Friday, September 20, 2013

How Green Was My Valley (Best Picture 1941)

How Green Was My Valley (HGWMV from now on)  is a movie that I had absolutely no interest in seeing. I had heard about it for years: it was a romantic love-letter to Wales and its wonderful people, directed by the sentimentalist John Ford, starring the beautiful Maureen O’Hara and the dashing Walter Pidgeon. The reason I didn’t particularly want to see it is because I have seen The Quiet Man, also directed by John Ford, also starring the beautiful Maureen O’Hara (and the dashing John Wayne), and set in some beautiful Irish (or was it Scottish?) village. Let me tell you, that is one of the most boring films I ever sat through! Sure, it won John Ford another Best Director Oscar (his fourth) but….why? We’ll discuss that when we get to it sometime in the mid-Fifties. For now, I just knew that it made me wary of its older sister, HGWMV.

If you’ve picked up on the fact that I thought this was a terrible movie, you’re right.
First of all, there is no dialogue for the first 17 minutes. All we get is a narrator waxing poetically about how great his childhood was and how he is going to tell us all about his small village in Wales. We get various scenes of the Welsh countryside (actually California) until *finally* the camera comes to land on the Morgan family....
The story of HGWMV revolves around young Huw (pronounced "Hugh"), portrayed by a young Roddy McDowall. He and his five brothers and one sister live with their parents on the hill leading up to the coal-mine. Unfortunately, we never learn anything about any of these siblings, and in fact I couldn't even tell them apart. Huw however is a 12-year old boy looking at his experiences through rose-colored glasses, so maybe that's how it's supposed to be. As an example of what I mean, Huw romanticizes his father and brothers coming home from the mine every night, washing up, and having dinner together. This is a simple life, but somehow he makes it sound wonderful. Huw meets his oldest brother's fiancee and falls madly in love with her. They marry and moves into a small house next door. Huw falls into the icy river and is bed-ridden for months; this is when he begins to cultivate his mind by reading such classics as Treasure Island, and conversing with the new chapel minister, played by Walter Pidgeon. 
Most of the story is about the Morgans and their relationship to the mine. When the management lowers the workers' salaries, the workers vote to strike. During the strike the village men turn against the foreman, Mr. Morgan (Donald Crisp, in an Academy Award winning Best Actor performance). They somehow hold him responsible for the conditions, although he is firmly on their side. Mrs. Morgan (Sara Allgood) goes to one of the union meetings to defend her husband. This is where she and Huw fall into the river. She is laid low for a few weeks, but is eventually okay. The town comes together after the strike is over, and the Morgans are welcomed back into the villages' good graces.  Soon after, two sons are laid off and decide to go off to America.  The other two sons are let go, so they head to London. The eldest son dies in a coal-mine fire just as his son is born. In the end, Mr. Morgan dies in a coal-mine cave-in. 

Not a lot of "green" on display here. And I don't mean just because the movie is in black and white.   

The more interesting part of the film is the romantic relationship between sister Angharad (don't ask me to pronounce it) and Mr. Gryffydd (O'Hara and Pidgeon, respectively). Pidgeon has a strong screen presence as the new minister. He is at first just a friend to the Morgans, then a teacher to young Huw, and then a would-be suitor for Angharad, and finally another brother-father figure for Huw. O'Hara looks lovely in this role, but all she is ever asked to do is stand or sit and look beautiful, smiling blankly as her fellow actors emote to or around her. It is a thankless role and terribly uninteresting. When she confesses her love for the minister, he has the more dramatic scene. He has to explain to her that although he loves her, he won't marry her because that would doom her to a life of poverty. Yes, you read that right. This is the type of sentiment on display in this movie. So she ends up marrying the son of the coal-mine manager and living unhappily ever after. 
This is when the movie really begins to falter. Maureen O'Hara ends up coming back from South Africa without her husband. Suddenly there is gossip all over the village about her and the minister, although it appears that they never meet. What exactly is the sin here? The gossip gets so bad that Pidgeon is voted out of the chapel by the ruling council. (By the way, O'Hara in her husband's house reminds me of Joan Fontaine in *her* husband's house in Rebecca; O'Hara is initially shy but then takes command and orders the maid around.) There is talk that she and the manager's son are going through a divorce, but as she is still living in her husband's family's home it seems like it is only talk. 

I guess I miss the point of how a village made up of thankless union strikers and shallow gossips is in any way "idyllic"? Symbolically (?) Huw's father dies at this time, so maybe the theme really is that his childhood is over? If that's the case it isn't very clearly presented.
The best part of this film BY FAR is the performance of Roddy McDowall as young Huw. He is wonderful in every one of his scenes. I especially liked when he goes to school to learn and become something, only to face rejection and ridicule. McDowall does a wonderful job handling this sentimental hogwash. Then when he tells his father that he doesn't want to study to be a doctor or lawyer, preferring the life of the coal-mine, you can tell how heart-broken Mr. Morgan is. Crisp definitely deserved his Oscar for this scene. If you are going to watch this movie, watch the scenes with Roddy McDowall and skip the rest of the stuff.
My wife made her own comment on the film: she fell asleeep during the first half hour and woke up to ask, "Which brother is that?" and then gave up. Her rating system is as follows: 
stay awake = good
doze off = not so good
actually fall asleep = no good

I'm inclined to agree with her.

How Green Was My Valley
*Academy Award Best Picture 1941*
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by John Ford
Screenplay by Phillip Dunne
based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Blossoms In The Dust
Citizen Kane
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Hold Back The Dawn
The Little Foxes
The Maltese Falcon
One Foot In Heaven
Sergeant York

The Oscar ceremony was held in February 1942, so I guess it's not surprising that after the attack on Pearl Harbor a heart-warming film like HGWMV would win. I know most of these other nominees. Here Comes Mr. Jordan is the story of Robert Montgomery, who is accidentally killed before his time; Claude Rains plays Mr. Jordan, the angel sent down with him to help him take over a murdered man's life. It's a great film. It was later re-made by Warren Beatty as Heaven Can Wait, but the original is better. The Maltese Falcon is, of course, one of the greatest mystery films of all time. It stars Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, directed by John Huston by a story by Dashiell Hammett. By the way, Mary Astor won Best Supporting Actress this year for a film I have never heard of, The Great Lie. Sergeant York was a WWI drama that won Gary Cooper his first Best Actor Oscar. Suspicion starred Joan Fontaine as another put-upon wife; she is the only Alfred Hitchcock directed actor to ever win an Oscar. Her elder sister, Olivia De Haviland, was nominated for Hold Back The Dawn; it is said that when De Haviland lost to her sister they didn't talk for years. I have never even heard of that film. The Little Foxes is a classic Bette Davis film that I have never seen; she, too, was nominated. I don't know two of the last three; the third,  Citizen Kane, is supposedly the greatest film ever made. We'll talk about that motion picture NEXT week.

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