Monday, January 29, 2018

Mrs. Miniver's English Rose

Warning: This essay contains spoilers for the film.  

The English rose features prominently in William Wyler's Oscar-winning 1942 film, Mrs. Miniver, where its symbolic value is, at first glance, fairly straightforward. The rose functions as a symbol for England; when the title character allows her name to be given to a rose, she also becomes a symbol for her native land. Mrs. Miniver is a rose, and Mrs. Miniver is England, for England is itself a rose. Through the connection with the rose, the heroine becomes the embodiment of her country, graceful and kind but possessing great resolve and courage, too. The rose has long held a special place in English national sentiment and symbolism, so its significance in Mrs. Miniver comes as no surprise. There is, however, a lot more going on in the film's use of this particular symbol than the suggestive syllogism that equates Kay Miniver, her country, and the flower that grows in the station master's garden. The rose is also a symbol of the dual truths of mortality and permanence, themes that the film works out in characters like Carol Beldon and James Ballard, both of whom have their own connections to Mrs. Miniver's namesake bloom.

The Mrs. Miniver rose and the flower show for which it was grown are major narrative elements in the film. The rose takes center stage as the most important flower in the village's annual show; Lady Beldon does not care who wins the prizes for the other flowers because only the rose is significant enough to matter to her. In fact, she associates herself with the rose in her aristocratic assumption that only she can even enter the competition for the rose category, much less win. Lady Beldon's appropriation of the rose harks back to the Great Chain of Being, a medieval worldview that places everything in a strict correlating hierarchy, with highborn people like Lady Beldon and roses ruling at the top. When the lowly Mr. Ballard enters his own rose, named for a middle-class housewife, he upsets Lady Beldon's old-fashioned ideas about the world in which she lives. England, to her, is a queen, an aristocrat, embodied by the white rose with which she wins the flower show each year. Mr. Ballard's red rose represents a new England, more egalitarian and approachable, grown with devotion but belonging to the people. As Mr. Ballard tells Kay, a rose requires breeding and budding but also horse manure; it can't exist without some earthiness in it. It might seem odd to an American film audience that the flower show goes on even when the village is being bombed, but the rose competition in particular symbolizes the cultural changes that are taking place all over the country and in the socially mismatched love affair between Vin Miniver and Lady Beldon's granddaughter, Carol.

Carol is herself another image of the English rose, just as she becomes another "Mrs. Miniver" when she marries Vin. A fresh and blooming girl, Carol has youthful vitality and great sweetness, qualities often associated with the "English rose" as it describes a lovely woman. Her first appearance in the film also connects her to the symbolic bloom; she comes to the Miniver home to ask Kay if she will try to talk Mr. Ballard out of competing with Lady Beldon in the flower show. Carol recognizes the contest as another sort of war of the roses for her grandmother, but she quickly decides that Lady Beldon is in the wrong for expecting her social position to entitle her to victory. She and Vin meet because of this visit and soon fall in love, but Carol is always keenly aware of the fleeting nature of life and happiness. She knows that Vin could be killed at any time, but she refuses to let that danger prevent a moment of joy. Ironically, it is Carol herself who is killed when she is struck by a stray bullet from an aerial battle. She becomes the rose that symbolizes transience and brevity, the same rose spoken of by Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene, by Robert Herrick in "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," and by William Blake in "The Sick Rose." Fortunately, Carol understands the theme of carpe diem and makes the most of her short life, enjoying two weeks of married bliss with Vin before tragedy overtakes her.

While Carol embodies the rose as a figure of impermanence, the flower also appears as a symbol of endurance, something that lives on after its creator is gone. James Ballard dies the same day as Carol, just an hour after his moment of glory at the flower contest. He is an old man, a modest station master without much claim to importance, and the triumph in the rose contest is the high point of his life. His death after the show makes Lady Beldon's decision to award him the prize, in spite of her cowed judges having named her the winner, deeply meaningful, for Ballard's name and rose will live on after him in the annals of village history. The individual bloom lasts but a few days, and the gardener who grew it dies, but the Mrs. Miniver rose lives on in the memories of those who survive. Mrs. Miniver herself, the original, also lives on to remember both Carol and Mr. Ballard, for she is England, and England cannot die. Thus the rose is both fleeting and immortal; individual roses wither and fade, just as English men and women fall beneath the bombs, but the idea of the rose, which is also the idea of England, lasts forever. The connection is driven home when someone suggests to Mr. Ballard that "if war comes, it's goodbye roses." Mr. Ballard replies, "Don't talk silly. You might as well say goodbye England. There will always be roses." So there will also always be Mrs. Minivers, even after Kay Miniver lies sleeping in her grave.

