Monday, May 11, 2015

BEST PICTURE SHOWCASE: "How Green Was My Valley" (1941)

1941 saw the release of a film considered today one of the greatest of all time.  It ranks at or near #1 of many lists by guilds, bloggers, name it, they love it.  Iconic images and lines from the movie are still today often influential, quoted, even lampooned.  Giant facial posters.  Evil media magnates.  Rosebud.  I speak, of course, about Citizen Kane, and if you were to ask most people today, from the everyday movie fan to some renowned national movie critics, that's the film I should be blogging about in regards to 1941 and the Best Picture Showcase.  Yet we aren't.  We're discussing How Green Was My Valley, which in besting Kane is looked back on as either the biggest Best Picture surprise in history or the most egregious Best Picture snubbing (to Kane) in history.  Probably both, actually.  Perhaps Hollywood voted with their hearts instead of their heads.  Perhaps Hollywood was tired of Kane director Orson Welles proverbially biting the hand that fed him.  Or, perhaps, just maybe How Green Was My Valley really is that good a film to deserve the Oscar after all.

The movie is based on the 1939 novel of the same name by Richard Llewellyn, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by John Ford.  Zanuck's original concept for the film was to be a four-hour epic, the 20th-Century Fox studio's answer to MGM's Gone With the Wind.  In the end, it was felt the film worked best at just 2 hours, and it wound up being shot in just 2 months.  The entire film takes place in a fictional valley of Wales, where the men all work in the coal mine atop the hill while the women take care of the homes, so we can already see the film may be a bit dated.  Nonetheless, let's dive in!


The film opens with narration by an adult Huw (pronounced like "Hugh") Morgan, saying he's packing and leaving the valley that he's always called home because years of coal production have blackened the valley beyond repair.  He tells us of how things used to be in the valley, and that's what we see in the film.  Huw (Roddy McDowall) is the youngest child of Gwilym (Donald Crisp) and Beth (Sara Allgood).  His older siblings are Ianto (John Loder), Ivor (Patric Knowles), Angharad (Maureen O'Hara), Davy (Richard Fraser), Gwilym Jr. (Evan S. Evans) and Owen (James Monks).  Angharad is the only female child, about 17 or 18 years of age, and she takes care of the house with Beth.  The rest of the kiddos all work, as does their father, in the coal mines.  It's a loving household, and a beautiful valley where the workers always sing as they're returning home from work.

One day while running back from the candy store, Huw runs into Bronwyn (Anna Lee), who is on her way to the Morgan household to officially meet the rest of the family.  She is engaged to be married to Ivor.  Huw is smitten and remains so the whole time she's meeting everyone at the house.  The wedding takes place and the whole valley is present, throwing rice and singing as the newly-married couple leaves the church.  The raucous reception party back at the house later introduces the family to the valley's new preacher, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), who I wish had a first name so I wouldn't have to hunt-and-peck the word "Gruffydd" the couple of dozen times I'm going to have to here, but so be it.  Angharad and Gruffydd hit it off upon their meeting.  Sparks are obvious.

The mines are owned by Mr. Evans (Lionel Pape).  He posts a notice that wages need to be cut.  Gwilym decides to meet with Evans and try to change his mind, but when Gwilym returns home he tells the family it's what needs to be done and they'll all be fine.  His sons aren't in agreement and they debate around the dinner table.  That debate ends with all the working sons announcing they're moving out.  (Wow, a bit extreme, isn't it?)  Huw remains at the table with his father.

The miners all go on strike.  Well, most of them do.  Gwilym is among those who don't, and the longer the strike persists, the more ostracized Gwilym becomes from the other workers.  As the strike slogs into its 22nd week (now winter), some miners throw a rock through the family home window.  Beth learns of a meeting the strikers plan that night, so she goes there with Huw and warns them all that if anyone harms her husband, she'll kill them.  (Subtle.)  The townspeople head home shortly thereafter, but on the way home hear a child calling for help.  While returning home in the snowy dark, Beth fell into the river, and Huw dove in to save her.  The townspeople fish them out and bring them home to safety.  Unfortunately, both Beth and Huw have been injured by the icy waters and are bedridden for some time afterwards.  Mr. Gruffydd visits them one day and gives Huw a copy of the book Treasure Island.  Angharad is even more smitten with Gruffydd as a result of this gesture.

