thorpe touts Dr. Braun's qualifications, but the refugee doctor must convince those listening (and watching) that he could fit into a community in middle America. He presents himself in an appealing and unassuming manner, countering American perceptions of the overbearing, arrogant European intellectual.19 “Ladies and gentlemen, I am more used to the stethoscope and ether cone than I am to the microphone, but it is not ethical that I expect you to buy me like a cat in the bag. Yes? No. So I tell you about myself. I am over sixty. That is not very young, but it is not too old. Only last week I had a complete examination which everyone should have at least twice a year. And they tell me I am sound yet in the more important parts if one can believe doctors.” Through his down-to-earth demeanor, Braun reaps the appropriate chuckles and smiles from the radio audience. When he proceeds to talk of his specialty, he highlights his accomplishments in a most sympathetic manner. “For many years in Vienna I conducted an orthopedic clinic, diseases of the bone, and I worked most successfully with children. It has been my privilege to help many little cripples to walk again.” In making him an orthopedic surgeon, the writers appear to have modeled him on Dr. Adolf Lorenz, “healer of crippled children,” who “won more fame in this country than most American physicians.”20 On his many visits to the United States, the New York Times reported on Lorenz and his popularity. In an article from November 29, 1921, the doctor announced that despite his many titles in Austria, the proudest was one given him by an American newspaper, “the Austrian ambassador of mercy.”21 Braun presents himself with similar modesty.

Dr. Braun has other traits that would have endeared him to family-oriented audiences. Not only is he down to earth and a famous specialist, but he is also a conscientious and proud father. “Oh, yes, I forget, I'm a fine father. I must warn you there are two of us. That means two expenses if you send for me.” In explaining their need to stay together, he implies the traumatic nature of their brush with the National Socialist regime. “Naturally, we cannot separate, my daughter Leni and I, after all we have gone through together.” At the same time as he alludes to the trials they have gone through in Austria, he draws on the cliché of a gay city familiar to many Americans from Viennese operettas in order to suggest his daughter's personal loss and the changes in her life brought about by the Nazi regime.22 “In Vienna, she was very gay, when Vienna was gay.” In order to win approval from his radio and film audiences, he notes how she is adjusting to the new situation, while at the same time highlighting his daughter's musical prowess and her affinity with Brahms. “But now she settles down to work by my side. She is studying to be a nurse and learning very fast, and such a musician. You should hear her once play a Brahms concerto. Every note is like a kiss.” Although his daughter's love of classical music should not be viewed as incompatible with a healthy work ethic, at this point the film audience might wonder how she will adjust. Indeed, Braun's short speech sets up a contrast between their lives in cosmopolitan Vienna and the life that awaits them in rural North Dakota.

The writers could have placed their fictional town of Ashville Forks in any number of states, but they choose North Dakota. Although the state was not in the area hardest hit by the drought, a New York Times article from July 19, 1938, describes how North Dakota suffered from “intensive cultivation and successive droughts” and how the “strong burning winds blow hot dry dust from the uncovered stretches of earth that once were part of one of the best range regions of the world.”23 In the film, the fictional town, devastated by the drought and the human-made ecological disaster, is faced with an epidemic of dust pneumonia. The situation is exacerbated by the precarious financial state of the area population, who seek out advice from a federal governmental agency when it is too late.

However, the significance of North Dakota extends beyond the dire situation of area farmers. Not only do the writers transport viewers to an area that was severely impacted by the drought, but they situate them in the heartland of American isolationism. Based on votes held in the United States House of Representatives and Senate from 1933 to 1950 on matters of foreign affairs, Ralph H. Smuckler maintains that “North Dakota was the most isolationist state in the nation.”24 Indeed, it was the home state of Senators Gerald Nye and Lynn Frazier, who were known as “implacable isolationists.”25 Nye's isolationist politics were accompanied by both anti-immigration and anti-Semitic stances. Though Nye had criticized Nazi persecution after the Anschluss, he opposed “admission of large numbers of refugees from Germany.”26 The animosity Nye felt toward Jewish interventionists was very much in sync with his agrarian cohort in North Dakota.27