In his or her own way, each of the film's most emotionally powerful characters is associated with the rose, and each embodies a different aspect of the English character. Within the context of the film, each of them must die sooner or later, but as characters they live forever, still unfolding their joys and sorrows to audiences some 75 years after the picture's original release. There is still Mrs. Miniver, there is still an England, and there are still roses growing in village gardens. Ironically, the film inspired the creation of a real Mrs. Miniver rose that was itself almost extinct by 2015, save for one plant surviving, in all places, in Germany. Now it is being brought back for fans of Mrs. Miniver and roses to enjoy. Mrs. Miniver and Mr. Ballard might be fictional, but the rose is real, and that seems a fitting conclusion to a story that invests so much of its narrative energy in the symbolic power of a lovely, fragile bloom.

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.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Classic Movie Puzzle Grid #1

My husband, who knows how much I like puzzles, recently sent me a link to the Puzz Grid site, where puzzle enthusiasts submit puzzle grids for others to solve. Of course I immediately thought about making my own versions with classic movie themes!

Here's how the puzzle grid works. Each puzzle contains 16 words or phrases, which can be sorted into four groups of four. The groups can be names, things in the same category, or basically any related collection. The player has to figure out which items belong together and what connects them. On Puzz Grid the puzzles are timed, but here you can take as long as you want. I'll put the answers in the comments below the post.

If you try one of these, let me know what you think! I made some classic movie cryptoquizzes a while back, so try your hand at those, too, if you like.

This first one will be really easy!

WHALE                     MATTHAU            CAGNEY            FORD

HUSTON                    FONDA                 BRENNAN         PIDGEON

CARRADINE            MASON                 HULL                  WAYNE

HATHAWAY             TRAVERS              AGAR                 ARNESS

Monday, January 8, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

Peter Cushing returns to the role of Doctor Van Helsing for this sequel to Hammer's 1958 reinvention of the Dracula story, but, in spite of the title, Dracula never actually appears. Instead, Van Helsing combats a new undead menace and the relentless obstacle of the doctor's own terrible timing, which goes a long way to make a bad problem worse. While the absence of Christopher Lee's Count is lamentable, and Van Helsing's inability to be on time is maddening, The Brides of Dracula offers a smorgasbord of the usual Hammer delights, including buxom damsels, sublime Gothic ambience, and the perfectly serious performance of Cushing himself.

Van Helsing combats an outbreak of vampirism when the undead Baron Meinster (David Peel) escapes from bondage and turns his pretty young victims into fellow bloodsuckers. The Baron also exacts a terrible revenge on his mother, the Baroness (Martita Hunt), who had kept him a prisoner in the family castle to control his murderous appetite. Once on the loose, the Baron pursues the lovely Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), who escapes from her first encounter with the vampire and is rescued by Van Helsing. Unfortunately, Marianne's next destination is a girls' school, where the Baron finds plenty of virginal flesh to feed his lust for blood.

The Baron is a younger, more talkative monster than Lee's Dracula, with a young man's energy to match. David Peel's fluffy blond coif and oversized fangs make him a bit silly, but he manages to wreak havoc just the same, especially because Van Helsing never manages to keep his promises to return before sundown and stake the latest vampire victim. We might forgive him for being late the first time, but by the second time he really ought to know better; both of the female vampires might have been dispatched before they ever woke up (which would have made for a much shorter movie but a less frustrating vampire hunter). It's not Cushing's fault that the script relies on his character to be incompetent in order to generate the titular brides, but I find it hard to accept that the one guy who ought to be on top of the problem doesn't seem to know what time the sun sets.

Van Helsing's chronic lateness allows the Baron to corrupt two young girls, first a villager and then one of Marianne's friends at the school. These "brides" run about in white nightgowns and flash their own extra-large fangs at Van Helsing, but they don't have much personality as vampires. Marianne is the only young woman who gets much to do, and she usually does exactly the wrong thing. She takes Van Helsing's instructions to forget what has happened to her so literally that she later becomes engaged to the Baron, not recognizing him as the monster she naively freed from his chains! More interesting, and more tragic, is the Baroness, who pays for hiding her unnatural son when he turns her into a vampire, too. Unlike the other victims, the Baroness retains her horror at her fate, and she welcomes Van Helsing's offer to set things right. Martita Hunt gives the standout performance of the picture in the role, showing the Baroness in a brief but tragic arc of complicity, guilt, contrition, and redemption.

