Thursday, December 2, 2010

War Stories, Part 1 - Mrs. Miniver

“Mrs. Miniver” (1942) has an aura of greatness, or infamy, about it among classic film critics, perhaps rather in the same way its star, Greer Garson, remains a symbol of MGM royalty so long accepted that a second look seems irrelevant. It’s just an item in a curio cabinet of ephemera from a more glossy if naïve era.

This is due largely to the moniker of wartime propaganda pasted on this film, (covered in this earlier post), and partly due to the “glossy” aspect of this film. The movie, based on the series of stories, afterwards published in book form, by Jan Struther, tells of a British upper middle class family coping with the early days of World War II. We mentioned in the intro to this series that war stories that focus on the home front are in some ways more revealing of the greater struggles of mankind than battle films.

“Mrs. Miniver” is a perfect example of this. We are shown a western democracy/constitutional monarchy about to be threatened with invasion by the armed forces of a fascist dictatorship. We see the before, and the during, but we do not know the eventual outcome because that hasn’t happened yet, and that provides the greatest suspense to the film. It is current events.

The problem, as some critics see it, is the “glossy”. The movie was made in the studio and on the back lot. The film depicts an American romantic notion of British decency, honor, and pluck. It is current events, certainly, but it is not documentary. One wonders what the film would have looked like if it were a British production. Less glossy? More true? Closer to the book?

Possibly they would have never dreamed of filming it. Maybe they didn’t need to make a movie of it, but in a funny way from our safe distance across “the pond”, maybe we did.

If the movie seems ersatz in many respects, it was still lauded by Prime Minister Winston Churchill as the greatest motivator of U.S. aid to the British. More on that later, and on how this quite excellent film got hog-tied by its political usefulness.

Though this blog, and repeatedly in this series on “war stories”, you will be reminded that there is historical context to old movies that shouldn’t be discounted, this is a movie that, conversely, transcends needing to know every detail of those days, because the movie’s charm, as well as the formidable Greer Garson’s charm, lies in its winsome grace.

Directed by William Wyler, this is a film that is saved by Wyler’s easy touch. Another director might go for broke in the decent British people vs. Nazi monsters setting, and then the film would really have little left to it but forced propaganda strung along a weak storyline. Mr. Wyler creates images that are magical in their simplicity, and doesn’t lean too heavily on a linear storyline, probably because he did not have an ending to the story. We wouldn’t know the end for some years.

I’ll not go into this movie scene by scene (I’m afraid you’re going to get quite enough of that in our next post in this series about “The More the Merrier”). Instead, just a few highlights.

We see first the quiet orderliness of their lives in this English village on the back lot. Mrs. Miniver shops in town for a hat, and the local train station manager, played by Henry Travers, has named for her a rose he is growing in competition. A leisurely scene (fortunately, they are all leisurely scenes) when he takes her into his office and tells her about it, and I love the way we see his reflection in the mirror seeming to mimic Greer Garson’s enjoyment of the rose’s scent.

She heads home to a cozy Hollywood/British suburban house. Walter Pidgeon buys a new used car, and struggles with the decision. His small daughter Judy hammers on the piano during her lesson. His small son Toby lugs a cat around. Toby was played by Christopher Severn, who had a few uncredited roles after this, but “Mrs. Miniver” was the highlight of his brief career, where he left an indelible impression in a few key scenes.

Oldest boy Vin, played by Richard Ney, arrives home from university, and blathers on about new philosophies. As they drive home from the station in the new used car, I love the way Walter Pidgeon rolls his eyes and nods his head sarcastically in response to his son’s self-centered philosophical rants. Richard Ney is at an age when young men discover the world, but when such immense knowledge is still not quite useful without maturity. He’s a decent kid; he’s just got some growing up to do.

His impatient, “What IS it, Gladys?” to the maid trying to interrupt with a message shows he’s not quite so sensitive to the working class as he likes to believe. It’s a nice touch on Wyler’s part.

