24 March 2010

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver Tugs Your Heart Strings with the Best of Them
By Kristin Battestella

My Dad swears by Greer Garson, and thus he adores the 1942 William Wyler gem Mrs. Miniver. Despite my bend to the classics, I had actually never seen Mrs. Miniver or anything with Greer Garson in it! After years of Dad bugging me about this error, I finally sat down for a night with the Mrs. Well, Shame on me for waiting so long!

Mrs. Kay Miniver (Garson) and her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) nonchalantly worry about the little extravagances-like an expensive hat or a new car. Eldest son Vin (Richard Ney) returns from college to romance Lady Beldon’s (May Whitty) granddaughter Carol (Teresa Wright). Little Toby (Christopher Severn) and Judy Miniver (Clare Sandars) are just peachy, too. Unfortunately, when the Vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) reads England’s declaration of war against Germany, the blissful lives of the Minivers are changed forever.

More and more, I’m having trouble with these summaries and revealing plot information in my reviews. Some films you just have to go into cold, and Mrs. Miniver is one of them. I knew next to nothing about the film when I settled in, and William Wyler’s (Ben-Hur, Best Years of Our Lives, Friendly Persuasion) touching wartime piece is better this way. Yes, columnist Jan Struther’s book of essays written as the fictional persona Mrs. Miniver was adapted to the screen for wartime propaganda more than anything else. Like Thomas Paine, however, the subtle example of the stalwart civilian at home never gets old and always puts even the toughest viewer in tears- or even helps President Roosevelt weigh in on America’s eventually joining the war. Mrs. Miniver begins somewhat snotty, with uber wealthy but charming British folks debating their indulgences and the aristocratic merits of the yearly flower show. By the end of the film, however, we learn the value of the kindhearted neighbor, the stalwart vicar, the weight of the civilian life at home, and the power of the flower show that must go on.

I’ve heard comparisons between Greer Garson (Madame Curie, Goodbye Mr. Chips) and fellow English redhead Deborah Kerr. Now, not only do I not like Deborah Kerr, but I can see Garson has it all over her! Despite the luxuries, we like the titular Mrs. Miniver from the start. Garson’s pairing with Walter Pidgeon (also Madame Curie and That Fortsyte Woman with Garson) is wonderfully real and intimate. Their kindness to the less fortunate and wit against the snotty nobility is great fun to watch. Though we don’t know what the Mrs. did or didn’t do before that war that she needs all kinds of help about the house, the change in the idyllic sentiments is immediately shown. As the war sets in, Garson expertly handles the agony of the waiting parent at home. She knows what enlistments, letters from the front, and the phone calls at 2 a.m. really mean- but no one wants to admit these fears to themselves or the family. Garson owns a simple but beautiful scene of listening for the sputtering engine signal from her son flying his plane overhead. Forget all the special effects, there’s nothing a human responds to more than seeing another human run the emotional gauntlet. If Greer Garson never made another film after Mrs. Miniver, her place in the classics still would have been sealed by her Oscar win here.

Mrs. MiniverNow then, you must allow me one complaint about Mrs. Miniver. Why in these old films are there always such weird ages for the kids? The older husband and pretty wife always have an older teen or college child, then a hip ten or twelve year old, followed by someone five or under. Is that eight years between pregnancies- it’s a little unrealistic, isn’t it? The interchangeable kids are a little annoying but also understandably innocent, asking the questions the adults can’t or won’t. The young and in love Richard Ney (Joan of Arc, The Fan) and Teresa Wright (Pride of the Yankees, Best Years of Our Lives) are in such a rush thanks to the war. However, the silent, quiet looks and tight, multi-layered Oscar winning script from James Hilton (Foreign Correspondent, Lost Horizon), Arthur Wimperis George Froeschel, and Claudine West (Random Harvest, The White Cliffs of Dover) do more than modern snogging-before-you-go ever could. Again, the age disparity between Ney and real life future wife Garson hinders him a bit, but the always wholesome and charming Wright is wonderful as Garson’s understudy and the second Mrs. Miniver. In some scenes, you even wonder which Mrs. is meant to be the titular lady. Wright’s Oscar winning warmth and melting of fellow Best Supporting Actress nominee Dame May Whitty (Night Must Fall, The Lady Vanishes, Suspicion) represents all the youthful hopes for the idealistic end to the war.

