Friday, August 20, 2010

How Green Was My Valley

"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."-Huw Morgan narrating in How Green Was My Valley
Writing the post for this film seems to me like an uphill journey.  Which is ironic as this film is as about a valley in Wales.  But the biggest problem I had with this film was not that it beat out Citizen Kane for Best Picture", but rather its lack of plot.   The plot is actually a series of vignettes, each intertwined with the next but without forming a completely whole plot.  This scattered feeling undercut my enjoyment of the film.  And the singing.  Oh, the singing.

The Plot
In the beginning of the film, a man of indeterminate age, Huw Morgan, prepares to leave his small village in a valley in Wales.  Before he does, he relates the story of his family's trials when he was a young boy.  As a boy, played by Roddy McDowell, Huw lives with his father Gwilym played by Donald Crisp, and mother Beth, played by Sara Allgood.  Also in the small cottage are his older siblings, his sister Angharad, played by Maureen O'Hara, and his five older brothers, Ivor, Ianto, Davy, Owen, and Gwilym Jr.



The men in the village go to work in the mine.
Huw's memories start happily as he watches his brothers and father go off to work at the local coal mines.  Huw meets and instantly falls in love with Bronwyn, played by Anna Lee, his eldest brother Ivor's fiancee.  The entire village celebrates their marriage, and Angharad is immediately attracted to the village's earnest new preacher, Mr. Gruffydd, played by Walter Pidgeon.  But bad times come to the village when C. Evans, the local coal mine owner, lowers wages.  Coal mine closures in neighboring areas lead to a surplus of workers willing to work for any wage, and Huw's brothers are soon grumbling about forming a union.  Though Ivor is now living with Bronwyn, the rest of the brothers quarrel so much with their father that they eventually leave the home and go live together elsewhere.
The family meets Bronwyn.

The conditions lead most of the men in the village to strike.  The backlash again Huw's father, who does not believe in unions, causes him so much despair that Beth secretly goes to the union meeting place with Huw to castigate all the men for hurting such a good man.  She threatens them with retaliation if anything happens to her husband and then leaves with Huw in a snow storm.  But she trips and falls through the ice on the way home and Huw dives into the river to cling to her and save her life.  Both are very ill as a result and put to bed in Ivor's home.  The doctor mentions in Huw's hearing that Huw may never regain the use of his legs.
Beth and Angharad

Mr. Gruffydd visits and gives Huw books to occupy his time while convincing him that someday, Huw will walk again.  Mr. Gruffyd promises that when the daffodils bloom he will be able to pick them for his mother. 
When Beth is finally well enough to go home, all the men in the village come and serenade her, while her sons move back home.  More drinking and singing ensues, while Mr. Gruffydd speaks in favor of the unions.  Gwilym decides to join up with the union as well, and between the two of them they work out an agreement with C. Evans.  But even with the changes, the mine can't afford to keep on its best (and highest paid) workers, so Owen and Gwilym Jr. find themselves without jobs and decide to leave for America.
Angharad gets married.
Later, Mr. Gruffydd takes Huw to pick daffodils for Beth, as promised.   Mr. Gruffydd encourages him, and soon Huw takes his first steps.  Despite this, Angharad's relationship with Mr. Gruffydd is not going well.  Though they both confess their love, Mr. Gruffydd refuses to allow Angharad to suffer as a poor preacher's wife.  So he facilitates a match between her and the local mine owner's son, Iestyn, instead.  Hurt and broken-hearted, Angharad marries Iestyn and moves with him South Africa.
Angharad and Mr. Gruffydd

Meanwhile, all Huw's reading while in bed has paid off.  He passes examinations and is allowed to attend the national school in the next valley.  But he is unprepared to deal with the local bully, Mervyn, and the cruel British teacher, Mr. Jonas.  After Mervyn beats him in a fight, Huw is taught how to fight by his father, brothers, and the local boxing champion.  Soon, Huw is able to best Mervyn and win his respect.  But Mr. Jonas decides to punish him for fighting.  He tries to force Mervyn to beat him with a stick, and when Mervyn refuses, Mr. Jonas beats him himself.  Apalled at this treatment from his teacher, Huw's family want to retaliate but hold back at Huw's request.  But the local boxer, Dai Bando, and his agent, Cyfartha, head down to the school anyway and knock Mr. Jonas unconscious.  (And if your brain isn't twisted with these Welsh names by now you're smarter than I am.)
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Ivor suddenly dies in a tragic mining accident, just before Bronwyn gives birth to their son.  Huw decides to work in the mines and live with Bronwyn, to keep her company, rather than go to University, despite his father's disappointment.  Conditions in the mine become steadily worse, and both Ianto and Davy are fired so Evans can hire cheaper workers.  Ianto goes to Canada, and Davy to New Zealand.  Angharad finally comes home, without her husband.  She goes to see no one, but stays in her mansion.  Finally, Huw goes to visit her and sees that though she is rich, she is alone, poorly treated by the gossipy housekeeper, and miserable.  The housekeeper gossips out of spite with the local matrons that she believes Angharad has been seeing Mr. Gruffydd, though it is untrue.
Hugh suffers at school.