To weave together the stories of Europe's refugees and citizens from the Dust Bowl, the filmmakers employ rhetorical parallels made between them that were already circulating in the public discourse. After the Nazi takeover of Germany and the displacement of Europeans persecuted in Hitler Germany, “refugee” and “exile” entered Americans' vocabulary, and it was not long before the words were applied to those uprooted by the devastating drought in the thirties. “Contemporaries decided that they were witnessing something unprecedented in the history of white Americans; a large-scale refugee migration, a flight from privation of the sort Americans read about elsewhere but hoped never to see in their own land.”28 On July 18, 1937, the New York Times article “Dust Bowl Refugees,” accompanied by a series of pictures, reported on “70,000 homeless refugees from the 1936 drought in the Dust Bowl of the Middle West.”29 Less than a year later, Douglas W. Churchill referred to “farmers whose lands had been ravaged by the winds or artisans and tradesmen from the towns that have suffered most” as refugees in the long Times article “Exiles from the Dust.”30 If the plight of the refugees from Europe offered a useful vocabulary for those in the United States trying to raise sympathy for America's displaced, the dire situation of rural farmers could also be adapted to illustrate similarities and garner support for the European dispossessed.

In the film, the fates of the two groups are inextricably bound in the application of the words “refugee” and “pioneer.” The doctor's attractive young daughter, Leni, goes from defining herself as a refugee to becoming a modern-day pioneer, embracing her new life in an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile setting. When John Phillips, the community leader and person who brought Dr. Braun and Leni to North Dakota, is told the farmland in his area is doomed, he briefly identifies with the lot of the refugee. When he and the larger community come to realize that their identity is not rooted to a particular plot of land but to the community they attach themselves to, they become new pioneers.

The filmmakers reveal Leni as resistant to change but show eventual transformation as a process brought about by service to community and cemented by love. On the train trip west, she is shown torn between the past and the promise of a brighter future. When she takes out one of the medical books to study and declares “it's hard to study when such a wonderful country runs past your window,” her face darkens as she holds a picture of her fiancé, whom she believes to be dead. Her father, who appears to have adjusted to his loss of home and status, discourages her from thinking of the past. “That is not good, Lenchen…. He is gone, the world you knew together is gone. It is better not to look back. Look instead ahead.” She suggests the emotional pull of the past when she remarks, “With the eyes, yes, but always the heart looks back.” As she opens the book with tears in her eyes, the camera fades from her face to a turbulent windstorm, with equally expressive music that casts a shadow over her father's promise that their life “begins again in a happy land with happy people.” After only one night in Ashville Forks, exhausted from the visits to the many suffering from dust pneumonia and disgusted by the living conditions, Leni is determined to leave town. Packed and waiting for her father to return from a call before they go to the train station, she tries to make friendly conversation with John. When she asks about the woman in a photograph on a table, John uses this as an opportunity to compare the situation of his pioneer grandmother to Leni's. “My grandmother. She came out here in '61 by covered wagon. There were Indians to fight then, and dangers and famine to meet. A little dust couldn't run her out. She could take it. She was a pioneer.” Leni is not convinced by his attempt to shame her into staying and counters, “Yes, but when you are a refugee it is different. The pioneers have everything to gain, we have lost everything.” She cannot yet look to a future but continues to dwell in the past. Assuming a very American attitude, John counters, “The way I figure it, you stopped being a refugee when you came through Ellis Island. There's no reason why you can't start being a pioneer now even in a dust bowl.” He then sifts some of the soil that was blown in from the previous night's storm through his fingers and mutters, “That used to be top soil, good rich earth, fine stuff to have your roots in, if you had any roots.” With the phrase “if you had any roots,” he unwittingly mouths the blood and soil philosophy of the Nazis and calls to mind pernicious suggestions of Jewish rootlessness. This may seem odd as John is the most open-minded of the entire community and there are multiple signs that suggest that Leni and her father are not Jewish—they appear to have fled Vienna not because they are Jewish, but because of the voiced opposition to the regime; there is no discussion of religion when John and Leni decide to marry; and a Protestant minister performs the ceremony. The suggestion that the refugees have no roots captured the anti-Semitic and anti-refugee sentiments held by many in middle America. The writers illustrate their rejection of this ideology through Leni's subsequent relationship with the community as well as the farmers' changing relationship to their property. After Leni assists her father in what is supposed to be his only operation in Ashville Forks, she wants to stay and see the young patient walk again. Realizing the satisfaction in community service, she sends out roots that connect her to the society she originally finds so foreign.

