Escape stars Robert Taylor as Mark Preysung, a young American and the son of a widowed European woman (Alla Nazimova) who had returned to her native country to sell her late husband's estate. While there, the mother was arrested for trying to take money out of the country and imprisoned in a German concentration camp where she is scheduled for execution, Sneaking into German-occupied Europe, Taylor is befriended by Countess Ruby Von Treck (Norma Shearer) who is the mistress of Nazi General Von Kolb (Conrad Veidt). Taylor isn't certain of the countess' loyalties, but she proves herself by aiding in the rescue of the imprisoned woman. Also assisting in the escape are the concentration camp physician, Dr. Ditten (Philip Dorn), who remembers the mother as the star he loved in silent movies in his youth, and loyal family retainer, Fritz (Felix Bressart).
Based on the 1939 bestseller by Ethel Vance. At the time of its publication the author used a pen name to protect her relatives still living in Europe from Nazi retribution. Her publishers made a rather ostentatious show of the fact that Ethel Vance was a pseudonym thus creating publicity out of the literary mystery. The Vance name was also used in the movie credits. Similarly, no composer credit was given for composer Franz Waxman in the film for the same reason, and some of the actors used fictitious names. Only after America had entered the war was Ethel Vance revealed to be the socially prominent Mrs. Grace Zaring Stone, who had told her friends at the time that she was "writing a novel about evil". Mrs. Stone also wrote The Bitter Tea of General Yen, which was later filmed by Frank Capra.
Escape was the first in a series of anti-Nazi films made by MGM while the U.S. was still a neutral in World War II. The screenplay by Arch Oboler and Marguerite Roberts is even bolder than the novel in its anti-Nazi message. The novel, for instance, never names the totalitarian country where the story takes place, while the movie plainly identifies it as Nazi Germany of 1936.
Escape was originally offered to director Alfred Hitchcock who was attracted to the suspenseful plot and the chance to direct Norma Shearer but who turned it down due to his fear of being supervised too closely by the MGM executives. The roles of co-producer and director went to Mervyn LeRoy who had impressed Producer Lawrence Weingarten with his work on films such as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) for Warner Brothers.
LeRoy originally wanted the German actor Conrad Veidt (famous for his role in the 1920 silent German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in the role of General Kurt Von Kolb, but he was unavailable. Paul Lukas was cast instead. But a week after filming began, LeRoy, finding Lukas' performance lacking in menace, recast the part. He was pleased to find that Veidt was now available and gave him the role in which he was superbly sardonic and menacing while at the same time believable as a man that many of the female characters find charming. This was Veidt's American film debut and may have led directly to his appearance soon after in Casablanca (1942) in his second most famous role as Major Strasser, a character very similar to Gen. Von Kolb.
Hitler banned Escape in Germany for its critical depiction of the country. When MGM continued making anti-Nazi films, Hitler eventually banned all MGM films.
Regrettably, this minor masterpiece is not yet available on dvd. It can, however, be seen occasionally on the cable classic movie channels.