Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mrs. Miniver

"This is the People's War. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it then. Fight it with all that is in us and may God defend the Right." -- The Vicar (Mrs. Miniver, 1942)
I'm back!  I know I've been gone a long time, and I apologize.  It's been a wild whirlwind couple of months.  Since I last wrote, I now have a new job, a new apartment, and a new lease on life! Obviously I won't make my goal of being through all my movies by March, but I don't mind so much.  This project has always been just for myself, and if I have made an impact on others, I count that as more of a bonus than anything else.  Not that I don't appreciate my readers, in fact having my friends support me on this project has been one of the best things about it.  But the best part about writing for yourself is that you never have to feel the guilt or stress of missing a deadline.  And I knew when I watched it that this movie didn't deserve a hurried, stressed entry.  This movie was one of my favorites, and an absolute must-see by anyone who happens to have an interest in film or history.  It is emotionally stirring, entertaining, and historically fascinating.  Enjoy.

Teresa Wright and Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver
The Plot
Mrs. Kay Miniver, played by Greer Garson, is the happy British housewife of an architect in an upper-middle class family.  The film opens as she returns home on the train, feeling guilty because she spent a little too much on a hat.  She greets Mr. Ballard, the station master, played by Henry Travers, on her way home, and discovers he has named his newly grown batch of roses after her, as she is the nicest woman in town.  Her husband Clem, played by Walter Pigeon, feels similarly guilty about the car he has bought, and when they finally both confess, they could be a normal sitcom couple along the lines of I Love Lucy or Leave it to Beaver.  Except they're British, and it's 1939, right as World War II is beginning to take effect.

The Minivers greet Vin at the station
Vin, their son, played by Richard Ney, returns from Oxford for the holidays filled the obnoxious pompousness affected by naive first-term students.  He delivers scathing speeches about the privileged nobility that are idealistic, though without much sense.  Much to their chagrin, he insults Carol Beldon, played by Teresa Wright, granddaughter of local village aristocrat Lady Beldon, played by Dame May Whitty, when she comes to ask if Kay might ask Mr. Ballard to withdraw from the annual flower show, as a loss would distress her elderly grandmother.  But at the local dance that night, Vin confesses his feelings for Carol and the two agree to write one another while they are apart.

Ballard shows his "Mrs. Miniver" rose to its namesake
A few weeks later at the village church, the vicar, played by Henry Wilcoxon, interrupts his sermon with the breaking news that England is now at war with Germany.  While the Minivers take their two youngest children, Toby and Judy, home to prepare for the coming air-raid, Vin accompanies Carol and her grandmother home and overides Lady Beldon's protests and insists they adequately prepare themselves.  Carol and Vin come to an "agreement" and kiss for the first time.  Some time later Vin leaves school to join the RAF and while the village is prepared, no one has really started to feel the effects of the war.  The men in the local pub trade jokes about a German pilot who may have been shot down in the area.  On leave that night, Vin proposes to Carol at dinner with his family, but must immediately return to the airbase and cut his leave short.  Clem, on the other hand, is called to the pub in the middle of the night as he is part of the Thames River patrol.  While everyone is annoyed at the early hour, they soon discover that as local boat owners, they have been asked to become part of an evacuation mission to retrieve British soliders from Dunkerque, France.

The Minivers congratulate Carol.
Five days have passed, and Kay still has no news from Clem or Vin.  Distressed, she strolls in her garden, only to find the boots and then the rest of the missing German pilot.  She tries to steal his gun as he sleeps, but he awakes and chases her back into her house.  He holds her at gunpoint while she brings him food, but finally collapses, weakened from his wounds.  Kay steals his gun and calls the police, and as he is carried away the German glares and tells her that England will fall, just as all the other countries have. Kay slaps him.  But after he leaves Clem finally arrives and then news of Vin's safe return reaches them as well.  Vin and Carol marry a short time later, after Kay convinces Lady Beldon, who has been hiding a secret marriage she also made when in her youth to a soldier going to war.  Though Lady Beldon wishes to spare Carol the same heartache, she realizes she must let her go, and the couple leave to honeymoon in Scotland.

Mrs. Miniver and the German soldier

While they are gone, the rest of the Minivers hide in their bomb shelter as the battle continues in the air.  While before they had managed to pass uneventful nights in their shelter reading and knitting, this time the bombing is so intense that the children wake crying and the entire family must huddle together fearfully.  When Carol and Vin return, they are shocked by the near complete destruction of their home, but Kay and Clem shrug off the rubble and talk of the upcoming flower show.

The Minivers see the wreckage of the house.

At the show, Lady Beldon is informed secretly that she has won the competition yet again, but realizes (with Kay's help) that the lowly Ballard really deserves it and announces instead that he has won the prize.  While everyone cheers at this heartwarming scene, the air raid sirens suddenly go off and everyone must scatter for home.  As Kay and Carol drive home they attempt to dodge the destruction around them, but Carol is suddenly hit by a stray bullet.  Though Kay is able to get her home, Carol dies before a doctor can arrive.  When Vin arrives home and discovers her dead, he finally loses his youthful optimism and innocence.  

Lady Beldon at the flower show.

They all attend church on Sunday, though the church has been badly bombed.  The vicar announces those who have died, including a young choir boy, Carol, and Ballard.  He delivers a stirring speech, and as he reads from the Ninety-First Psalm, Vin moves to Lady Beldon's pew to comfort her.  As everyone leaves, singing hymns, more planes take to the air.