About the time the audience perceives Leni as a pioneer and she openly identifies with her new home, conditions force John and the community into the role of refugee. When John seeks advice from the Soil Conservation Division of the Department of Agriculture, he is informed that the land is considered unsalvageable. The government official suggests that the farmers move to Oregon. “There's an enormous dam being built right here. There are great tracts of fertile soil just waiting for settlers. There'll be cheap power.” Not far removed from the truth, a New York Times article from September 1937 mentions population redistribution in the context of the Bonneville Dam in Oregon, and the author suggests that “it is still a pioneer's country.”31 However, John does not yet see the possibilities in the government offer, and he storms out claiming that they are not sharecroppers. The farmer's reaction to the idea of moving is reminiscent of the resistance that the U.S. Government's Resettlement Administration officials faced. For the farmers, “leaving the plains meant giving up, admitting defeat, and possibly losing the future altogether. Providence never rewards quitters.”32 When John declares to Leni that his efforts were a waste of time, the new pioneer reminds him of his earlier “pep talk” and proclaims, “It is you who talk like a refugee now.” She, however, points out a major difference.

In their ensuing exchange, a major distinction is made between the situation of Europe's refugees and the North Dakotan community, between political displacement and environmental upheaval. As Leni points out, he is not compelled to leave by law. She asks, “And can you not stay and go on fighting for your land like you've been doing?” When she begins to argue, “Now, if there's no law that makes you move,” John declares, “Our law is written by the wind and the dust.” Unlike the refugees from Europe, the Dakotan farmers have not been persecuted by a fascist, racist dictatorship who threatened their lives, but it appears that acts of God have equal emotional force. At that moment, Leni and John are interrupted by a rain storm, which temporarily puts this discussion on hold.

When the next dust storm devastates the land, the community is forced to react and make a decision. Despite their dire situation, they nonetheless have choices their European counterparts did not. They can stay and go on relief, or they can leave and travel into an uncertain but promising future. In a reversal of the moral of the earliest version of the film, “that it is better for people to stay where they know conditions than to rush around the country to new places which also have their problems,” the filmmakers portray the opportunity created under Roosevelt's aegis in a favorable light. Instead of becoming farm laborers on big farms in California or being unemployed, they can homestead in Oregon.

Depending on how they approach their choices, members of the community can become either refugees or new pioneers. At this juncture, John suggests a positive attitude toward their relocation using military metaphors. “But as long as we have to move off the land, let's move like an army and not like rabble.” He calls on his neighbors to see the move not as a defeat. “Let's make it an advance and not a retreat.” He makes a strong case for Oregon rather than California, suggesting a radical alternative. “That patch on the map is Oregon. That's fifteen hundred miles from here. That's a long haul in any man's country. But it's new land and if we go together, stick together, and work together and pool our monies and supplies we can make it.” The venture holds with it the possibility of becoming a new type of pioneer if they consolidate their resources.33

