“Good Morning, Miss Dove” (1955) gives us a sentimental view of small-town America wherein the main character is played in a most unsentimental fashion. Jennifer Jones, whose ethereal performances in her other films, comes down to earth in a firm and no nonsense manner. Quite an about-face coming after the sweeping “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” (1955). It’s an interesting study of an actress who approached her roles, even the romantic ones, like a character actress.
Inevitably, any discussion of Jennifer Jones becomes an analysis of her controversial partnership with producer, and husband, David O. Selznick. She is ever portrayed as the Galatea under his Pygmalion’s custody. Miss Jones’ reluctance to grant interviews over the years fed the mystery and perhaps abetted the controversy. However, though Mr. Selznick determined her films, her costuming, her makeup through a flurry of his famous memos, he did not create her mind or her soul. Despite his great influence on her career and personal life, she remains an actress who worked from someplace deep within, a quiet place untouched by anyone and revealed with astonishing intimacy in her film roles.
Since she is today one of the few remaining survivors of Hollywood’s studio system, one would hope that a modern re-examination of her films might release her at last from just being Selznick’s creation, and give her the credit she deserves in her own right. Too often we wait until an actor’s demise to shower his or her memory with plaudits.
As Miss Dove, Jennifer Jones, her name above the title in this Cinemascope venture, plays a small-town elementary school geography teacher. It’s a Norman Rockwell type setting, with a tidy little town, cannon on the common, portrait of President Eisenhower on the wall of her classroom. Miss Dove rules supreme, an austere, proper spinster lady in her mid-50s who, by virtue of her old-fashioned propriety, unruffled stern demeanor and expressionless face, is viewed by the townspeople as something of a joke.
As this film launches into rather syrupy sentimentality at stages, Miss Jones’ gives us a grounded performance that is both honestly touching and at moments, very funny. A good comedienne as proven by her work in the hilarious “Cluny Brown” (1946), she plays this role in the same way by playing it absolutely dead seriously. The spinster is not overdone, not played with exaggerated mannerisms or coy stereotype. If Jones is adept at playing younger than her years, as she did in many of her films, then here she is seen to be able to play older than her years with convincing realism. Her carriage, her movements are minimalist art. Even her aging makeup is done with subtlety.
Her classroom is quiet, orderly and ruled over by her with an iron disposition if not actually an iron hand. She does not need to shout. A mere look from her withers malcontents. If some restless young students regard it as a gulag, others, like young Bill from the wrong side of the tracks, regard it as a safe haven from a home of poverty and filth. There are such kids, then and now, for whom school is the best part of their lives, where they are safe. Fortunately for Miss Dove’s students, she is serious about her work. It is still a world of inkwells in the desks, an absence of metal detectors, and Miss Dove does not attempt to seduce any of her students.
But Miss Dove, despite her professionalism, did not come into teaching as a misty-eyed idealist out of Normal School. She just needed the money.
We are given a flashback to her youth, where as a fresh graduate from finishing school, Jones is seen visiting Papa at his bank. She is elegant and mannerly, but without the austere attitude of her middle-aged self. Her voice is higher and softer. Dressed in white, with flowing dark hair, she smiles and graces the small town of Liberty Hill like a princess.
This Miss Dove fades under the shadow of misfortune. Her father dies, leaving debt and scandal, having embezzled several thousand dollars from the bank he ran with his partner. Miss Dove, hoping to avoid public knowledge of the scandal, assumes her father’s debt and takes a teaching position to pay it back. She has no credentials to teach, except for a passion for geography, about which is she very well informed. She gives up a marriage proposal to a dashing young archeological student who wants to show her the world, in order that she might spend the rest of her life in her confining small town only talking about the world to her students. This is not entirely a fancy of self sacrifice; in those days many communities required their female teachers to remain single, and they forfeited their jobs if they married.
We have a trace of George Bailey from “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946) here, with whom she shares many traits of being denied her dream of travel by family burdens. There is even a run on the bank scene during the Depression.
Far from allowing herself to be an object of pity, Miss Dove hides her family scandal and keeps her dignity by adopting a stony reserve through which she approaches life and her relationships with others, always kept at arm’s length.
Her relationships from then on involve mostly her students. We see few other people in her life. At the beginning of the film, Miss Dove suffers a health crisis, is removed to the hospital, and the rest of the film is told through flashbacks of her relationships with them. In the flashbacks, her classroom is the same except the portrait of President Eisenhower becomes a portrait of President Roosevelt.
