Monday, January 29, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: MRS. MINIVER (1942)

As its twelve Oscar nominations and six wins attest, Mrs. Miniver was the right film at the right moment in 1942. Americans newly engaged in World War II flocked to the theater and took away a sense that they were fighting for people like the Minivers and their quaint English village. Even to director William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver later seemed naive in its depiction of wartime experience, but it remains an effective and emotional appeal to our sense of country, liberty, and the sweet fragility of life. The famous Wilcoxon speech, which ends the picture, is an especially stirring call to arms; it proved so powerful that President Roosevelt had copies of it dropped over Nazi-occupied Europe. For Americans looking for a reason to fight, Mrs. Miniver provided motivation in abundance, along with films like The Great Dictator (1940), Casablanca (1942), and To Be or Not to Be (1942).

Greer Garson stars as the title character, a comfortable English housewife whose domestic bliss is shattered by the arrival of the war. Her oldest child, Vin (Richard Ney), joins the RAF and flies into danger while falling in love with sweet Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright). Husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) patrols the river and makes the journey to Dunkirk while Mrs. Miniver and her younger children endure air raids and the appearance of a downed German pilot. Village life goes on even as the bombs fall, culminating in a flower show where Mrs. Miniver has a prize rose named after her by the station master, Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers). When tragedy strikes, the family and their community must hold to their values in defiance of all they have lost.

Garson is very much the glamorous star in spite of her maternal role; she never looks dirty or bedraggled, and she certainly doesn't look old enough to be the mother of Vin. In real life Garson was only twelve years older than Richard Ney and actually ended up marrying him, though the union lasted just a few years. Garson's glamour is part of what makes Mrs. Miniver seem a little artificial and dated to a modern audience, but the actress does have tremendous screen presence, especially in closeup. Walter Pidgeon's Clem looks somewhat rougher after his valiant excursion to Dunkirk, but gritty realism is never the picture's aim. We get glimpses of that in the damage to the Minivers' house and the village church, but the most powerful scene of wartime fear takes place in the family's bunker, where the parents clutch their screaming children as the bombs rain down destruction from above. Wyler makes a point of showing us that war's victims are not just the soldiers who fight, but the women and children and old men, too. Youth and innocence offer no protection against such devastation.

A number of supporting performances deserve particular mention, including Teresa Wright's moving portrayal of Carol, who loves Vin even though she knows how easily he could be killed. Wright won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role, but she had competition for it in Dame May Whitty, who plays her starchy grandmother, Lady Beldon. These two women, at opposite ends of life, create bookends around Mrs. Miniver and offer subtler commentaries on what is won and what is lost in war. Lady Beldon might, in fact, be the story's most dynamic character; she starts as an unlikable snob but slowly unbends to reveal her generous heart, and Vin's last scene with her shows how far they've come. Henry Travers is as genial as ever in the role of Mr. Ballard, the rose gardener who admires Mrs. Miniver's kindness and grace, and Henry Wilcoxon owns the final scene as the village vicar.

Mrs. Miniver won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Cinematography. William Wyler, who was overseas with the Signal Corps when his picture had its big night, came back from the war to direct The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which reunited him with Teresa Wright and took another look at the toll of wartime experience. For more of Greer Garson see Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Pride and Prejudice (1940), and Random Harvest (1942). Walter Pidgeon starred with Garson in a number of films, but today he is probably best remembered for How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Forbidden Planet (1956). For more of the delightful Dame May Whitty, see Night Must Fall (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). A sequel, The Miniver Story, appeared in 1950 with Garson and Pidgeon back in their original roles but with Vin cut out of the story following Richard Ney's divorce from Garson.