The community's future is uncertain as they depart Ashville Forks to journey west. Visually, an almost festive atmosphere commands the screen as they load up. Unlike the lone jalopy in The Grapes of Wrath, the population of an entire town is seen piling into cars. Neighbors joke with their neighbors as they help them load their cars and the preacher sends them off with a prayer, comparing their journey to the Biblical trek of the Jews to the promise land. If the mention of the deplorable conditions of the cars in the prayer and the rabble-rouser Higgins with his questioning of John's competence suggest the trip will not be easy, the words of Dr. Braun cast a pall over the venture. In the eyes of the immigrant, the descendants of the earlier pioneers, now small family farmers, are viewed as suffering a fate worse than that of the refugees when they leave their land behind for an uncertain future. As the community is breaking up and families are packing their possessions and members onto their cars, Dr. Braun says to Leni, “They called us refugees when we were leaving Vienna, but our future was brighter. We were coming to America. For these people there must be a more tragic word than refugee.” In light of the life and death situation of the refugees from Hitler's Germany, this appears ridiculous. However, in the context of the film, having a refugee see the Americans' situation as more dire models empathy. Although they may not be refugees, as they pile their possessions into the cars and family members squeeze onto the vehicles, they might draw to mind familiar images of those fleeing the Dust Bowl, destined to be mistreated and out of work.

Once they get going, any ambiguity fades. As modern-day pioneers, they travel west in long lines of automobiles, modern-day Conestoga wagons. The long circuitous route they take from North Dakota to Oregon allows for multiple long takes of the journey and repeated comparisons between California and Oregon. After the caravan starts rolling, a series of state flags appear, beginning with Wyoming, somehow skipping either Montana or South Dakota, followed by Utah, Nevada, and California. While they may not be facing the raids by Native Americans and renegades seen in so many westerns, they are subject to extreme heat and cold. Moreover, John, whom Dr. Braun has likened to a young Moses, is faced with a few men bent on exploiting the extreme conditions to stir the group up and convince them to go to California. Those who ultimately split off for California are portrayed as rabble rousers and misfits, destined to become migrant workers at best or unemployed migrant workers, as in The Grapes of Wrath.

The final scene, with the group in Oregon, affirms the group members' identities as new pioneers and brings the resolution of the love story. In an approximately thirty-second-long series of shots accompanied by upbeat music reminiscent of a hoedown, community members are shown plowing, clearing, and tilling the land; sawing logs; building structures; and raising a new town sign, “Ashville Forks.” As the music softens, the camera pans to the minister in prayer, explaining to God that barns, silos, and houses had to be built before a church so they could start working the rich soil. As he prays, the camera moves from one family to another. It then pans out slowly to include John and Leni, then her father and Nunk, and finally the community as the preacher joins the two in marriage.

Parallel to Leni's conversion from refugee to pioneer through her attachment to the new community and her love for John is the transformation of Nunk Atterberry (Spencer Charters), John's veterinarian uncle, from xenophobe to the foreigners' champion. Atterberry is portrayed as a rather sympathetic, curmudgeonly, humorous xenophobe, someone audience members could identify with. The hayseed veterinarian views Dr. Braun's arrival as a personal affront but is quickly brought around by the doctor's democratic behavior and skill. At first resentful of the European interloper, he rails against the change. “Thirty years I've been tending this community. All of a sudden I'm not good enough, no indeedy. Got to send for some foreign pill dispenser with an M.D., pdq, and O back of his name.” Making up nonexistent advanced degrees, he expects the doctor to be arrogant and self-important. He complains about being “a bell hop for foreigners!” in front of Leni and Dr. Braun, and he calls her the “Empress of Russia,” finding her too haughty for his taste. His attitude visibly changes when Dr. Braun addresses him as “colleague” in his friendly manner. Nunk is later impressed by Braun's ability as a doctor. After watching the operation on the young boy, Nunk declares to the young boy's mother, “He may be a foreigner, but he sure knows his onions.” The original antiforeigner later attacks the more maleficent xenophobes and insists that the doctor is indeed one of them and no foreigner. When the doctor wishes to voice his support for John's suggestion that they move to Oregon, the troublemaker Higgins rebuffs this with “Ain't no foreigner going to tell me where to go.” Nunk has to be restrained as he reminds Higgins how he did not mind hauling the doctor out of bed in the middle of the night to save his boy. Another man in the crowd rejects the doctor's right to state his opinion, maintaining that everyone knows the doctor is taking a job at a clinic back east. Nunk speaks up again. “He is in a pig's eye. Before the storm he was going to take that job, but now he says no soap. He's willing to go with us folks to Oregon. That doesn't sound like any foreigner to me.” By sacrificing an attractive job to serve the displaced community, he has become one of them. Nunk unwittingly reveals the precarious position of America's newcomers. Although no American doctor has serviced the community, Braun would have been disqualified in the eyes of this group as a foreigner had he chosen the more attractive job.