When stricken with pain caused by a tumor in her lower spine, her nearest rescuers are a doctor and a minister, who both happen to be former pupils. It is a source of pride and deep chagrin, and even embarrassment to Miss Dove that almost everybody she is at the mercy of from then on is a former student. Probably a lot of teachers can relate to this. I’d love to hear from some of them.
The young men make a chair of their crossed arms and carry Miss Dove to the hospital. Evidently, ambulances and gurneys are not aplenty in Liberty Hill, but it makes for a funny parade with Jennifer Jones sitting rigidly, trying to maintain relative comfort and some semblance of dignity as she is hauled through town to the hospital. She is warned by the doctor not to wobble. She replies coolly, “It is not my custom to wobble.”
Her nurse, Miss Green, is played with wonderful aplomb by Peggy Knudsen. Nurse Green is eager and cheerful, but not the sharpest blade in the drawer. She, too, is a former student, and tries valiantly to improve her vocabulary and appear genteel before Miss Dove, as if she might be graded on it. At first, her ministrations are irritating to Miss Dove, who cannot bear the indignity of being ill, let alone the intimate contact of the hospital. Nurse Green speaks in plurals, as if Miss Dove is a child, cheerfully chirping, “We’ll take off our clothes,” as she unbuttons Miss Dove’s plain dress.
Miss Dove, flushed with agitation responds, “The pronoun ‘we’ is misleading unless you propose to take off your clothes, too.”
Nurse Green archly reminds her of the rules, and Miss Dove, ever a slave to rules, glumly submits. Hoisted by her own petard.
She develops with Nurse Green, as formal as it is, perhaps the closest relationship she has had with anyone in years. They have something in common; Nurse Green has a scandal of her own. Her little daughter was born out of wedlock when she left for the bright lights of war work in Detroit. She confesses this to Miss Dove, helplessly offering, “I was in Detroit.”
Miss Dove pulls back into judgmental platitudes, “Virtue knows no frontiers.” The second thing they have in common is Bill, Nurse Green’s boyfriend, the young policeman who gallantly stops traffic for Miss Dove on her daily walks to school. Though she would never admit it, Bill is her special pride, the dirty poor kid who grew up to be Chuck Connors, and there is something terribly sweet about The Rifleman beaming with adoration at his old teacher. Officer Bill is cut from the same cloth as Miss Dove, who is something of a foster mother to him, and he rejects Nurse Green for her sin.
Though Miss Dove appears more aloof from him even than his alcoholic grandmother with whom he shares a shack, nevertheless her influence over him is nurturing for its very steadiness. When he mows her lawn, she bring him lunch on a tray, and though she cannot bring herself to touch his hair as he sits down on her porch, she tells him to drink all his milk. It’s more than his grandmother ever did. When he graduates from grammar school, Miss Dove provides his new suit. When his grandmother dies, she is the only other mourner.
Miss Dove also figures prominently in the lives of other students, such as the European refugee who is taunted by bullies for being strange, for not speaking English well, and for being Jewish. Miss Dove protects him and brings tolerance to the classroom by displaying it herself, and introduces the class to the Jewish faith and culture.
No plaster saint, she refuses the young minister’s standard prayer of confession the night before her spinal operation, which she might not survive, with her typical honesty and desire not to be a hypocrite. “I do not, in all honesty, find the burden of my sins intolerable.” She prefers they pray together silently. She keeps her own counsel.
She also pronounces before Officer Bill, that Nurse Green is an excellent nurse and quite “genteel.” Presumably lying is one of her sins, but this is for the greater good, to display tolerance for their sakes, and with the seal of approval on Nurse Green, The Rifleman is pleased to renew his affections to her.
The end of the film gives us our happy ending of course, with Miss Dove still alive and the tumor removed. But the cornball scene of the whole town outside her hospital window, including Boy Scouts, Brownies, an escaped criminal (another devoted former pupil), and her current students, is entirely compensated by her young doctor, her former student played by Robert Stack, giving a courtly bow and wishing her, “Good Morning, Miss Dove.”
The camera slides up the patient’s bed and we get the detailed, complex workings of Jennifer Jones’ emotions. Her expression seems to indicate she is stoically endeavoring to fight tears, which are self-indulgent, but she cannot help but be pleased that her life was not a waste. She has discovered devotion from a town from which she has hidden her scandal, and withheld her emotions for decades. Another kind of George Bailey ending.
Jennifer Jones owns the last shot. There is only the slightest self-satisfied smile, and then it flickers away under a gossamer moment of pure wonder. A hundred flickering thoughts shimmer in her intense expression. That isn’t something that David O. Selznick created. That’s her.