In spite of its narrative flaws, The Brides of Dracula remains a great favorite among Hammer devotees, and many blog lists rank it as the best of the Hammer Dracula films. For the sake of comparison, watch Horror of Dracula (1958) and a couple of the later entries: Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Scars of Dracula (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), or The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). Terence Fisher, who directed this outing, also headed up several of Hammer's other most memorable pictures, including The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy (1959). Cushing and his frequent costar Christopher Lee appear together in many of these films. You'll find Yvonne Monlaur in Circus of Horrors (1960) and The Terror of the Tongs (1961); Martita Hunt, meanwhile, should not be missed as Miss Havisham in the 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Film Log for 2017

2017 was a busy year, which meant that I watched fewer films than I have in previous years. We did some traveling, my daughter's school schedule ate a lot of time with me driving her to dual enrollment classes the next town over, and I was more engaged in politics than I ever have been before (a good thing but for all kinds of awful reasons). I wrote another book and pitched it to agents, did a lot of volunteer work with seniors, and spent many hours helping my teenager navigate the beginning of the serious college application phase of her life. That said, I still managed to watch films both old and new, and here's the record of every movie I made time to see over the last year. It's always fun to reflect on the films and wonder what other people watched.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Sing Street (2016)
Hidden Figures (2016)
For the Love of Spock (2016)
Lisa and the Devil (1973)
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Galaxy Quest (1999)
Hellboy (2004)
Waxwork (1988)
Waxwork II (1991)
The Rocketeer (1991)
The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
Frankenstein (1931)
Each Dawn I Die (1939)
Soapdish (1991)
Jane Eyre (2011)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (with live floor show in Atlanta, GA)
Philomena (2013)
The Mummy (1932)
Dr. Strange (2016)
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Moana (2016)
Labyrinth (1986)
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Swiss Army Man (2016)
Beauty and the Beast (2017) (at Disney's El Capitan Theater in Hollywood!)
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Cry Wilderness (MST3K version)
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Five Came Back (2017)
The Time Travelers (MST3K version)
Reptilicus (MST3K version)
Avalanche (MST3K version)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
The Wolf Man (1941)
The Beast of Hollow Mountain (MST3K version)
Love and Friendship (2016)
Lion (2016)
Bright Lights (2016)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997)
Jurassic World (2015)
Women He's Undressed (2015)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 (2010)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 (2011)
Wonder Woman (2017)
Mindhorn (2016)
Handsome (2017)
Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah (2001)
Starcrash (MST3K version)
Demons of the Mind (1972)
America's Sweethearts (2001)
Ocean's 11 (2001)
Ocean's 12 (2004)
The Land That Time Forgot (MST3K version)
Baby Driver (2017)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Spiderman: Homecoming (2017)
The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)
Casablanca (1942)
Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets (2017)
Dunkirk (2017)
West of Zanzibar (1928)
Three Strangers (1946)
Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
The African Queen (1951)
The Wraith (1986)
The Public Enemy (1931)
Logan Lucky (2017)
Runaway Bride (1999)
The First Wives Club (1996)
The Woman in White (1948)
Hocus Pocus (1993)
Footlight Parade (1933)
The Monster Squad (1987)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Gypsy (1962)
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Robin Hood (1973)
Kings Row (1942)
Night Tide (1961)
Lady in White (1988)
The Last Unicorn (1982)
Going My Way (1944)
Each Dawn I Die (1939) - 2nd viewing of the year
Scaramouche (1952)
The House of Seven Corpses (1974)
Mary Poppins (1964)
The Penalty (1920)
The Adventures of Don Juan (1948)
In & Out (1997)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Fright Night (1985)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Heathers (1988)
Speed Racer (2008)
Kong: Skull Island (2017) - 2nd viewing of the year
Coco (2017)
The Big Sick (2017)
The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
The Hippopotamus (2017)
Their Finest (2016)
The Gorgon (1964)
What If (2014)
Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
The Last Jedi (2017)
Rogue One (2016)
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
A Christmas Story (1983)
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Gremlins (1984)
Love Actually (2003)
The Greatest Showman (2017)
The Christmas That Almost Wasn't (MST3K version)
Krampus (2015)

*Bold print denotes films seen in a movie theater - total: 18

In total, 120 movies this year, which is low compared to some previous years, but I also made my way through a huge number of Midsomer Murders episodes, and I'm not going to apologize for that! (Sometimes you just need a good cozy to get through the day.) We saw fewer films in the theater because some of the ones we wanted to see never came to Alabama (boo!), and it costs a fair bit for all three of us to go these days, so we tend to take fewer risks on seeing movies that might not be worth it. Twenty years ago the husband and I saw more than 50 movies in the theater a year, but back then we had a local dollar theater and only two adults to please.

I do want to recommend The Man Who Invented Christmas as one of the loveliest pictures I saw in the theater this year; it never got much press in the US but is a delightful treat for any Dickens or Christmas Carol fan. I'll be adding it to my holiday DVD/Blu-ray collection as soon as it's available.

I hope your year in movies was a good one and that you saw everything you wanted to see! Happy 2018!