At the same time the cross-cultural encounters speak to the pro-immigrant message, the Austrian-American romance offers the filmmakers opportunity to insert a strong anti-Nazi message. Leni's Austrian fiancé, Eric, who saved her and her father from certain death and whom they thought dead, sends a communication to them two weeks before Leni and John are to marry. Out of a sense of loyalty, not love, Leni leaves the caravan with her father to meet Eric in San Francisco. To their great surprise, he reveals he has become a convinced Nazi and has “arranged that this little difficulty” of theirs “is forgotten” so they can return with him to Germany.34 Eric makes no secret of Germany's quest for more territory, announcing the fact and showing a newspaper with the headline “nazis occupy oslo and copenhagen.” However unrealistic this scene might be, it informs the audience of Braun's opposition to the regime, provides the doctor with the opportunity to declare his new loyalties, and predict Nazi Germany's ultimate defeat, which he does in medical terms.35 “It is incredible, Eric. You look so perfectly healthy and yet you have become infected with a disease more horrible and malignant than cancer, a disease that will be fatal to you and millions of your countrymen and to the whole Reich.” The doctor compares Eric and Nazi Germany to a dying patient with “an outburst of energy just before the death rattle.” When Leni finds they “do not even speak the same language,” she is freed from previous loyalties and can leave the past behind and move forward now, giving her heart to John and reassuming her position as new pioneer.

The intertwining of the story of those fleeing the Dust Bowl with that of the European refugees resonated with the industry magazines, which liked the upbeat message. Variety declared it “a heartening, wholesome piece of entertainment in striking contrast to the woeful, apprehensive tone of many pictures currently with phases or reflections of the war in Europe.” In contrast to the dark cloud over Europe, “it stresses those American virtues which still have power to recharge a discouraged people and to absorb and recondition those who flee from other lands to its broad asylum.”36The Hollywood Reporter forefronts the American story and praises the producer Sol Siegel “for his straightforward effort in transplanting to the screen this document of the recent plight of many American vicinities in the middle west that were stricken by the drought, and the trek of the people to fertile fields granted them by the government.”37 The Motion Picture Herald compares Three Faces West favorably to The Grapes of Wrath. “Although the cross country trip of the farmers' motor caravan is a cause and objective comparable to that shown in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ the similarity ends there.” The reviewer implies that the protagonists in the Republic drama were more American than those in Ford's rendering of Steinbeck's novel. “These farmers are the hard working clean spoken church going kind long depicted in film and book as typically American and there is no filth in word or act of the production.”38 Vance King of the Motion Picture Daily praises Republic for tackling “the problems confronting refugees of European oppression and victims of natural conditions in the Midwest” and weaving “them into a solidly built story which expounds the fighting spirit of substantial peoples.”39 With exhibitors in mind, the reviewers praise the wholesomeness and strength of Americans they see in the film, which they must have thought would have appealed to audiences.

Less interested in the film's public appeal and attentive to his responsibility to advise potential moviegoers, the New York Times reviewer criticizes Three Faces West in terms of its coherence and status as a possible work of art. He finds that the story has potential but is an “oddly unsatisfactory drama,” and he argues that the film is “stilted, a fairy-tale version of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ told without anger.”40 In contrast to the Joads's travels to and in California, the trek to Oregon involves no hardship, and the reviewer notes that “how a community supposedly ruined by dust storms manages to acquire rich bottomlands of Oregon with hardly any trouble isn't explained.”41 By comparing it to The Grapes of Wrath, for which director John Ford had been awarded an Oscar, the reviewer fails to see some of the film's strengths.

