Saturday, December 31, 2016

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Director: William Wyler                                     Writers: Arthur Wimperis & James Hilton
Film Score: Herbert Stothart                             Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright and Richard Ney

It’s no surprise that MGM’s Mrs. Miniver won the best picture Oscar in 1942. It seems that all through the war years anything having to do with the war itself (Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives) or England (How Green was My Valley, Rebecca) wound up in the top spot. This film makes no pretension of being coy about it, extolling the virtues of the British people in a scrolling prologue before the film even begins. Of course everyone knows about the flyers in the Battle of Britain, but less is known about the work and sacrifice of ordinary people all across the country and that’s exactly what the film attempts to convey. It’s a war film, so it doesn’t have a happy ending, but it is an uplifting picture and it’s easy to see why it won the Academy Award for best picture. The film was based on the 1940 novel by Jan Struther, and several screenwriters worked on it, including James Hilton who was the author of Lost Horizon. The film had gone into production prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and afterward the studio was allowed to ratchet up the confrontation between Greer Garson and the downed German pilot. The film was nominated for twelve Oscars, winning six in all, including awards for William Wyler, Greer Garson, Teresa Wright, the black and white cinematography of Joseph Ruttenberg, and the screenplay.

The film opens in London, with Greer Garson getting off the bus in a panic and running back to the store to buy a hat she had seen. On the train home to the village where she lives the audience meets the vicar, Henry Wilcoxon, and the lady of the manor, Dame May Whitty. Henry Travers is the ticket taker at the train station in the village and grows roses, naming one of his hybrids after Garson. Walter Pidgeon is her husband and he’s buying a car from Gerald Oliver Smith. He’s an architect and they have two small children and a grown son who is home for the summer from college. The film is obviously establishing the vision of a happy, healthy, middle-class existence in order to contrast it later with the horrors of war. Richard Ney is home from Oxford, full of disgust at the lingering caste system in Britain, and when Teresa Wright, the granddaughter of Whitty, comes to ask that Travers be persuaded not to enter his rose in competition--so that Whitty can win, as she does every year--it puts the two of them at odds, especially when she accuses him of being all talk and no action. It’s a romantic comedy trope that virtually assures they will fall in love by the end of the picture, but the audience doesn’t have to wait nearly that long. At church a few months later the vicar announces that Britain is at war, and it’s almost possible to see the wheels spinning in Ney’s head about needing to put his words into action, something not unnoticed by his parents.

Two months later Ney is in the air corps, and both he and Pidgeon are called in to help save the soldiers at Dunkirk. Then there’s talk of a German plane going down and no sign of the pilot, and the plot thickens when Garson finds Helmut Dantine in her garden while the men are gone. There are some nice bits of comedy, for example when Reginald Owen as the air-raid marshal tells everyone that the government has said people should stockpile food. Of course, he’s the town grocer and is putting in orders for everyone whether they like it or not. Dame Whitty also comes in for a bit of ridicule for her aristocratic posturing, especially when people’s lives are at stake. The acting in the film is uniformly excellent, although the Hollywood actors playing many of the British roles is one of the major sacrifices the film makes for American audiences. Another weakness is that the film was completely shot on the MGM back lot. But overall there’s little to criticize. Garson is tremendous, and deserved her Oscar for best actress. The film score by studio composer Herbert Stothart is fairly bland and forgettable, especially next to Max Steiner’s score for Now Voyager, which won the award. The film was praised as a propaganda film by FDR, who wanted Americans to get behind the British and support their newfound ally in the fight against the Germans. Though Mrs. Miniver is a predictable and unsubtle war story, it nevertheless has a lot to recommend it and was worthy of its best picture award.

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