When Teresa Wright visits and debates with Mr. Ney about the realities of having a social conscience in the British class system, I love the looks that Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon exchange. We see they are a well-married couple who are able to telegraph to each other wordlessly their amusement, and fascination, watching their son on that awkward road to manhood.

He will grow up sooner than they realize, with the first flush of romance with the sweet, ultra-decent Teresa Wright. A superior young actress nominated for Academy Awards for each of the first few movies she ever made (she would be nominated this year both for Best Actress in “Pride of the Yankees” and Best Supporting for “Mrs. Miniver”. She won in this latter category), Miss Wright adds a gentle poignancy to the role of the sole heir of Lady Belham, an aristocratic dragon played with her usual indignant aplomb by the Dame May Whitty.

Teresa Wright is also pretty much the only person in the movie who, when paired in a scene with Richard Ney, does not make him look goofy. Mr. Wyler is said to have auditioned a handful of men for the role of Vincent Miniver, and wanted a goofy looking kid. He chose young Mr. Ney as the goofiest of the lot.

So, while Ney stammers and declares his thoughts and feelings to the room, Miss Wright by virtue of her serenity seems to bring his character down to earth and makes you believe this young fellow is a really nice guy who could make something of himself.

The other maturing influence to come his way is the war.

We break into the war with a sudden announcement in church, and the congregation, as well as the audience, needs a moment to figure out what this all means.

A nice moment, and we all know Wyler’s films are full of them, of Richard Ney squishing little Christopher Severn against the pew in front of them as he strains to get a look at Teresa Wright over in her family pew. Poor Toby really gets pushed around in church, including by mother Geer Garson when she plants her hand on his head that has popped up over the head-bowed genuflecting of others. She pushes him down to a more referent posture. He bobs up again like a cork on the water. A couple of other “moments” follow in this church scene, when Christopher Severn as Toby asks loudly, “Are we going to be bombed?” Toby has the comical habit common to little kids of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place.

He is not afraid of the war, only curious. His curiosity also leads him to bang loudly the iron door knocker as his family leaves the church, disrupting conversations and startling everybody. In an interview done I believe in the 1980s (which might still be up on YouTube), Greer Garson mentions that Christopher had whapped this door knocker on the first take. He was not told to do this; he was just fidgety and playing. Director Wyler liked it, and repeated the scene several more takes (as was his habit), hoping the little boy would do it again. However (as also was his habit), he never told the boy to do it. He wanted it to be natural. After many takes of not doing it, finally, the little guy did it again, of his own accord, and that’s the take we see in the film.

Which makes me think that the scene when the Miniver’s maid, Gladys, serving in the dining room and wailing over her boyfriend about to leave for the Army, makes Christopher laugh with her boo-hooing is another of those spontaneous moments. His burst of chuckle is so natural that it does not seem forced or planned. Also, look at Greer Garson’s expression when he does it. For a moment it looks like she’s going to crack up, then quickly she puts on her disapproving mother expression.

Wyler eases us into this family’s war experiences so smoothly and under such “normal” circumstances that we find ourselves sharing their growing anxieties rather than simply observing them. Their grown son announces he will join the RAF, and Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon exchange another glance, like throwing a dart, that conveys their fear and their equal determination to say nothing. After Ney has left the room, their only commiseration is Greer’s, “Isn’t he very young?”

“Yes. He’s young.” Walter Pidgeon speaks with resignation, finality, and without a trace of comfort.

This sets us up for what is one of the most shocking switcheroos in the movies. We are reminded in different scenes that Richard Ney is young and that time is precious. He may die in the war. He and Teresa Wright marry because the war will soon drive them apart. Miss Wright is grimly prepared, as her grandma, Dame May Whitty was, to live the rest of her life as a widow if only she gets to live life to its fullest in the meantime. Richard Ney’s pilot officer’s uniform is his death sentence.