Rumors spread about Angharad and Mr. Gruffydd, including ones about her impending divorce, which is never confirmed.  The Morgans, angered by the talk, refuse to go to church while the hypocritical deacons speak out against her.  Mr. Gruffydd resigns in a rage, delivering a blistering sermon before he leaves.  He is a broken man, and tells Huw that though he once had dreams of saving the world "with truth," now he believes only a few have heard him.  As he goes to leave, they both hear a warning whistle from the mine.  A collapse has occurred, and Huw's father is trapped inside.  The entire town, including Angharad, gather around the mine shaft.
Mr. Morgan at the mine.

Mr. Gruffydd organizes men to follow him down into the mine to save Mr. Morgan.  Mr. Gruffydd and Angharad see each other at last.  Huw and Mr. Gruffydd, along with the boxer (who is now blind) and a few others go down to rescue the remaining men.  Huw finds his father, who is trapped under some boulders.  He holds his son and says goodbye, before dying.  They all take his body up to the women who are waiting.  Beth says she can feel his spirit leave.    The end is a series of montages of the past, ending in the entire family waving from a field, together again.  
Huw comes up with his father in the mine shaft.

The History
How Green Was My Valley is based on a novel of the same name by Richard Llewellyn in 1939.  Darryl F. Zanuck bought the rights to the novel for $300,000 and proceeded to film the movie in just two months.  Zanuck had come to Hollywood from Nebraska and proceeded to work his way up the ranks until he became head of production at Warner Bros. in 1931.  In 1933, he opened his own studio, 20th Century Films.  In 1935, he and his other two founders bought Fox Studios, thereby creating 20th Century Fox.  Though his films had been nominated for "Best Picture" nearly every year since the beginning of the Academy Awards, his first win would be for How Green Was My Valley in 1941.  Upon finally winning, Zanuck was overjoyed, if a bit surprised:  "When I think of what I got away with...and won the Academy Award with the picture, it is really astonishing.  Not only did we drop five or six characters, we eliminated the most controversial element in the book, which was the labor-and-capital battle in connection with the strike."
Darryl F. Zanuck

When Zanuck and the film's original director, William Wyler, were first planning the film, it was to be filmed in Wales.  Zanuck also wished to create a four hour long epic, along the lines of Gone with the Wind.  But with the still contentious pro-union stance of the film, and the advent of World War II, shooting in Wales became impossible.  Wyler dropped out and was replaced by John Ford.  He built an 80-acre set in the Santa Monica Mountains at Brent's Crags, near Malibu. The design of the village was based on the real Cerrig Ceinnen and nearby Clyddach-cum Tawe in Wales. But the film had to be done in black and white, as the California flowers were different colors than Welsh flowers.  While all the songs sung in the movie are original Welsh songs, the only Welsh actor is Rhys Williams, who plays the boxer Dai Bando.
John Ford (in sunglasses) filming the mine scene.
While generally considered a good film, How Green Was My Valley has suffered over the years because of comparisons with its Oscar competitor,  Citizen Kane.  Strangely enough, however, this was not the biggest Oscar controversy at the time of the Awards in February, 1942.  There was much more controversy over the race for "Best Actress" between sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland (Fontaine eventually won for Suspicion).  Walt Disney won the Cartoon Award for the 10th time for Dumbo, along with a few other "Special Oscars" for technical achievements in the first Disney flop, Fantasia.  More importantly, nearly a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor the Academy board announced that a banquet would not be held this year, and that the ceremony would be given in a different, more appropriate, format.  Newly elected president Bette Davis proposed that the ceremony take place in a theater and be open to the public, with the ticket money going to the British War Relief.  Her idea horrified the remaining board members, and she stepped down as President.  It was finally decided that while there would be a banquet, it would be referred to as a dinner, and while there would be music, there would be no dancing.  Women were also asked not to wear formal attire, but instead to donate the money they would have spent on a gown to the Red Cross.  The decor was almost entirely American flags and gold eagle statues.
Citizen Kane

How Green Was My Valley would go on to garner 10 nominations, 5 of them wins for "Best Picture," "Best Director," "Best Supporting Actor," "Best Black and White Cinematography," and "Best Black-and-White Art Direction-Interior Decoration."  Citizen Kane was nominated for 9 awards, but only received "Best Original Screenplay."  Today Citizen Kane is considered the best American film of all time.  How Green Was My Valley is considered "that film with the singing coal miners that incredibly beat Citizen Kane."
Mr. Gruffydd and Huw

The Verdict?
I still have some more history to tell, despite this being the part where I state my opinion.  But I think this film is so irrevocably linked with Citizen Kane that it has become impossible to talk about one film without discussing the other.  See below for just one example.
In some ways, it's actually pretty sad.  But I will defend the film with the historical gossip that I've managed to glean from that period.  So here is my section on....