We don’t see as much of Walter Pidgeon as I might have liked, but his dutiful dad is delightful, as is Henry Travers’ (that’s Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life) elder innocence over his Mrs. Miniver rose. These seemingly trivial things come to represent how critical the civilian part at home is in Mrs. Miniver. The waiting agony all around is done quietly or in clipped dialogue. There’s actually little music here, no overdone orchestrations to build suspense. Mrs. Miniver capitalizes on fine silent interplay- as in Kay’s encounter with a crashed German soldier. Helmut Dantine’s (Casablanca, Northern Pursuit) enemy pilot is a little stereotypical; but his and Garson’s examination of fear, wanting to help the wounded, and foreign capture keeps your eyes glued to the screen.

One strike against Mrs. Miniver is unfortunately the black and white photography. The music knows when to be still, yes, but the civilian sea action at Dunkirk is tough to see-and perhaps for those who don’t know the history, tough to grasp the scope of the evacuation. Thankfully, the Starlings house puts things in perspective for the viewer. At first, we might not notice the fancy pieces of the Miniver home. As the film progresses, however, we see subtle changes about the house-it’s less stylized, not as fancily dressed, understandably war torn as time goes on. By time we get to the Miniver’s bomb shelter, the war at home mood is definitely secured. Likewise, the snotty nobility is whittled down from their posh church boxes into do their wartime parts and sacrifices. Though not super-thoroughly British, Mrs. Miniver sets the tone for war-time London with talk of the Thames, aristocracy, and hints of accents. We have a stereotypically hysterical and chubby hackneyed cook Ada (Marie De Becker, Random Harvest) and a typical thin and mousy, aloof maid Gladys (Brenda Forbes, The White Cliffs of Dover); but I enjoyed the time capsule of forties filmmaking and lifestyles. Our devoted couples all have separate beds, the milkman makes his morning house call, gentleman stand when a lady enters and exits, and shocker of shockers it’s polite to offer a cigarette to someone! There’s something enchanting about these old-fashioned manners, perhaps simply because they are old and even a little out of touch with how supposedly lower class but realistic people behave. Who still wears hats and stakes their yearly comeuppance on a rose competition, really? By contrast, the onscreen simplicity of Mrs. Miniver is dynamite compared to today’s oversaturated pictures. There’s a lot less over acting here than typical of the day, and the shrill pitch of falling bombs and exploding shells are all the music that’s needed. The relatable fears of light during a black out and air raids are always relevant. The audiences today who know their World War II theater are perhaps doubly moved knowing the final devastation this war brought. The Minivers reliance on radio for news of the outside world also makes today’s viewers feel even more helpless, for we wouldn’t know what to do without our lit up electronics!

Mrs. Miniver had a serious political impact in its day, but I’m afraid this picture doesn’t get its due respect today. I read comparisons to The Best Years of Our Lives online, but I think the two are companion pieces-one dealing with the war at home during, the other the post-war difficulties after. Either way, the sentiments here never grow old. If Mrs. Miniver were made today, I have no doubt those fans of the big action war pictures would love it. However, I don’t know that casual audiences or non-classic fans can fully appreciate this film. Can a book or movie such as Mrs. Miniver do today what it did then-can any book or movie have the power to change the world in this day and age? Was it merely the humongous stakes and necessities of World War II that brought about such influential film and literature, or do we have no great cause or too many little causes in today’s generation and too much media distractions for a powerful story to take the world by storm? Mrs. Miniver is successful in its quietest, simplest moments. Four people sequestered into a tiny bomb shelter, the cat sleeping under the makeshift beds while Kay knits and Clem smokes a pipe. How accustom to raid living they’ve become; yet the adults still flinch, even reading Alice in Wonderland to each other. By time we’re down to the concluding sequences with the two trapped Mrs. Minivers, well all I can say is Wow!

Yes, I’m late in realizing it, but Mrs. Miniver deserves its place among the classics and great war films. Super young audiences might be scared by all the bombing sounds and seriously tense scenes, but older students and teachers can enjoy a classroom viewing. War buff families can also take in a viewing with the DVD. Begin your classic viewing experience tonight with the Mrs.

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