Spring comes.  Beth is healed.  She exits the house for the first time since the injury and all the townspeople are outside the house.  They take off their hats out of respect.  Also, the sons return home.  Beth invites the whole town in to celebrate.  During the feast, Mr. Parry (Arthur Shields)--one of the church deacons--gets into a debate with Gruffydd.  Parry leaves in a huff when he's basically called a prejudiced jerk.

Unemployment is increasing in Wales, including in the valley as not all of the striking miners find they can get their jobs back.  The sons expressed these concerns when the wages were cut in the first place.  Some of the sons wonder if they'd be better off moving to the U.S.  Then, a message is delivered to the home, but not before literally EVERY MAN AND WOMAN IN TOWN rushes to the outside of the house excited about this message being delivered.  What the message says is that Ivor and his choir have been summoned/invited to sing at Windsor Castle before the queen.  And there was much rejoicing.

Gruffydd brings Huw outdoors and convinces him he has the strength to walk again.  Sure enough, Huw walks again, healed now physically and emotionally from the injuries months ago.  Meanwhile, Gwilym gets a house visit from Evans, who tells him that his son, Iestyn (Marten Lamont) wishes to court Angharad.  Gwilym gives that the OK.  Iestyn is rather smug, not terribly interested in getting to know the family better.  Angharad pays a later visit to Gruffydd, and they both admit an attraction, but Gruffydd feels Angharad should not marry him because he is a preacher, so he chooses to live frugally.  He feels she deserves better.  Angharad begrudgingly weds Iestyn.  The wedding is rather uncelebratory.  No rice, no cheering.  No singing either until Gwilym more or less commands for it.

Huw enters a prestigious school out of the valley.  He's immediately chastised by other students and the teacher, Mr. Jonas (Morton Lowry).  In the schoolyard, some boys push Huw around and one even busts his pencil box, which causes Huw and the other boy to fight.  Huw gets his ass handed to him, and he returns home beaten and bloody.  Gwilym sends for Dai Bando (Rhys Williams), a boxer who is joined by his cohort Cyfartha (Barry Fitzgerald).  They teach Huw how to fight, attacking and defending.  Huw then holds his own against the other students and gains their respect, but during one schoolyard boxing exhibition, Jonas yells at Huw for hooliganism and beats the shit out of him with a stick.  When Huw returns home, he collapses, but tells his father to not complain to the school.  Huw wants to take his lumps like a man.  Dai Bondo and Cyfartha decide to visit the school on their own accord.  They interrupt Jonas's class and give a boxing demonstration to the students, which involves Jonas getting knocked out twice.  The students are amused, and Dai Bondo is satisfied with the avenging.

The alarm sounds from the mine one day.  Everyone in the valley rushes to the scene.  There's been an accident, and unfortunately Ivor is killed.  That evening, Bronwyn gives birth to their son.  Huw also receives a scholarship offer and Gwilym goes against the norm, saying Huw is a scholar and shouldn't relegate himself to the mines.  Huw, however, wants to work in the mines like the rest of the family.  Gwilym is dismayed but accepts Huw's decision, then says he's off to get drunk.  Huw's next order of business is going to Bronwyn.  He clears his throat a couple of times and does his best to sound older, saying he wants to move in with Bronwyn and help her raise the baby.  Bronwyn accepts the offer.  Somewhere, Mary Kay LaTorneau is smiling, I'm sure.

Upon picking up their wages one day, the Morgan sons (except for Huw, who's just started) are all fired.  Cheaper workers are being brought in.  The sons all decide it's time to leave the valley, and they all move abroad around the world.

Angharad, who had left Wales upon getting married, has returned to the country without Iestyn.  Huw learns of this and visits his sister, telling her that Gruffydd still does pine for her and he hasn't been the same man since she left the country.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Nicholas (Ethel Griffies), isn't happy to be working for her and not the rest of the Evans family who she's worked for for many years, and she spreads gossip about Angharad having come back to Wales to divorce Iestyn and marry Gruffydd.  This winds up getting the townspeople to turn against the Morgan family again.  Huw gets into fights with other kids in the mine, women whisper and laugh as family members walk the streets, and Gwilym even keeps his front door closed, which he never used to do.  Huw learns that Gruffydd is to be denounced by Parry and the other church deacons, so he decides to attend the next service that Gruffydd will hold.

