Friday, October 4, 2013

Mrs. Miniver (Best Picture 1942)

When I sat down to watch Mrs. Miniver I only knew two things about it: it was a war drama filmed in the middle of a war, and Greer Garson won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in it. I only knew the latter as the answer to the trivia question, "who has the longest acceptance speech in Oscar history?" She spoke for five minutes; after that the Academy began enforcing time constraints on acceptance speeches! 
After not liking the previous year's winner, I had high hopes for this one. Mrs. Miniver begins by introducing the two lead characters, Kay and Clem Miniver. Both have made "extravagant" purchases they are concerned to share with the other: she a hat, he a car. As we are introduced to them we also learn that she is a well-loved member of the sea-side village; in fact, Mr. Ballard, the train station-master, has grown a rose and named it after her because of the way she conducts herself. This rose leads to one of the main themes of the film: classism (if that is the word) in Great Britain. You see, we learn that Lady Beldon, the aristocratic "head" of the village, runs an annual Garden Party where the best flowers of the year are announced. Mr. Ballard intends to submit his rose in this competition, even though Lady Beldon herself has always won. Lady Beldon's granddaughter, Carol, visits the Minivers to talk to them about this competition, and she and the Miniver's oldest son, Vin, start to fall in love.
Then comes war. The Miniver's house-keeper's husband Horace goes off immediately, followed closely by  Vin. He joins the Royal Air Force and is stationed at the nearby airbase. The next dramatic event is the Evacuation of Dunkirk (France) in summer 1940. The mayor of the village asks for all boat-owning men to volunteer to help. Clem does, of course, and is gone for several days. While he is away, a German pilot who had been shot-down finds himself in the Miniver's garden. He overcomes Kay and insists on food and water. They have a dramatic exchange wherein he claims the Germans are going to kill all people, civilians or not, if they don't stand with the Nazis. In one of the most shocking scenes in the film, Mrs. Miniver slaps the soldier and he is sorely tempted to shoot her. Because he is wounded, however, she is able to get the better of him and he is arrested. After all this excitement is over Clem returns from Dunkirk, exhausted. 
Vin asks Carol to marry him, but Lady Beldon is against it. Mrs. Miniver assumes it is something about them being from different classes, but Lady Beldon insists that is not it. She simply wants to spare her grand-daughter the pain of losing her husband in war. Kay presses the elder woman about when she had gotten married, and of course the matriarch realizes that Love is all that matters. She knows that the Miniver family are good people and she agrees to not fight against Carol marrying Vin.
While the two are away on their honeymoon, Nazis bomb the village again, destroying the front of the Miniver house. Kay and Clem are in their bomb shelter with their other two children, reading from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The symbolism here is that the children view all of this noise and destruction as an adventure; the parents want to keep them in "Wonderland" for as long as possible. It's a very well done scene.

After the newlyweds come home it's time for the Garden Party. Mr. Ballard still hopes to win with his rose, but the judging committee is afraid of angering Lady Beldon, so they decide to give her the award after all. However, because she as the hostess is announcing the winners, she decides to over-rule them by  announcing Mr. Ballard as the winner. She sees her way clear to give up her prize and share it with "the people." The villagers, clearly suspicious of the whole thing, are overjoyed when she magnanimously gives up the prize. They award her and Mr. Ballard with a standing ovation.
The end of the movie is the other great shock of the film. This is a war film, so of course someone is going to die, right? However, the how and why of it *did* catch me off guard, so I will not spoil it here for you. (If you want to leave a comment, please do not spoil it there, either) The last scene is in the bombed-out church, where the vicar gives a heartened appeal to everyone that "this is the people's war!" and that everyone must do his part. The film ends with the village singing, "Onward Christian Soldier."
So, obviously, there is a lot going on in this film. Greer Garson is wonderful in her lead role, holding her family together and then very much being the model villager to help hold the village together as well. She lets her pain and anxiety show through the chinks in her armor, however. She is especially good in her scenes with Walter Pidgeon as Clem and with Teresa Wright as Carol. As parents their concern for their children, especially their oldest son, is conveyed in gestures, looks, and body language above and beyond what they actually say. Also, their love for each other is shown in glances and small movements. They are a wonderful pair. And Wright won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Carol, the aristrocratic "snob" who ends up falling in love with a "commoner," a fine Richard Ney. Wright has a scene after she marries Vin where she tearfully admits that she has to live in the present because she and Vin may not have any future. It's very powerful stuff. She and Garson both earn their Academy Awards. Speaking of the Academy, Dame May Whitty was also nominated, but lost to co-star Wright. She is delightful as the old lady with the heart of gold. Her scene with Garson when they are talking about love and marriage is beautifully done. And Henry Travers, best known as the angel "Clarence" in It's A Wonderful Life, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Mr. Ballard. His is a very low-key performance, but he shows up just often enough for us to really begin to like him. Unfortunately he lost to Van Heflin in Johnny Eager.
I think the best thing about this film is the scene between Mrs. Miniver and the wounded German pilot. She tries to be reasonable with him, but he meets her reason with out-right fanaticism. Watching the scene from 70 years on it sounds almost jingoistic; however, if you stop and think that this film was made in Dec 1941, with the US just entering the fray and the British having been in it for two years already, the dialogue sounds a little less jingo-istic and a little more straight-forwardly defensive. Instead of an Indiana Jones-type cartoonish Nazi, this man is human, yet very very dangerous. It's as if the film-makers were saying, "Look, this is our enemy. We can try to reason with him, but it won't do any good!" Later, in the very last scene, there is a very strong sense that we (Great Britain, and thus the Allies) could very well lose the War. Even though I know "we" didn't lose, the film succeeds in bringing you into its world and making you care about the fight, even though it has been over for more than 60 years.Propaganda? Sure. But this film is very clearly stating that these are the types of people and lifestyles that we are fighting for, so doesn't that make it worth it?

I can totally understand that this film won the Oscar for Best Picture. It tells several deeply emotional stories and it does them all well. The acting is top-notch as well. If you haven't seen this film yet, you owe it to yourself to see it. You won't be disappointed.  

Mrs. Miniver
*Academy Award Best Picture 1942*
Produced by Henry Sidney Franklin
Directed by Wiliam Wyler
Screenplay by George Froeschel, James Hilton,
Claudine West, and Arthur Wimperis

Watch this trailer to get an idea of how "current" this movie considered itself at the time

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Invaders
King's Row
The Magnificent Ambersons
The Pied Piper
The Pride Of The Yankees
Random Harvest
The Talk Of The Town
Wake Island
Yankee Doodle Dandy
The Pride of the Yankees, the story of Lou Gehrig, is one of the all-time greatest baseball movies ever and a movie that will always bring a tear to my eye. The Magnificent Ambersons is another Orson Welles masterpiece, this time about a dysfunctional family instead of just one man. If you haven't ever seen it, you should. It's technically brilliant, and somewhat more engaging than Citizen Kane. Yankee Doodle Dandy won James Cagney his Best Actor Oscar, and is a fun and patriotic 1940s musical. I reviewed it here. The other films, I hate to say, I have never even heard of.

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