But Teresa Wright is one with the Nazi tracer bullets in her body. Greer Garson drags her home in the blackout, leaves her sprawled on the floor while she tries to get help, and her young daughter-in-law dies, as Greer holds her and chokes, “Oh, God…oh, God.” It’s a powerful scene because of Garson, and because of its unexpectedness.

So much else in the before this was cute, from the first air raid drill when Toby wanted to know if the war was over when the all-clear siren sounded, and heartily shouts, “Good!” when he is told it is just the first day. Cute with Mr. Foley, the blackout warden and local grocer pushing sardines on everybody. Cute that the village flower show must continue, and that our gentle Henry Travers wins the top prize. Cute that Dame May gets a standing ovation from her villagers for being a good egg and giving it to him despite her immense pride.

Teresa Wright’s death is telling us to grow up. Life isn’t all about flower shows and shopping for new hats, not anymore it isn’t.

But we have a warning before the death of Teresa Wright’s character on all this intrigue with wartime, and how it becomes, as we might say today, “the new normal” when the Minivers and their two youngest children take to the backyard bomb shelter. (Called Anderson shelters.) We get a taste of the Hollywood-cum-British stiff upper lip when Walter Pidgeon admires the barrage in the distance and then asks if his laundry has come back. We get it when Greer Garson reads “Alice in Wonderland” to the kids by lantern light, and knits, and Mr. Pidgeon shows off the toxic gas detector on the roof of the shelter, like a man proud of his new stereo system. It’s a little surreal to us, and nothing’s even happened yet.

In a few moments, a series of bombs that shake the shelter and plunge it into darkness, a breathless scene with very little dialogue terrorizes the Minivers and terrorizes us. It’s capped, beautifully, by Toby’s, now earnestly scared, wail, “They nearly killed us this time, didn’t they?”

By the time the film ends, we are left with half their house bombed to rubble, Teresa Wright’s corpse laid out in an upstairs bedroom, the villagers gathered in the bombed-out church whose roof is exposed to the sky. We are told several villagers were killed in the raid, including our Henry Travers.

We see that Richard Ney, now a morose widower, has lost any chance of ever being young again.

Then the vicar gives us the Wilcoxon Speech. How could we not buy bonds and send aid to Britain after all this?

The Wilcoxon Speech, as mentioned in this previous post, was hammered out at the last minute by Wyler and Henry Wilcoxon, who played the vicar. The speech was praised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ordered it printed in pamphlet form and scattered over Europe. This began the political usefulness of “Mrs. Miniver”, and perhaps locked it forever into a movie called “propaganda”, a message movie to show what William Wyler felt was the urgency of the war in Europe and what it might mean for Americans.

Wyler, as evidenced by this passionate movie, took the Nazis personally. When his movie swept the Academy Awards, he wasn’t there. He had already enlisted. When he returned from war, his next film was “The Best Years of our Lives” (1946). I’ve always felt that “Best Years” was, though certainly not a sequel, nevertheless the ending to the story began in “Mrs. Miniver”. The beginning of the war in 1939, and then the aftermath, and the link between two allied nations.

There are only two scenes which I think Wyler could have done better in this movie, and they overlap. One is the scene about Walter Pidgeon helping out at Dunkirk. At the Battle of Dunkirk, on the coast of France, the Germans had trapped Allied forces. The only hope of escape was by sea, and thousands of British, French, Belgian, Polish, and Dutch troops were rescued under heavy fire by the British Navy, and by civilians who were called upon to volunteer in small craft to scoop up as many men as they could and bring them back across the Channel to England. It took nine days. The evacuation was a remarkable event that could have been given more attention, but perhaps that would not be sticking to the home front parameters of the film.

Sticking to the home front parameters is what made the other weak scene in the film probably something that could have been left out entirely. This is when Greer Garson captures the wounded Nazi pilot. Invasion was a real threat, not an imagined one, but I don’t think this film really needed a Nazi to show us that threat, or to show Mrs. Miniver with her British pluck capturing him.