The family together at church.

The History
William Wyler created this film for propaganda reasons.  Wyler choose a series of popular essays written by Jan Struther in 1939 and gave them a story line that he stretched into 1942.  He felt that America had too long followed a policy of isolationism, and desirous of influencing Americans against the Nazis, showed how middle class Brits were faring overseas.  Wyler himself had been born in Germany, and he took the German threat very seriously.  He wrote and re-wrote the vicar's speech at the end of the film, insisting on a perfect ending.  Although he later believed he was not harsh enough in his depiction of war, Mrs. Miniver would become a major factor in influencing American opinions.

Teresa Wright and Greer Garson on set.
Mrs. Miniver was the highest grossing MGM film of all time.  It was also the top film of the year in England.  Out of the 592 film critics polled by American magazine Film Daily, 555 named it the best film of 1942.  The final, rousing speech that Wyler had agonized over would be reprinted in popular magazines and dropped in pamphlet form as literal propaganda in Europe by President Roosevelt.  The speech would become known as the Wilcoxon Speech, after the actor who had so stirringly delivered it.  William Wyler left immediately after he finished filming Mrs. Miniver in order to join the US Army Signal Corps, where he continued to make documentaries about the war effort.

The Wilcoxon Speech
Mrs. Miniver was the first film to be nominated in all four acting categories.  It was nominated for twelve categories, of which it won six, including Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Cinematography.  In 2009, it was named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.  It is #40 on AFI's list of "Most Inspirational Movies."  And while its most famous legacy today seems to be the fact that Greer Garson married Richard Ney (the actor who played her son) shortly after filming, Winston Churchill famously said that "Mrs. Miniver is propaganda worth a hundred battleships."

Four Oscar-winning actors on Awards night.
Bette Davis, nominated again, opened a free club for servicemen only run by celebrities.  Greer Garson, along with many other actresses, dedicated herself to selling war bonds.  And nearly all the movies lauded that year would be either patriotic or war-related (or both.)  Patriotism was continuing in full force.  The awards that year honored servicemen with a flag listing the over 27,000 members of Hollywood who had enlisted to fight the war and unrolled it during the singing of the national anthem. Both popular starlet Teresa Wright and the scandalous Greer Garson walked off their first Oscars.  James Cagney won for Best Actor in the stars and stripes studded film Yankee Doodle Dandy.  But the statuettes themselves were made of plaster, not gold, in a nod to the war effort.  Women were again asked to dress down (with some success) and most of the male winners of the evening had to have their statuettes accepted by their wives, as they were overseas.

Long-winded Oscar winner Greer Garson
After the ceremony was over, journelists complained the most about the lack of space.  W. R. Wilkerson, editor of the Hollywood Reporter, was so incensed he wrote three separate editorials about the event, deriding it as having "tiresome speakers voicing greater dullness" and "professional jerks of ever caliber."  Mary Pickford was miffed that she had had to sit in the back, and the New York Wold-Telegram voiced the continuing belief that had the 4,500 extras not been allowed to vote, results would have been different.  The Academy dropped hints that change was in the wind for the event next year.  But the most memorable moment of the awards came when Greer Garson delivered her 5 1/2 minute speech, the longest acceptance speech ever in Academy Awards history.  As it was the last delivered, and it was after 1am, the speech has become exaggerated in Academy urban legend, much to Garson's chagrin.  She would never win another.

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver
The Verdict?
This movie is incredible for so many reasons. And it’s not because it is a cinematic masterpiece. If this movie was made either 10 years earlier or later it would not have made such an impact on me. It is such an important movie because it is not a war movie; it is a movie about living during a war.

Mr. and Mrs. Miniver in the bomb shelter.
The scariest thing about Mrs. Miniver is how normal it is. The Minivers are loving, friendly, good-natured, flawed and modern (for 1942). They could be your next door neighbors. And by the end of the movie, we’re not entirely sure they will survive. This movie violates the American middle class’s deeply ingrained belief that nothing can ever happen to them. It is those others who are bombed, those Europeans across the water. But Mrs. Miniver claims that a psychopathic German solider can crop up in your backyard, and that a stray bullet can claim your daughter-in-law. You could be buying a too-expensive hat one day and then a few weeks later be hiding in a bomb shelter with your young children. And in 1942, less than a year after Pearl Harbor, too many Americans were sticking their heads in the sand with regards to the ongoing war.

The Minivers must tell Vin his wife has died.
The atmosphere of the film feels as if someone started bombing June Cleaver’s backyard. Imagine the impact of seeing people like yourself suffering from an invasion that is actually happening in real time. I think that today we are too likely to classify wars as "other." People in head scarves roaming deserts seem so foreign to modern-day Americans that we forget wars happening in Afghanistan or Iraq involve real people and families. And of course it is much easier to sympathize with the British rather than people with a culture so different from ours. But the message to take away from this film is that war (and the devastation that follows it) can happen to anyone, at any time.

The Minivers in the bomb shelter.
The truly chilling moment comes at the end, when the Vicar gives his famous speech and the camera pans up to the sky. The planes are flying overhead, the church is crumbling around them and no one, not even the audience, knows when the violence will end or even if it will. The looked-for ending is missing—the resolution of the war. We know the ending, but how terrifying to watch this film in a theater and not be assured of a happy ending. All this film has is hope for peace; for the Minivers, and for the world.

The family looks at their ruined home.

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