Wednesday, April 28, 2021

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Director: John Ford                                         Writer: Philip Dunne
Film Score: Alfred Newman                            Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood

Much like the Academy Award winning Cavalcade a decade earlier, I have absolutely no idea what the point of this film is, much less why it won an Oscar for best picture. How Green Was My Valley is one of those multi-generational slice of life stories that do nothing and go nowhere. For me, they are the precursors to today’s Trauma Dramas that have infected movie screens and take home awards for the utterly unimaginative feat of showing what happens to real people in real life. Yet there’s actually a separate category for that kind of film: the documentary. It would be nice if those stories were relegated to that category instead of polluting what major motion pictures of the past always attempted to be, fictional stories that transport the viewer to another time and place instead of to the misery going on just down the street. But it stands to reason today that in a time period utterly devoid of imagination, where Hollywood is unable to create anything other than retreads and sequels of popular stories from long ago, science-fiction, sword and sorcery, and superhero movies that are practically indistinguishable from each other, and idiot comedies little better than TV sitcoms, when it comes to high drama the only thing that crosses the minds of modern screenwriters are “Based on a True Story” soap operas that obviate them from the arduous task of actually coming up with an original story. The only function I can see to John Ford’s maudlin family tragedy seems to be as the progenitor of what we’re stuck with today

The great Irving Pichel opens the film, in voiceover, as the older character Huw Morgan. The character is leaving his home for the final time, and remembers back to his childhood in a mining village in Wales, where his character is played by a young Roddy McDowell. He’s the youngest of six sons and a daughter, played by Maureen O’Hara. The family is ruled by father Donald Crisp, heavy handed with his moral guidance, which runs through his sons down to Huw. O’Hara helps her mother cook and clean, and the sons all contribute their money earned in the mine to mother Sara Allgood and then receive a small allowance in return. As always in this kind of film, the church looms large and young Huw is also guided by Walter Pidgeon as the local priest. As such stories usually go, the family is threatened by any number of perils, beginning when the mine shortens hours and cuts back on workers. The eldest son, Patric Knowles, is the first to marry, but the other boys soon move out when they want to unionize and go on strike, against their father’s wishes. Then the inherent dangers of the mine go on to claim a number of men in the village, O’Hara falls desperately in love with Pidgeon, who has no intention of marrying anyone, and before long the whole family is miserable, a reflection of the general misery of the entire valley, and so it goes. Through it all, the whole thing is just so overly sentimentalized and fantasized that it’s unwatchable much of the time.

But I get it. The U.S. was on the cusp of World War II. It had just been through, and was still suffering from, The Great Depression. So I’m sure it seemed as if everything Americans held dear had evaporated out from under them, and naturally a story like this would have been appealing, perhaps even provided a measure of comfort. But it can hardly be said to be entertaining. Still, even acknowledging it’s popularity with the public, the fact that a film like this could win the Oscar for best picture over Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion is incomprehensible. John Ford won an Oscar for best director as well, even though he had taken over the project from William Wyler in the early stages of production, and while some critics compare the film to best of his westerns, there’s something about the overt emotional manipulation in this particular film that is rather unsavory. He would do the same thing a decade and a half later in The Long Gray Line, and with equally dismal results. There’s no real star in the picture, as it’s something of an ensemble piece, though Crisp and Allgood are central to the story, even more so than McDowell, and the relationship between Pidgeon and O’Hara is more exasperating than interesting. While How Green Was My Valley is purportedly a sentimental look at a simpler time, it feels much more like an unrelenting view of grim reality with no redeeming features to make the experience worth the journey. It might still have appeal to some people today, but I’m not one of them.

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