Gruffydd's service consists of him telling the townspeople that this will be his last service.  He's leaving the valley.  Before doing so though, he completely rips apart the townspeople and the deacons for their simple-mindedness, spreading salacious rumours (he looks right at Mrs. Nicholas while saying this; she uncomfortably looks away) and whatnot.  He calls them hypocrites and liars, and says he wishes he knew that in the first place because he'd have never spent all these weeks thinking he was getting through to them with his services.  He then leaves the room.  Huw leaves after him, ignoring Parry's scolding about how the deacons meeting is still yet to happen.

Gruffydd, during his tirade, took some time to praise Huw as the only person in the room with a pure heart.  He gives a pocketwatch to Huw as a gift.  Then, the mining alarm whistle sounds.  There's been another accident.  Everyone rushes to the mines despite the explosions (!) from a cave-in.  Unfortunately, when all the injured miners are brought up, there's no sign of Gwilym.  Huw, along with Gruffydd and the now-blind Dai Bondo (don't ask, I don't know), go down the shaft to find him.  They do so, and Huw and Gwilym are able to embrace before Gwilym dies from his injuries.  They bring Gwilym back to the surface.

The older Huw's narration concludes the film.  "Men like my father cannot die.  They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever.  How green was my valley then."  The film ends with a montage of Huw childhood memories with all the members of his family.


Despite the film being set in Wales, it was shot in Malibu Canyon in California.  World War II was raging at this point in time, with the Nazis bombing England often, and shooting the movie in Wales would have been extremely unsafe.....Rhys Williams, who plays Dai Bondo, is the only Welsh actor in the film..... This was Roddy McDowall's screen debut.  He'd been in the States only two weeks before being cast.....Director John Ford has called this his favorite film he ever directed, which is surprising considering the long list of films he directed starring John Wayne.....William Wyler was originally going to direct this film, but decided to direct The Little Foxes instead.  That film competed with Valley in many Oscar categories, including Best Picture and Best Director, but Foxes went home with zero awards.....The book has two more sisters who were not written into the film.....As mentioned earlier, the film was shot in just 2 months.  The set design beforehand took triple that amount of time to construct.....A musical version of the movie entitled A Time for Singing hit the stage in 1966.  It was not successful.....Author Richard Llewellyn wrote three sequels further chronicling Huw's life, but none of those were adapted into films.

How Green Was My Valley was the highest-grossing film of 1941 and it was just as popular with the AMPAS, as they feted the movie with 10 Oscar nominations.  It had tough competition from the earlier-mentioned The Little Foxes (9 nominations) and Citizen Kane (9 nominations), but it wound up the most awarded movie of the night.  Foxes was shut out, Kane only won one (Original Screenplay).  Where Valley didn't win Oscars were the categories of Adapted Screenplay (Philip Dunne), Supporting Actress (Allgood), Film Editing (James B. Clark), Recording Sound (Edmund H. Hansen) and Dramatic Score (Alfred Newman).  Wins came for Supporting Actor (Crisp), Black-and-White Art/Set Direction (Richard Day, Nathan H. Juran, Thomas Little), Black-and-White Cinematography (Arthur C. Miller), Director (Ford) and Best Picture.  This was during the period of time where the list of Best Picture nominees had no limit, so many films were in the hunt.  You may also notice, many of them are still pretty revered today.  In addition to Foxes and Kane, Valley won over Blossoms in the Dust, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Hold Back the Dawn, The Maltese Falcon, One Foot in Heaven, Sergeant York and Suspicion.

So looking at that list, and now having seen How Green Was My Valley for the first time, I can join the ages-long debate.  Did the right film win Best Picture?  Personally, I think no.  Valley isn't a bad film, but it's aged in such a way that at times, it's a really fucking WEIRD film.  These character names, for example.  Gruffydd.  Angharad.  Huw.  Cyfartha.  Ivor.  Gwilym.  Ianto.  Iestyn.  Good Christ, the only thing missing here is the One Ring To Rule Them All.  Also, the way the entire population of the valley swarms around the Morgan house at times is really bizarre.  I mean, REALLY BIZARRE.  The scene where the telegram is delivered has to be seen to be believed.  I think several of the nominated films this year hold up better today, and personally if I had a vote, it would be for Falcon, but history cannot be changed.  For better or for worse, Valley indeed will forever be known as the Academy Award winner for Best Picture of 1941.

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