Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How Green Was My Valley: The Richness of Memory

I’m going to come right out and say it: How Green Was My Valley did not deserve to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1941. Now, don’t take this as a judgment on the quality of the film itself. There is much to admire in Josh Ford’s adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s novel. Considering the competition—Sergeant York, The Maltese Falcon, Suspicion, and above all, Citizen Kane—the film has taken on an ignominious identity as the least deserving Best Picture winner of all time (and had the field of nominees been those five instead of ten, How Green Was My Valley may be considered the weakest). Retroactively, it is easy to judge the merits (or lack thereof) of an award winner. Hell, it’s also quite fun to do so. However, I think in this instance, How Green Was My Valley is unfairly maligned, especially since it shares much in common with the critical consensus choice of the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane.

Now, I said in my last post that each of the Best Picture winners of the 1940’s will act as a litmus test to how audiences reacted to the various changes and crises (especially World War II) occurring around them. If we use the Kübler-Ross model describing the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—How Green Was My Valley is firmly in the camp of denial (and by the way, I will be using the consecutive stages of the Kübler-Ross model as a basis of comparison for five successive Oscar winners of the 1940’s—Mrs. Miniver, Casablanca, The Lost Weekend, and The Best Years of Our Lives).

Primarily, How Green Was My Valley is a film about nostalgia. I think nostalgia is a potent form of denial where a person yearns for an idealized past as a way to mask an inability or unwillingness to cope with a less than ideal present. The very title of the film is a tip off to its tone. The valley was green, implying that today, it must not be. The film is structured—like Citizen Kane—as a flashback, told through the eyes of Huw (Roddy McDowall, in one of the finest performances ever given by a child actor), the youngest member of the Morgan family. The Morgans are a family of coal miners living in South Wales, and Huw recounts his experiences as a boy. He has a rather Dickensian life—Huw is witness to tragedy as well as happiness—but the experiences recalled all point to comfort and personal growth.

The Morgans are a family steeped in rituals. There are clearly defined roles for each member. Father Gwilym (Donald Crisp) and the five elder sons—Ianto, Ivor, Gwilym Jr., Davy and Owen—toil every day in the coal mine. Mother Beth (Sara Allgood) and sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) are in charge of keeping order in the household. Huw is the student. The film takes time to show the everyday rituals of the Morgan family. When the men return home each day from work, Beth waits at the door to collect wages from each man as they walk through the door. At the dinner table, Gwilym is the first to be served and the last to finish. Beth is served last and finishes first. The father offers grace, and the family eats in silence. After dinner, the wages are distributed to each family member by age. Ianto receives the largest amount; Huw a single coin. The family rituals bring comfort, tranquility, and order to the Morgan family.

It is only when the rituals are disrupted that danger enters the story. Gwilym, despite having the respect of every man who he works with, remains loyal to the mine owner when wages are being reduced. His sons each advocate for a union (which Gwilym Sr. derides as “socialist nonsense”) and eventually decide to strike. The change in demeanor of the miners is signified by the fact that they are no longer singing when they return home (the miners in the film sing more often than the Seven Dwarfs). The strike lasts for months and Gwilym becomes ostracized by the men who once looked up to him. The strike indirectly causes injury to Huw and Beth when on a cold night after a meeting in which Beth defended her husband to the townsfolk now against him, she stumbles into a freezing river and Huw jumps in to save her. Huw temporarily loses the use of his legs afterward.

Huw’s convalescence becomes a happy memory. The new preacher (Walter Pidgeon), Mr. Gruffydd (that’s pronounced Griffith for those unfamiliar with their Welsh); helps Huw regain his confidence by reading him stories and teaching him to use prayer to regain strength. Mr. Gruffydd and Angharad also become instantly smitten, though their relationship becomes complicated by Angharad’s engagement to the son of the mine’s owner. Though Mr. Gruffydd and Angharad are passionately in love with one another, the marriage of Angharad is arranged as a way to show there is no bad blood between the workers and the owners. Angharad professes her love for the preacher, but Mr. Gruffydd knows that Angharad would remain in a life of poverty if she remained with him, as well as disrupting the truce between the miners and owners the marriage symbolizes. He sacrifices love to maintain rituals and appearances.

Eventually, the Morgan family becomes splintered. Gwilym Jr. and Owen depart for richer pastures in America when wages become too thin. Later in the film, Ivor is killed in an accident, and Ianto and Davy are also laid off and forced to go overseas to find work. Huw leaves the valley for the first time to enroll in school, but he finds danger in the outside world as he is bullied by his fellow students and teachers (though in an amusing subplot, Huw learns to fight back, and well). Eventually, Huw chooses to work in the mines alongside his father, and become a caretaker to Ivor’s widow, Bronwyn (Anna Lee)—who Huw fell in love with at first sight in the beginning of the film—and her infant son. By the end of the film, the rituals the town has developed break apart completely, gossip and mistrust dominate the valley, and death comes to Gwilym in a cave-in. The film ends with a montage of the happier times in Huw’s life, and concludes with the line, “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.” Scenes of happy memories then flash by—Huw’s first glimpse of Bronwyn’s beauty, the Morgan family at dinner, Angharad waving at Mr. Gruffydd, the five brothers together, and a scene of Huw and his father, hand-in-hand, walking over a crest of a hill. With the present being messy and complicated, the past looks greener indeed.

