Sunday, January 2, 2011

HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)






HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (DIR: JOHN FORD) (SCR: PHILIP DUNNE, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY RICHARD LLEWELLYN)

In 1941 the Academy gave the best picture award to director John Ford's sentimental film HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, adapted from the Richard Llewellyn novel of the same name; it would be the only Ford film to win best picture, yet it is one of his lesser known films, and it is much less remembered today than his Western pictures are, although Ford himself saw it as his best film.
The novel was published in 1939 and it tells the tale, in flashback, of life in a Welsh mining town around the turn of  the century.  Surprisingly, Llewellyn himself was born in England, and based the story on conversations he had with people who grew up in such towns.  The book was a huge success in both England and America, and 20th. Century Fox studio executive Darryl F Zanuck paid a then record $300,000 for the rights.  He originally viewed it as a four hour color epic like GONE WITH THE WIND, with the very popular William Wyler set to direct.  But, much to his dismay, the studio had misgivings about the project at first, given the fact that there is a subplot about some of the miners joining a union.  Also, the war in Europe killed the possibility of location shooting, and, because the flowers of the Southern California locations did not watch the colors of the flowers in Wales, the film was shot in black and white; finally its length was trimmed to around two hours.  Eventually, preproduction took so long that Wyler bowed out and Ford stepped in.  He made the film quickly, in around two months, at a budget of around a million and a quarter dollars; it would go on to gross around six million.
HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY is narrated by Huw Morgan, an old man looking back fifty years to his boyhood days when he grew up as the youngest of a large family in a small Welsh town where most of the men worked in the local mine.  The role of the boy was played by thirteen year English born newcomer Roddy McDowell.

Young Roddy McDowell

It may not have been a Western, but it is easy to see what appealed to Ford here; his Westerns are usually about the strength and endurance of the early American settlers, so it makes sense that he would also admire their European forebearers (and indeed, in the film two brothers from the Morgan family leave to settle in America).  The film also contains his usual themes of the importance of family bonds, tradition and religion both within a family itself and the community that it resides in. Unfortunately, it also often lapses into the overdone sentiment that he often indulged in; while I'm fully aware that it is human nature to romanticize one's childhood memories, hearing Huw narrate about the wonders of watching his older brothers wash up after working in the mines, or about the splendor of a trip to the candy store,  seems awfully heavy handed.   The picture is also marred by Ford's tendency to have larger than life, one note characters, such as a nobel, wisdom spouting priest and a feisty,  determined mother. As for our main character, Huw, his wide eyed innocence is often tiresome.

This is an episodic film, without a central storyline, and it often seems to be meandering and slow, with some of its little divergent stories unnecessary, while some of its more interesting ideas are glossed over.  For example: when the mine threatens to cut wages, most of the miners want to start a union, but Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp), the patriarchal head of the Morgan family, bristles at the idea; his own sons all rebel(except for Huw who is too young to work in the mine yet) and move out of the family home.  An entire movie could have been made about this dramatic conflict, but it is resolved quickly, with the boys moving back home after a brief mining strike, and it goes unmentioned for the rest of the film; the studio heads may have been worried about the film's pro union leanings, but I imagine few people even remembered that aspect of the film by the end. Much time is wasted on little Huw's first few days of school, where he runs afoul of a sadistic teacher (played as a ridiculous villain by Morton Lowry).  This sequence ends with a completely unbelievable scene in which a former boxer(Rhys Williams) and his trainer (Arthur Shields), having heard about the teacher from Huw, storm into the classroom and thrash the teacher in front of the students.  Oddly, this really quite brutal scene is played for laughs; its the same kind of roughneck physical humor that turns up in many Ford films, and I myself don't really care for it.

On the plus side, the Oscar winning Cinematography by  Arthur C. Miller is gorgeous; the studio built sets are completely convincing,  and while it may have been a compromise to shoot the film in black and white, the results are often stunning, with the stark image of the miner's skin being turned black with coal dust working better in black and white than it would have in color.

And, as cloying and simplistic as it may be, it is virtually impossible to remain unmoved by a film that tries so hard to pluck the heartstrings: one storyline that does work involves Huw's lovely older sister, Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) falling in love with the local priest, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pigeon), who feels that he does not make enough money to marry her.  This leads her to marry the wealthy son of the mine owner instead, and,  in perhaps the film's most memorable scene, in one masterful continuous shot, we see her, poker faced, leaving the church after her wedding, the wind billowing her wedding veil above her head in a cockeyed manner.  As she sullenly rides off with her new husband in a carriage, we see the despondent Gruffydd, off in the distance, hang his head in sadness. 


Maureen O' Hara's memorable wedding scene

This unrequited love story is the most interesting part of the film, and I wish it had dwelt more on it, instead of going off on tangents like Huw's school days; in fact I wish the film were not told from Huw's point of view, as I find the grownups far more interesting. (I also think they should have gotten another, slightly older actor to play Huw in the later scenes, since quite a bit of time passes, and he doesn't appear to age a day.) I think its a shame that William Wyler had to drop out of directing the picture, since I'm a bigger fan of his than Ford's, and I imagine that the film would not have wallowed so much in sentiment with Wyler at the helm.  Wyler, who's excellent but eclectic career as a filmmaker makes him hard to pigeonhole, also had a faster sense of  pacing than the often stentorian Ford, which surely would have improved my enjoyment of the film.


SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

Well, it's easy to see why the Academy fell for such a popular, heartfelt movie, but there was another film released that year that, while not a financial success, is remembered with far more respect: Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE.  Yes, the landmark, groundbreaking picture that is perenially remembered as the best ever, did not even win best picture.  Thankfully, KANE's greatness has been affirmed by history,  while HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY has mostly been forgotten, which is how I think it should be.