The only part of this scene I find interesting is that Helmut Dantine, who plays the German flyer, is about the same age as her boy Richard Ney, and when he discovers she has taken his gun, the sick look of hopelessness makes him seem less monstrous and more human. Perhaps Wyler wants us to look in the face of the enemy and see he’s not so tough. But the movie doesn’t really need this scene. It’s like Mrs. Miniver jumped the shark.

One British wartime experience not seen in the film (obviously, it wasn’t in the book, either, but then most of this film wasn’t in the book), was the evacuation of thousands of children from the London area to other parts of Great Britain, and to the U.S. Toby and his sister Judy being sent to America for the duration certainly would have made a dramatic episode.

What we today need to remember about this movie is that all these events, the air raids, Dunkirk, etc., were all familiar tales to the Americans, still safely guarded by two oceans at this time. We had listened to Edward R. Murrow’s impassioned broadcasts from London, where he described these events (with a command of language far greater than most television commentators you will hear today), and so this movie represented a reenactment of what we already knew. It was fascinating to see it dramatized above the radio transmissions and newspaper headlines.

We also need to remember, as far as the accusation of propaganda element goes, that the U.S. was extremely isolationist before our entry into World War II. We tend to remember only the gung-ho, self-sacrificing era after we got into the war. Until December 7th, as a nation we were anything but.

Director William Wyler had to fight MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer even to show a Nazi in this film, as Mayer was reluctant to show Germans as an enemy when we were not yet at war with them. Most studio owners (apart from the always daring Warner Bros.), preferred not to alienate a huge and profitable market in Germany. Studio owners of Jewish heritage were also loathe to appear to be war mongering, and possibly call down the wrath of middle America.

They had reason to fear. Almost immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, conservative Republican congressmen accused President Roosevelt of orchestrating the disaster so that the U.S. would enter the war. If these powerful men, so sick with hatred for FDR, could pull that hideous accusation out of a hat, what could they do to a group of Jewish businessmen, whose religion automatically made them scapegoats?

Even a centrist, or a progressive Republican like Senator Gerald Nye (R-North Dakota), who had supported FDR’s “New Deal” programs, could form the America First Committee. Strongly anti-war, though he did not outright accuse FDR of being responsible for Pearl Harbor, he did insist that our entering the war because of it was a maneuver by Roosevelt to placate British national interests, of being a pawn of Great Britain. Many average citizens of similar viewpoint would agree that “Mrs. Miniver” was a message Hollywood was ramming down our throats.

We finally did enter the war against Germany and Italy, of course, but only after they declared war on us first.

All this was in background, behind the scrim, above the Fresnels, beyond the soundstage while “Mrs. Miniver” was being filmed. No wonder it was labeled with a propaganda badge, since it was created in a tense political environment.

When shooting began in the autumn of 1941, the U.S. was still at peace. By the time the picture was released, peacetime was only a memory, and Greer Garson became not only a symbol of British pluck to Americans, but an example of how brave we could be ourselves, should we ever find Nazis in our kitchen. One wonders would the film have been half so successful were we still at peace?

Along with the propaganda tag, other aftermaths stuck like flypaper to this film. Greer Garson, who really wanted to do comedy, was stuck with being The Queen of MGM for several years in dramatic, patrician roles.

She and Water Pidgeon, in this their second film together, were locked in the public’s mind, and the studio’s filming schedule, as a team for several more movies.

Greer Garson, soon after this movie was filmed, married Richard Ney, who played her son in the movie, which is pretty much all a lot of people can think about today when they see them together in the film. The marriage was short-lived.