Although the film may not be Oscar material, it stands out among Republic's and Hollywood's productions at the time. Balancing the desire to make money with the desire to send a message, the writers offer a happier alternative than that portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath. In an atmosphere of distrust of foreigners and a lack of understanding for the plight of refugees, the writers present a model for integration and acceptance of foreigners. Despite the fact that the plight of Europe's refugees and those fleeing the Dust Bowl were essentially different, joining their fates was used to raise sympathy for Europe's refugees.42 The marriage of the young Austrian woman and the American farmer and the friendship between the avuncular and competent Dr. Braun and the curmudgeonly and humorously xenophobic Nunk highlight the belief that cultural divides can easily be crossed. As an additional message to the audience, the new arrivals can work with those already here to forge a new community with or without relocation. The new pioneers form a collective, pooling together their resources and avoiding the abuse suffered by those at the hands of big landowners in California. Opposing isolationist rhetoric and inserting anticapitalist sentiment, the film argues that those coming from far away and longtime citizens can forge a more optimistic future together through cooperative efforts.



For a discussion of Roosevelt's reactions to the Anschluss, see Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, FDR and the Jews (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013), 99–101. See also David S. Wyman's Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938–1941 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1968) for a discussion of American anti-Semitism and restrictive immigration policies.


John Cromwell's So Ends Our Night and James Whale's They Dare Not Love, which both came out before the United States declared war on Germany in 1941, depict the Anschluss and the plight of refugees. Cromwell's film, based on Erich Maria Remarque's novel Flotsam, depicts a group of refugees as they flee from one European country to the next. They Dare Not Love focuses on an Austrian royal who is the target of the Nazis.


See Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933–1939 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) for a discussion of Hollywood's position towards Hitler before the United States declares war and Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (Berkley: University of California Press, 1990) for a discussion of films after 1941.


Four Paramount comedies with cross-cultural romances (Evenings for Sale, 1932; Champagne Waltz, 1937; The Emperor Waltz, 1948; A Breath of Scandal, 1960) that take place entirely or almost solely in Austria or Austria-Hungary highlight fundamental cultural differences to be rejected, adopted, or overcome. In contrast, the director and writers of this story take a different approach and attempt to show that perceived cultural differences are merely superficial. The only other Austrian-American romance that takes place entirely in the United States came out in January 1941. In Clarence Brown's Come Live with Me (MGM), Hedy Lamar plays a wealthy Austrian refugee who had to flee because of her father's politics. Facing deportation and possible death, she saves herself through a marriage of convenience that ends up a union of love with a poor writer (James Stewart).


Richard M. Hurst, Republic Studios: Between Poverty Row and the Majors (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007), 8. For a laudatory presentation of the studio and its history, see Len Morris, The Republic Pictures Story (1991), a made-for-television documentary now available on VHS.


Hurst, Republic Studios, 3–4.


Ibid., 3.


Ibid., 3–4.


In the foreword to Bernard Vorhaus's memoir, Saved from Oblivion (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000), Kevin Brownlow notes how Vorhaus, who served as a model for David Lean, was adept at making fast-paced quickie quota films, “films made very cheaply to comply with the Cinematograph Act of 1927” (xii). Throughout Saved from Oblivion, Vorhaus states his sympathies with leftist causes and his opposition to fascism. In his memoir, he explains his “deeper involvement in the struggle against Nazism,” which ironically ties into a stay in Austria. When he was shooting a ski-chase scene for Hideout in the Alps on the Austrian side of the German-Austrian border in 1936, a group of armed German soldiers transgressed the border in hopes of capturing some of the young Austrians he was using as actors. The Austrians, who had been among those who had resisted the attempted Nazi coup in July 1934, took off with the Germans shooting after them. No one was hit, but a bullet grazed Vorhaus, who claimed, “It caused only a shallow wound but also caused my deeper involvement in the struggle against Nazism, my being classified by the FBI as ‘prematurely antifascist,’ my joining the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and other organizations that were branded ‘Communist dominated,’ and having my film career terminated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)” (1).


Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, Radical Hollywood (New York: The New Press, 2002), 93. Buhle and Wagner note that Ornitz wrote “gentle films about the nobility of the poor and those who tried to help the poor.” He kept files on subjects as varied as “anti-Semitism in Christian churches,” “juvenile delinquency,” and “Negro discrimination.” Three Faces West provided the progressively minded team the opportunity to combine anti-Nazi, pro-immigration, and progressive social messages.