Ultimately, Citizen Kane vouches for the same ideal. The entire film is structured around the mystery of Kane’s dying utterance: “Rosebud”. The newsreel reporter gains access the people closest to Charles Foster Kane, and they each reveal a portion of his life. Kane is a man who seems to embody the American dream (Kane even says at one point in the film “I am, above all, an American.”). He has an abundance of wealth. He has a family. He is the most powerful man in his profession. He has built an opulent mansion. In the end though, it turns out that the people closest to Kane find him just as enigmatic as the reporter. Nobody truly knows the man, and he dies in Xanadu (his mansion), a home filled with meaningless possessions. Of those items (oh, and if you have never seen Citizen Kane or don’t by virtue of cultural osmosis know the identity of Rosebud, I’m totally going to SPOIL it right now, but the film is rich enough that you can know what Rosebud is and still be blown away by Orson Welles’ picture—so you’ve been warned, and don’t bitch at me) a sled is thrown into a fire, with the word “Rosebud” written on it. In a key scene in the very first flashback, Kane is shown as a young boy riding his sled before his parents sing away their legal guardianship of him. “Rosebud” comes to signify the only period in Kane’s life where he felt true happiness. Although Kane doesn’t have the richness of memories Huw does, he too, is ultimately nostalgic for the happiest time in his life. In a way, Welles is as sentimental as Capra in saying that all the wealth and all the material things and all the power a man could ever hope to obtain are things you cannot take with you when you die. Only richness of memory endures.

Ford’s Oscar winner and Welles’ greatest film of all time each have the same message. The films have more in common than their reputations would suggest. While Citizen Kane can be cynical and bitter (and also incredibly profound) and How Green Was My Valley is sweet and sentimental (and also a big-time tearjerker—have your hankies at the ready, easily weepy ones), both films turn to nostalgia to find the ultimate places of happiness for their characters. If nostalgia is a form of denial, then How Green Was My Valley represents an American culture in denial about the changes and madness sweeping the globe at the time. The film was released on October 28th, 1941, so initial audiences were clueless to the massive tragedy about to occur only five weeks later. Films of the Golden Age of Hollywood were designed to play long runs throughout the country—starting in the cities and working their way to the heartland—and as the film made its run, I’m sure its themes of longing for an idealized past brought immense comfort to a country thrust into a world war. How Green Was My Valley represents an America in denial.

I want to mention some of the technical aspects of the film apart from my Kübler-Ross based analysis. In addition to the awards earned by John Ford and the film itself, How Green Was My Valley won Oscars for cinematography and set design. I think most film lovers agree that Welles and his film were robbed, but many film critics feel that the bigger Oscar crime was that Gregg Toland’s revolutionary camera work and the team responsible for the incredible set designs for Citizen Kane lost to their competitors from How Green Was My Valley.

Toland may be the single most influential cinematographer ever, and his work on Citizen Kane revolutionized film. Toland’s use of deep focus photography—meaning that all objects in a frame of film, in both the foreground and background, are in complete crystal clear focus—helped to shape the story of that film as much as the screenplay. In the scene where Kane’s parents sign away their rights to the boy, deep focus is used to marvelous effect. The adults are conducting business in the extreme foreground, but clearly visible through a back window is the young Kane, riding Rosebud in the snow. For viewers watching the film on a repeat viewing, it’s really amazing how many details Toland’s lenses capture, helping to enhance the story. Citizen Kane was the first film to show ceilings, and Toland devised ways for cameras to effectively capture image and sound in a room with a lid. It also allowed for the use of several extreme low angle shots to be filmed—one of the best ways to suggest intimidation and power with a camera.

Kane’s sets prove to be equally important. Xanadu is brought vividly to life. The scene at the end where there are crates and creates of Kane’s belongings perfectly captures the size of his home and how ironically empty it is (the shot is most famously paid homage to by Steven Spielberg at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark). The opera house is another fantastic set. Citizen Kane is a film where details were absolutely crucial to the overall effect of the film.

Details are equally as important to How Green Was My Valley. Ford wished to film his picture in Wales, but it was both cost prohibitive and politically impossible to film there (Great Britain, after all, was far more heavily involved with WWII by the time filming started). Therefore, a replica of the Rhondda Valley had to be recreated back in the states. At the 3,000 square foot Fox Ranch in Malibu, the set was erected. The entire town, every building, and the mine in the film are a set and the whole town was functional. Not once does artifice leak through when How Green Was My Valley is viewed. Though totally phony, the sets have a feel of absolute authenticity.

Arthur C. Miller’s photography is also gorgeous. Many scenes from the movie appear to be lifted from postcards (were the film made today, they would be compared to screensaver images). Although Miller’s lenswork doesn’t have the depth of Toland’s the film is crystalline. Miller also takes care to recognize that the events of the story are unfolding through the eyes of a young boy, so the camera is almost always at Huw’s eye level, where the adult world seems much larger than life (Spielberg would use this trick in E.T.). How Green Was My Valley is a beautiful-looking film, the cinematic equivalent of a children’s storybook.

I think Toland deserved the Oscar, but Miller’s work is also award-worthy. The art direction award is a toss-up in my book, but again, both films do marvelous work with their set design and construction. Were Citizen Kane not released in 1941, I think there would be far less critical uproar about the Oscars How Green Was My Valley took home.


How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Director: John Ford

Starring: Roddy McDowell, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Pidgeon, Donald Crisp, Sara Allgood, Anna Lee, Barry Fitzgerald

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Total Oscars: 5 (Best Picture, Best Director—John Ford, Best Supporting Actor—Donald Crisp, Best Art Direction—B&W, Best Cinematography—B&W) out of 10 nominations (Best Supporting Actress—Sara Allgood, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Sound Recording)

NEXT BLOG: Mrs. Miniver

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