In 1992, when unable to attend the opening of the new Greer Garson Theatre in her now home state of Texas, the British Ambassador to the U.S. sent a bouquet of flowers to Miss Garson along with a message from Queen Elizabeth II. Her Majesty wanted Greer’s theater patrons to know, “She is remembered with particular affection for her role in the classic wartime film ‘Mrs. Miniver’” which along with her philanthropy over the years “have made her an outstanding ambassador for Anglo-American friendship.”

To be still called a symbol of US-British friendship at 88 years old, long after the war and that movie is an interesting legacy. Author Michael Troyan noted the above quote in his biography of Greer Garson, A Rose for Mrs. Miniver - The Life of Greer Garson (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, 1999). He also notes that a year later in July 1993, Queen Elizabeth II made Greer an Honorary (because she had been a US citizen since the early 1950s) Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for “improving relations between England and the United States” as well as for her philanthropic and conservation activities.  Still and forever a symbol of the alliance between two nations.

“Mrs. Miniver” ended up following Greer Garson the rest of her life.

Mr. Troyan also quotes Teresa Wright on the movie “Mrs. Miniver”, and we’ll give her the last word:

“We all felt, and sought to convey, the profound determination that dramatized those days. It was a picture produced in the shadow of headlines, and those of us who appeared in it never forgot it.”

Come back next Monday for another home front; this time in the U.S. where Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn discover “The More the Merrier.”

Have a look below at a newsreel of the London bombing and some of the less “glossy” aspects of wartime Britain. (Remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page and mute the music so you can hear the video.)


Yvette said...

Jeez, Jacqueline, THANKS SO MUCH for this in-depth look at a film I haven't seen in years. I'm not a big fan of Greer Garson - she was just so damned EARNEST in her acting that I always felt as if she were swallowing everything in her path - metaphorically speaking. She always too, seemed physically and emotionally BIGGER than her co-stars. She was just the worst choice for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE that I can imagine. And moving that film forward on the calendar so that the fashions all looked like Gone with the Wind rejects didn't help. But I digress...

I do remember liking this film and feeling very moved and ready to enlist in the Brit cause even if when I saw it the war was already over. But then, I'm an Anglophile from way WAY back. It's hard for me to believe that there was EVER any doubt about helping the Brits in their hour of most need. I mean, if nothing else, who could resist Winston Churchill? Hard for me to believe that at any moment here in America, we might have thought to look 'the other way' and let Hitler have his way with Europe. I mean - huh? Thank God for Roosevelt and Churchill. Back to the film: I LOVE and always have loved Theresa Wright. Was there EVER ANY film she DIDN'T enhance?? To see her die onscreen ia a special sort of heartbreaker.Remember her in SHADOW OF A DOUBT?? She ENHANCED Joe Cotton's evilness.

Richard Ney's name is SO familiar to me for another reason. Didn't he marry some BIG HOLLYWOOD STAR at some point? Can't remember who.

Anyway, thanks again, for this wonderful 'break-down' of a film I do remember fondly.

TomJay said...

mnay thanks for this post Jacqueline a really great read. If you are interested in furthering your interest in films of this time may i suggest Went the Day Well made by Ealing studios during the war, it is a wonderful look at middle England. From a documentary aspect try and have a look at Listen to Britain directed by Humphrey Jennings, it is to me the greatest wartime propaganda film made by any side during the war.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Yvette. I agree with you about Teresa Wright's remarkable ability to "enhance" - I love that you use that word - the story and the performances of other actors.

Tom, thanks so much and welcome to the blog. I would love to see "Went the Day Well", and "Listen to Britain" both. Hopefully, I will sometime.

Erin said...

That’s a great review of a really great film. I recently watched it for the first time and was impressed with it, especially when you think about the circumstances under which it was first viewed. My 91-year-old grandmother is far from a serious movie fan, but on the rare occasions I do get her on the subject the one movie she invariably mentions is Mrs. Miniver, and then Greer Garson. For her to still think of it after 68 years shows either what a great propaganda film it was, or how much more than just a propaganda film it was.

Caftan Woman said...