Members of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL), which was founded in 1936, brought together a coalition of left, right, and center opposed to Hitler. See Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 99. There Doherty writes, “Blending high-society diversions, educational outreach, and street-level activism, the group aspired to be what it eventually became—the hectoring conscious of the motion picture industry on all matters pertaining to Nazism.” This included rallies, conferences, and radios shows. See particularly Doherty's chapter on the HANL (96–121). Although the coalition fell apart after the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939, it points to the concern and engagement of those involved in the industry.


CR Metzger, “Synopsis. We Begin Life Again,” September 7, 1939. Found in the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) files on Three Faces West in the Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills.


“Doctors Don't Tell,” a second story included in the Three Faces West MPAA file housed in the Margaret Herrick Library, focuses on socialized medicine and is set mainly in Vermont. However, it does have some Viennese connections in that the established American doctor had lectured in Vienna for a number of years before returning with his daughter, who is married to a German medical student. Having made negative remarks about the regime, the American doctor flees the country to avoid arrest. A Republic employee summarizes this story rightly as “an involved and illogical story.” This story was negatively received by the Breen office, not because of the convoluted story, but because of the negative view of the medical establishment. In a letter to M. J. Siegel at Republic productions, Joseph Breen wrote his response to the script, “We urge and recommend that you secure adequate technical advice from a member of the American Medical Association as to these points: (a) Socialized medicine, which as you undoubtedly know, is still highly controversial within the ranks of the American Medical Association, and which, unless presented fairly and carefully, probably will result in widespread condemnation of your picture by responsible members of the American Medical Association.” Both documents are included in Joseph Breen's “Letter to M. J. Siegel,” January 30, 1940, found in the Three Faces West MPAA files at the Margaret Herrick Library. The title “Doctors Don't Tell” was retained temporarily for the film that would eventually become Three Faces West. The script for the final movie appears to be a major rewrite of “We Begin Life Again,” with some minor elements from “Doctors Don't Tell.” Instead of directly proselytizing for a comprehensive health care system, the story uses a refugee doctor and his daughter to condemn the politics of Nazi Germany, address the integration of Europe's refugees into American society, and attack the medical profession.


Walter Compton, “Publicity Flier,” June 8, 1940. Found in the MPAA files on Three Faces West in the Margaret Herrick Library.


Compare with Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund in The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community 1930–1960 (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980). They suggest that the title was changed because it was a war film. “The American people were not belligerent in the summer of 1940. They were scared by the prospect of a massive European war and stayed away in droves from reminders of the impending carnage. As a result, the studios were forced to change the titles of war movies already in production” (311).


Jon D. Swartz and Robert C. Reinehr, Handbook of Old-Time Radio: A Comprehensive Guide to Golden Age Radio Listening and Collecting (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993), 608.


Jean-Michel Palmier, Weimar in Exile: The Antifascist Emigration in Europe and America (London: Verso, 2006), 480. Translated by David Fernbach from the 1987 book Weimar en exile. See also the chapter on physicians in Maurice R. Davie, Refugees in America: Report of the Committee for the Study of Recent Immigration from Europe (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947), 257–86.


E. W. Spaulding, The Quiet Invaders (Vienna: Bundesverlag, 1968), 271.


See Davie, Refugees in America. He notes how American colleagues complained that the European doctors were “officious and overbearing, Prussian in manner; … they exhibited an attitude of superiority and rely on their past experiences and deeply rooted opinions instead of displaying the spirit of co-operation and mutual exchange of views” (262). Dr. Braun is just the opposite.


Spaulding, Quiet Invaders, 277.


Lorenz's autobiography, My Life and Work, which had been reviewed in the New York Times on May 3, 1936, suggests that his name might still have been familiar to the American public in 1940. Ironically, Adolf Lorenz's Nobel Prize–winning son, Konrad Lorenz, was a member of the Nazi party and advanced professionally during their rule.


