I have been watching all the movies that received the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was the 1941 winner, How Green Was My Valley, directed by John Ford and starring Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O'Hara, Donald Crisp and a young Roddy McDowall.
An adaptation of a Richard Llewellyn novel, the film tells the sentimental story of a Welsh mining family whose idyllic life is ripped apart by corporate greed and community betrayal. While it takes strong stands on big issues, the film often feels preachy.
The movie had heavy competition for the top prize, beating out Blossoms in the Dust, Citizen Kane, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Hold Back the Dawn, The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, One Foot in Heaven, Sergeant York and Suspicion.
It's somewhat amazing this film ever got made. The production ran into a number of difficulties, chief among them the German bombing of the Welsh countryside, which prevented the filmmakers from shooting on location. Instead, they filmed in California, where they had to shoot in black and white to disguise the fact that the hills were not nearly as green as they had been in Wales.
You would never know, watching this film, that they had sacrificed anything. Cinematography is one of the strengths of the movie, with loving landscapes of the bucolic countryside and the little village that is home to the Morgan family.
The movie borrows much of the narration from the book, which is used in a heavy-handed fashion, as a pervasive voice-over from Huw, grown up and recounting the days of his youth. He recalls how his simple, happy childhood became complicated as his valley fell on harder times. As you might imagine, he remembers those early days with the golden halo of memory.
It's not long, however, before leisurely strolls in the countryside with his father give way to trouble at the coal mine, the rising necessity of organized labor, and frustrations in love for Huw's older sister, played by Maureen O'Hara, plus several other family trials and hardships. Through it all, the family endures, relying on each other for strength, even as the years roll by and the household shrinks, leaving only Huw and his parents.
The effects of World War II made a lasting impact on the film in more than one way. Because of the German blitz, America got its first glimpse of Roddy McDowall, who plays Huw, the youngest Morgan son. Along with other child actors, McDowall was evacuated from England for his safety and so was available to be cast for this movie. Huw is the heart of the film, the character through which all the action is viewed. While he spends much of the movie in a sort of wide-eyed fugue state, McDowall's performance is one of the most riveting aspects of the film.
Ironically, I was recently watching an episode of Frasier in which the stuffy Dr. Frasier Crane goes to the video store with the express goal of renting How Green Was My Valley. Upon viewing the film, I can imagine why Frasier would have liked it: the movie is loaded with the sort of overblown, flowery rhetoric that Frasier himself favors. It's about an important subject: namely, how the growth of industry affected the working class and led to organized labor. Furthermore, the artistry of the film's cinematography would have delighted him. And of course, most important, the movie is obscure, something that the hoi polloi would not rent.
Are those enough reasons to add it to your Netflix queue? Perhaps, if like Frasier, you like florid language and melodrama. Perhaps not, if you prefer more realistic dramas.
In many ways, this movie bears similarities to the 1940 movie The Grapes of Wrath, also based on a novel (this one by John Steinbeck), which told the story of an American family of sharecroppers. It, too, relied on melodrama to cement a story about the importance of the labor movement. As such, How Green is My Valley can be viewed as an artifact of the time, as public awareness of the labor movement was growing.
While the story can be a bit sprawling, it retains much more focus than similar movies about families (such as Cimarron). The film also contains a good deal of choral singing, as the villagers, it would appear, quite naturally sing folk songs in multi-tiered harmony worthy of any stage. That could be another appeal, if you enjoy music in movies.
For the time period in which it was made, How Green Was My Valley was a well-crafted film, making important stands. Viewed through the golden glow of history, it was a bold, artistic endeavor, even if modern audiences may find it slow-moving and naive.
Rating (out of 5): ***
A bold statement only remains bold until the world changes.