"Mrs. Miniver" does indeed have a special place in the hearts of people who lived through that time. A close friend of mine who lost her brother (Canadian Navy) in the conflict cites it as her favourite film.

Your placement of the two Wyler movies as bracketing the war years is interesting. I hadn't thought of them that way before, met it makes perfect sense and creates a nice symmetry.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Erin, thanks so much for sharing that about your grandmother. If we could walk in the shoes of that generation, we might be truly astonished at how much people are able to endure, and give them the respect they are due.

Caftan Woman, I think for people who have lost someone in that war, or any war, the war never really ends.

Judy said...

I saw 'Mrs Miniver' a couple of years ago after reading the book by Jan Struther, which, as you say, was very different from the film - it started as a newspaper column about her everyday life and gradually this became an account of the impact of the war on every little aspect of that life. Struther is an interesting figure in her own right - in real life she split up with her 'Mr Miniver' and fell in love with an Austrian-Jewish refugee. (Digression... I've read that she wrote the two hymns 'Glad That I Live Am I' and 'When a Knight Won His Spurs', despite not being at all religious, just because a friend needed some more hymns for his hymn book!) I've got a biography of her but haven't got round to it yet - must hope to do so soon.

I remember thinking that Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon were both great in this film, as is Theresa Wright - I agree that it comes as a shock when it is the young wife who dies on the home front, rather than her husband who is away fighting.

I was slightly saddened to hear that you don't like the German in the kitchen, since this is probably the other moment in the film which sticks in my mind the most. I think it is brilliant in the way it juxtaposes the everyday domestic detail with the horror of the war - Garson fetching the wounded airman food and drink out of her cupboards. I also admire the way Helmut Dantine almost makes the cornered airman sympathetic - his pain and fear are so palpable, and he is very much a scared, wounded individual - but then he starts to spout Nazi propaganda and you realise how deeply he has been brainwashed, along with millions of others. Anyway, a great posting with plenty of food for thought - as a Brit I obviously see things the other way round to some extent, so it is interesting to hear all the background about US politics at the time.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Judy, thanks for stopping by and sharing your own viewpoint and experience with this film. Though I felt the Nazi scene could have been omitted, I do admire Dantine's performance. You raise some interesting points about his emotions. As a Brit, do you at all feel that the movie is "too Hollywood"?

Judy said...

Thanks, Jacqueline - I remember feeling the film was possibly a bit glossy in places, but to be honest this didn't disturb me unduly. If anything particularly struck me as a bit "Hollywood" it was probably the flower show scene, but, ironically, there has just been some controversy in the British press about a very similar scene being featured in the very English 'Downton Abbey' series!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

That's funny. I guess you never know.

jd said...

Wonderful post
I came here looking for info on Toby
Christopher Severn who, as you correctly point out added more than his share to the end product. Why did he never blossom?

Do you know anything else about what must have been a scandal given the age difference between Greer G and Richard Ney?
Great work.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, JD, and welcome. Yes, Christopher Severn's work in this film was especially memorable. I don't know why he did not have a long career, only that he came from a family of acting siblings. Though we are aware of great child stars from that era, I would guess those are few--most of the kids acting in films never progressed in their careers, and many never wanted to, but preferred to move on to other lives.

I don't know if the Garson-Ney marriage was really that much of a scandal, or just raised eyebrows because of the age difference. I never really did much research on that story. A great film, which so many of us today still appreciate.

Shannon said...

I feel like Greer Garson often doesn't get enough credit for small, natural moments that make her character feel so real. In the first church scene where Vin crushes Toby against the pew and Toby elbows him in the stomach, she silently calms Toby, but then as Vin and Carol are making eyes at each other she shifts her hymnal so it's in front of Vin's face. It's such a motherly move: "remember why you're here and focus." Perhaps it's because I've been that mom in church trying to unobtrusively redirect the attention of my smalls and not-so-smalls!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Shannon. I agree entirely. Lovely scene.

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