Two articles by the musicologist Michael Saffle discuss Vienna's cachet as the capital of gaiety and music. See his “‘Do You Ever Dream of Vienna?’: America's Glorification of Musical Central Europe, 1865–1965,” in Identität, Kultur, Raum: Kulturelle Praktiken und die Ausbildung von Imagined Communities in Nordamerika und Zentraleuropa, ed. Susan Ingram, Markus Reisenleitner, and Cornelia Szabό-Knotik (Vienna: Turia & Kant, 2001), 59–75, and “From Schlagobers to Schoenberg: Cultural Transfer, Identity and Otherness, and Depictions of Musical Vienna in the New York Times, 1918–1938,” in Reverberations: Representation of Modernity, Tradition and Cultural Value in-between Central Europe and North America, ed. Susan Ingram, Markus Reisenleitner, and Cornelia Szabό-Knotik (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2002), 63–89.


Felix Belair Jr., “Dry Farming Held Bane of Dakotas,” New York Times, July 19, 1936.


Ralph H. Smuckler, “The Region of Isolationism,” The American Political Science Review 47, no. 2 (June 1953): 391.


David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 390.


Wayne S. Cole, Senator Gerald P. Nye and American Foreign Relations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962), 188. In connection with Nye, Thomas Doherty writes, “By September 1941, Hollywood's explicitly anti-Nazi and implicitly pro-interventionist stance had incited reaction from isolationist elements within the U.S. Senate” (361). John Cromwell's So Ends Our Night and James Whale's They Dare Not Love, two films focusing on European refugees, were among the films targeted by the Committee.


Cole, Senator Gerald P. Nye, 192–93.


James N. Gregory, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 10.


“Dust Bowl Refugees,” New York Times, July 18, 1937.


Douglas W. Churchill, “Exiles from the Dust,” New York Times, March 13, 1938. See also “Refugee Question Is Topic of Rabbis,” New York Times, October 22, 1939. The article quotes Rabbi Jonah B. Wise as saying, “Since 1933 and up to this year the only help that came to the victims of the dust bowls of European tyranny was from private charities.”


“Roosevelt Speech Hits Popular Key,” New York Times, September 29, 1937. The articles mentions population redistribution in the context of the Bonneville Dam in Oregon. “So far as redistribution of population is concerned, that, too, is a popular idea in the Northwest. It is still a pioneer's country.”


See Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 41.


Compare Buhle and Wagner, Radical Hollywood, where the authors recap the film by writing that “John Wayne leads a troop of dust bowl refugees to Oregon in a modern pioneering adventure WPA-style” (94).


Vorhaus, Saved from Oblivion, 93–94. Ironically, Vorhaus found this scene most unsatisfying. “To my dismay Hugh Herbert, a competent screen playwright, had written a scene in which the fiancé was a stiff, outright Nazi to whom the girl would not possibly even have been attracted, much less become engaged.” He proposed to the producer Sol Siegel and Herbert that they rewrite the sequence and make the character weak, someone who became a Nazi collaborator to save himself (94). At this point in his memoir he retrospectively conflates the McCarthy era with the forties and maintains with his version “we had the chance of dramatizing the dilemma in which all of us must have been involved. How would we react to such a crisis, being challenged by McCarthy's committee to inform on friends or lose our film careers.” Curiously, he never mentions Samuel Ornitz in connection with the story.


After Higgins has convinced many to leave and John decides to leave the caravan, Dr. Braun also uses medical metaphors, comparing his situation to that of a doctor who has sworn the Hippocratic Oath.


“The Refugee,” Variety, June 12, 1940. From the Core Collection of the Margaret Herrick Library.


“The Refugee,” The Hollywood Reporter, June 12, 1940. From the Core Collection of the Margaret Herrick Library.


William R. Weaver, “The Refugee,” Motion Picture Herald, June 15, 1940, 42.


Vance King, “The Refugee,” Motion Picture Daily, June 18, 1940, 7.


T. S., “The Screen,” New York Times, August 19, 1940.




Gregory, American Exodus, 10.