Sunday, June 29, 2014

MGM Blogathon - Mrs. Miniver Re-post

I was invited by Constance and Diana Metzinger of Silver Scenes, who are hosting the MGM Blogathon this weekend, to re-post my 2010 essay on Mrs. Miniver.  I'm happy to do so and take part in this great blogathon.  For more on MGM by the other blogs taking part, please have a look here.

It originally ran as a series of World War II home front movies.

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 then 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 U.S.-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.”


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.


FlickChick said...

Fantastic post! It is impossible to fully appreciate this film without understanding the state of the world at that time. To do so would rob it of so much of its power. And if Greer Garson had to be followed by a film all of her life, she couldn't have picked a better one.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you FlickChick. You're so right about understanding the world at the time this was made. It's a great achievement.

Silver Screenings said...

I agree with FlickChick. If there was one film to be remembered for, "Mrs Miniver" isn't a bad choice.

I like what you said about the uncertainty about the outcome of the war adds to its tension. Even we as an audience today can taste that tension.

One thing I've always admired about this film is its focus on ordinary people and the heroic things they had to do to get through the war.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I agree with you, Silver Screenings -- about the film's strength in being its focus on ordinary people. It really hits home, in more ways than one.


What a great analysis! All war moveis make me think how war is stupif, but the ones about the homefront are more poignant, lik Since You Went Away.
Mrs. Miniver is a movie I really enjoyed, and Teresa Wright was the actress that gave me the most enduring impression, mostly because of hr character's death. And it's funny that Wyler chose Ney because he was the goofiest of the boys, considering that Ney would marry Greer soon after the movie.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Le. Like you, it seems there are so many who were deeply affected by this film.

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