WHY CITIZEN KANE LOST 
(I have no idea why the Maltese Falcon lost.  Sorry Rotten Tomatoes.)

In 1940, RKO Studios was seriously hurting for money.  So they hired new wiz-kid director Orson Welles, fresh off his infamous 1938 Halloween radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.  They gave him free reign over the studio and a script by Herman J. Mankiewicz for his first project.  Welles hired actors from his own theater and began to make Citizen Kane, a film about an eccentric publishing tycoon.  RKO left him alone.  How much trouble could he get into on a shoestring budget?

Louella Parsons, a famous gossip columnist from the same area of Illinois as Welles, was one of his earliest supporters.  But when she asked if his new film was about her boss, Mr. William Randolph Hearst, Welles denied it, claiming that the film was about a fictional publisher.  He then organized for Parsons' competition, Hedda Hopper, to see the an early cut of the film.  Hopper called Parsons with the bad news; Citizen Kane was definitely about Mr. Hearst.

Hearst threatened to sue RKO for libel, causing the studio to hold up Citizen Kane's release for two months until the case was proven to be groundless.  Hearst then ordered all of his newspapers to pull any and all positive reviews for RKO films.  He also made sure that major movie theater chains knew that any theater playing the film would immediately lose his newspaper advertisements.  Several of his friends, including the presidents of Fox, RCA, and MGM also attempted to sway the studio to accept Hearst's offer to pay for all production costs if they agreed to burn the negatives.  But even with all that, and a bonus of a few thousand, RKO said no.

Meanwhile Orson Welles was busy alienating everyone he possibly could.  He tried to get sole screen credit, claiming he had to rewrite veteran screenwriter Mankiewicz's entire script.  Mankiewicz had to appeal to the Screen Writers Guild to keep his co-credit.  He referred to film producers as "stupid" during a lecture at New York's New School, and then proceeded to deride both David Selznick and Gone with the Wind.  RKO finally released the film at an independent theater, and directors and critics alike were stunned by its mastery.  But with everything riding against it, the film didn't make a profit.

Welles did not attend the awards and didn't seem to care one way or another about whether he won.  After alienating most of Hollywood, his chances weren't very good.  Today, Citizen Kane's loss is attributed to Hearst's influence,  Welles' attitude, and the antagonistic extras who could vote for the Award.  However if you consider what I've mentioned before, that the "Best Picture Award" is more about the best production of the year, How Green Was My Valley makes more sense.  Besides, John Ford was far and away Welles' favorite director.  He often claimed that Ford's Stagecoach was what taught him to be a director.

Moral of the story?  Lay off, Citizen Kane lovers!  You've won the AFI list, let's just leave this film alone.  It's how Welles would have wanted it.

Maureen O'Hara as Angharad
What did I think?   Well....it's long and confusing and interspersed with men singing for no apparent reason.  As a friend said, "It's about everything, and nothing."  There's no cohesive plot, and I often felt as though I were missing large chunks of information.  If I had read the book, I probably would have enjoyed this film more.  I would have understood where it was headed and what exactly what happening.  But as it was, I agree with Zanuck.  I don't think they managed to pull off omitting so much key information.  But the performances were solid, and I never get tired of watching Maureen O'Hara.  Even Walter Pidgeon was fun, pontificating on man's great weaknesses.  He has a booming voice that immediately makes it clear he's the moral center of the film.  But Ford's sweeping vistas and O'Hara's plaintive brogue can't save this film for me.
Angharad with her parents.
Bottom line:  if you've read the book, love John Ford, or are incredibly devoted to mining concerns in 19th century Welsh towns, watch this film.  Otherwise-skip it.  Watch The Quiet Man instead.
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2 comments:

  1. The singing is very important and a long tradition in Wales among the working class. A cursory glance at Welsh history would have told you that

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  2. I agree with the above post. Citizen Kanes abound this year in politics but the path to portraying those who suffer from the whims of such men as these is always beset by thorns. A way of damning How Green was my Valley is to label it sentimental. There is every bit as much sentimental portrayal in Citizen Kane building up to where as we watch the old man drop his snow globe and murmur "Rosebud."

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