Wednesday, January 12, 2011

MRS. MINIVER (1942)







MRS. MINIVER (DIRECTOR:WILLIAM WYLER)  (SCREENPLAY: ARTHUR WIMPERIS,   GEORGE FROESCHEL, JAMES HILTON, & CLAUDINE WES, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY JAN STRUTHER)

The Academy's choice for best picture of 1942 was as much a political one as it was an aesthetic one; with America now fully engaged in the war, Hollywood studios saw themselves as part of the War Department propaganda office, with scripts being sent to the Pentagon for approval.  So, it's no surprise that the Academy showered glory (six Oscars in all) on an unabashed propaganda film like William Wyler's MRS. MINIVER.  Indeed, president Franklin Roosevelt urged Metro Goldwyn Mayor to rush its release, and no less an authority than Winston Churchill would describe its source novel by Jan Struther as more important to the allies' than "six divisions of war effort." While, like most propaganda of any kind, it hasn't dated so well, it still is a well made and well acted effort, with striking, Oscar winning cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg(already displaying the excellent use of light and shadow that he would later use in noir films like SIDE STREET).  Propaganda or not, it proved to be an enormous box office hit in both England and the US.

Jan Struther first created the Mrs Miniver character in a series of columns that she wrote for the British newspaper The Times in 1937; they were based in part on her family and their experiences, and they were originally lighthearted in nature, but they changed as war became inevitable.  The columns were published in book form in 1939, which was very popular in America as well as in England, so a movie version was a natural choice.

The film opens with Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) making her way through the busy streets of London, a look of great concern on her face.  She gets on a bus, and then suddenly jumps off and runs back towards where she came from.  And what is the cause of her great concern?  She has decided to purchase an expensive hat that she originally passed up as too extravagant!  Yes, life is good for her at first: Clem, her husband (Walter Pigeon) is a successful architect and loving mate, she has two cute young children,  another son, Vincent(Richard Ney) at Oxford, and she lives in a nice little house in a small town near London.   But the onset of war will change everything for her, and by the film's end she will have seen her eldest son go off to fight while her own house is partially bombed out.

Considering the subject matter, I think director Wyler shows admirable restraint in this film: yes, it has many big, dramatic moments, but he never lets the film sink into overt sentiment.  He uses the soundtrack sparingly, avoids closeups, and gives many of the scenes a stark, realistic quality.  There is a wonderful shot of Kay and Vincent's fiancee Carol (Virginia Merril) watching as Vincent leaves on an air force mission; there are no tears, no soaring strings on the soundtrack, it's just a moment of quiet concern and sadness, in which the bravery of the young soldier is matched by the women who love him.

Virgina Merril and Greer Garson

Wyler's stark style is also displayed in the film's best scene in which Kay is confronted by a German fighter pilot(Helmut Dantine) who's plane was shot down.  At first, she sees his apparently unconscious body lying on the ground, she approaches and attempts to snatch his gun away, but he revives and threatens her.  It's an extremely tense scene, one made even more frightening when the armed pilot enters the Miniver household.  Although it ends with the pilot delivering a heavy handed (but frightening!) speech about how "thousands more like me are coming",  it still is well handled and effective.  Another excellent moment comes later when Kay, Clem and their two small children are hiding in a bomb shelter during a raid; with just the sounds of the screaming bombs getting louder and louder, Wyler  shows not only their fear , but also the sense of hopelessness they have at being unable to protect their children from the approaching danger.
Wyler also finds some nice moments of humor and romance in the film; I particularly enjoy the character of Lady Belton (Dame May Witney) a pompous woman who represents British royalty, and who is aghast at the thought that a bombing raid means that she will have to spend time in the cellar!  The romance between Vincent and Carol is also well done, although the American born Virginia Merril's lack of an English accent is distracting.
The film's main strength is Garson's excellent  performance as Kay; she is completely believable in her transformation from spoiled housewife to brave woman who represents the heart and soul of England.  She has fine romantic chemistry with Pigeon (we always see their love for each other, even when they're in the bomb shelter ), and she is clever and brave in her confrontation with the German pilot; I love the way that, instead of being scared or upset by his threats about the oncoming German invasion, she gives him a sharp slap to the face.   Garson even gets to be funny when she casually tells her shocked husband about how she handled the pilot.  One dramatic choice in her performance is that, throughout the film, despite all the trauma and danger she encounters, she never cries, until the very end; I think this is the right choice, because it shows her desire to keep a brave face, no matter what  happens, (remember that she is supposed to represent the bravery of England as a whole)and, when she finally does break down, (with good reason)it is all the more moving.
Although I've mentioned Wyler's restraint with the material, this is still a propaganda film that often inevitably falls into heavy handedness: sometimes its depiction of England's resoluteness is unbelievable (the Minivers hardly seemed phased when a large section of their house is bombed!), and changes were made from the source novel to Americanize the English setting to help sell the film to US audiences.  In one scene, towards the film's end, during the town's large garden party, we see Lady Beldon graciously (and secretly) refuse a first prize award for her prize rose, allowing a lowly station master to win instead; this is clearly meant to show that during war time, normal class distinctions and tradition (Lady Beldon had been winning the award for years) are ignored.  While this is a nice scene, I'm not entirely sure I buy that Lady Beldon would be so goodhearted, since she has been portrayed as so full of herself and her position until that moment.

The big speech ending

Not surprisingly, the film's ending drives home its point with a complete lack of subtlety: in a bombed out church, the local Vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) gives an uplifting speech about the righteousness of the English cause, followed by the congregation singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" as English planes streak by above.  This speech was considered strong enough that it was translated into different languages and turned into pamphlets that were dropped on occupied European countries to help buck up their spirits.  Although the speech has not dated well, Wilcoxon delivers it with energy, and it makes its point without going on for too long.  (Unlike, say, Charlie Chaplin's speech at the end of his THE GREAT DICTATOR in 1940).  That was one of Wyler's strengths as a director: pacing, even when its being obvious, this film never gets boring.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While it certainly is clear why the Academy chose this film, and it really is quite good, I don't think it was the year's best, not when Ernst Lubitsch"s TO BE OR NOT BE (a funny propaganda film),  and my personal favorite, Preston Sturges's SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, were also released.