Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Mrs. Miniver Nobly Serves Britain's WWII Effort

As the last classic movie in the county library’s current “Based on the Book: The Affairs of Women” series, 1942’s Mrs. Miniver offers a good example of what 1940’s wartime audiences considered first-class entertainment. One of the biggest hits of the decade, this screen adaptation of the Jan Struther novel went on to take 6 Oscars and cemented Greer Garson’s status as the silver screen’s premier leading lady of the era. Seen today, this straightforward William Wyler-directed drama involving a middle-class British family (or maybe not so middle-class, as MGM never did anything small- the Miniver’s home is one step down from a mansion, and not a big step) coming to terms with Great Britain’s entry into WWII may leave viewers wondering what the fuss was about. Still, with its unusual blend of domesticity, turmoil, and tragedy, Miniver intermittently provides the viewer with some good entertainment and, though overlong, the film is worth a look.

In what surely constitutes one of the most vapid opening segments found in any Best Picture winner, the title character’s seen buying a hat she “just has to have,” then worries how to break the news of her purchase to her normally spendthrift husband, who’s uncharacteristically out doing some splurging of his own. Things don’t get much more exciting as Mrs. Miniver allows a flower to be named in her honor, while elsewhere in the household romance blossoms between the Miniver’s eldest son and a local girl. Fortunately, after about an hour of such blase activities (and just when the audience is ready to jump up in exasperation and shout “Who Cares!!!” ala Bea Arthur in “The Golden Girls,” as Dorothy tires of listening to yet another of Rose’s endless Saint Olaf stories), director William Wyler turns up the melodrama a notch or ten for the film’s compelling second half. At-home bombings, an unforgettable encounter with an emotionally unstable invader, a climatic flower show (which Wyler manages to bring off without too much sappy sentiment), and the final stirring sermon are only some of the redeeming events which turn the tide in Miniver’s favor. Although the film ranks as one of the lesser achievements in the director’s durable, hard-to-surpass career (the director himself viewed the film as a pro-war propaganda piece, and not much more), Wyler’s assured craftsmanship accounts for many of the film’s merits, and he warrants praise for getting as much dramatic mileage out of the flimsy material as he does (he was duly awarded for his efforts, receiving the first of his three directorial Oscars for Miniver).

Greer Garson’s matronly warmth and lush beauty offer compensation for the often lofty, too-regal manner found in her acting here (and in just about any part she took on- a notable exception is her charming work in the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice). Although it’s easy to understand why Garson’s calm, confident presence would appeal to audiences during the hectic wartime years (according to the annual Quigley poll, Garson was a top ten box-office draw for five years running during this period, and the #1 female star in 1945), today her style of acting comes across as competent, but lacking in variety and star quality. More interesting than her performance in Miniver is the fact Garson received so much acclaim for the part, as the role of Kay Miniver doesn’t offer much in the way of meaty thespian opportunities; the character often serves as a dignified observer to all the excitement surrounding her, but rarely displays much emotion of her own. Even in the movie’s most surprising moment, the famous sequence wherein Kay is accosted in her kitchen by a wounded enemy solider (memorably played with a tense ferocity by Helmut Dantine, whose dangerous presence temporarily lends an element of unpredictability to the film’s proceedings) Garson seems determined to remain perfectly composed throughout the majority of this turbulent standoff, come what may. Garson is a good reactor when things get exciting, and for much of the film her restraint is suited to the character, but this has to go down as one of the least stimulating, most deliberately ‘controlled’ Best Actress performances in the history of the Academy Awards. Garson scored another huge 1942 success starring with Ronald Colman in Random Harvest (both films were among the top five box-office hits of the year), and perhaps her somewhat livelier work in that classic tearjerker helps justify her win (however, I’m sticking with Bette Davis in Now, Voyager).

As Clem Miniver, Walter Pidgeon works beautifully with Garson in their second screen pairing (they went on to costar again and again throughout the decade) and his calm, bemused air helps Garson lose some of her grandness (she even conjures up some spontaneous laughter in a few of their scenes). Teresa Wright has a refreshing, natural presence as Carol Belton, the girl who bewitches the Miniver’s oldest son, Vin (played by the handsome-yet-gawky Richard Ney, who works well with Wright, but comes across as a tad abrasive and over-earnest in his scenes without her. At least Ney impressed Garson, as the two married shortly after filming Miniver). Although her English accent comes and goes, Wright’s genial nature and simple, no-nonsense acting brighten the film considerably, although it’s almost unfathomable to understand why Wright was granted the Supporting Actress Oscar over the awe-inspiring work of Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons (but only almost: Wright was the second performer to gain nominations in the same year in both the Lead (for Pride of the Yankees) and the Supporting categories, and Miniver and Yankess were smashes, not so Ambersons. Ironically, Wright would miss out on a nod the following year for her most memorable performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt).

As Lady Beldon, the class-conscious high society snob, the perfectly-cast Dame May Whitty resists typecasting, maintaining her dignity and stature while infusing the role with a fine sense of humor that keeps the character human (one can’t image anyone else playing the part). Whitty does as much as Wyler to ensure the centerpiece flower show sequence pays off in memorable fashion, making her character touching and likable without losing any of the formidable toughness integral to the Lady’s character. In the other major supporting role, Henry Travers displays his typical lovable befuddlement as Mr. Ballard, the unpretentious working-class gent who challenges Lady Beldon’s dominance in the flower show by creating the ‘Miniver Rose’ (both Whitty and Travers received Oscar nods for their indelible performances). Among the bit players, Peter Lawford can be spotted as a pilot, but I must have blinked during his footage.

Going in without any expectations the viewer is about to see one of the great motion pictures, Mrs. Miniver can be enjoyed on its own terms, as a high-class, workmanlike example of the Grade-A family-oriented MGM productions the studio routinely turned out during one of Hollywood’s most fruitful periods. Although Mrs. Miniver is definitely a product of its era, as an illustration of how the big screen could effectively be used as an outlet to express the patriotic fever sweeping the nation after the outbreak of WWII, Mrs. Miniver serves as a valuable time capsule of a fascinating period in 20th Century history.


At 6:28 PM, Blogger Soleilmavis said...

Nice blog

At 6:46 PM, Blogger StinkyLulu said...

Thanks for this. The Smackdown did 1942 last May and I think it was one of my favorites so far. And I found Garsons work in both Miniver and Random Harvest (esp RH) to be a revelation. And I developed a huge fondness for Dame May in this role. (She was my favorite of the year, Miss Agnes included.)

But, yeah, Miniver is so totally a cobbled-together period piece, comprised mostly of episodes rather than a plausible narrative, but it remains oddly compelling and emotionally rich.

Thanks for a delicious write up; 'twas nice to reflect on LaGarson & these movies...

At 9:01 PM, Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Thanks, Stinkylu. I liked the film more than I remembered (I think I'd only seen it once before, long ago), so I guess I should give Random another try now. I like Garson enough, but she never thrills me like a Davis or a Stanwyck can.

I'd probably put Whitty second after Moorehead (no one is touching Agnes in my book), and enjoyed the Dame's work so much I started wishing the film was called Lady Beldon instead (I also wanted at least a tie result at the flower show).


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