Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mrs. Miniver: Life During Wartime

In watching the Best Picture Oscar winners, it is sometimes difficult to completely shed any preconceived notions I’ve had of certain films. I thought Wings would be a chore to get through because it is a silent film, when it turned out to be captivating and delightful. Before heading into Mrs. Miniver, all I had heard of the film was that it was a “women’s weepie”—a genre I do not usually rush to see—filled with melodrama and tragedy. I discovered that melodrama is only a small part of Mrs. Miniver. The film is, in fact, a skillfully made piece of propaganda—and I mean this in the most complimentary way—that was designed, in part, to provoke America into action.

As I explained out in my last post, I am using Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief as a basis for analysis for five successive 1940’s Best Picture winners. In 1941, the Oscar was awarded to How Green Was My Valley, a nostalgia driven drama. I argued that nostalgia was a form of denial, and the picture represented a country who would prefer to remember an idealized past instead of dealing with a complicated present. Mrs. Miniver is undoubtedly a propaganda film, the aim of which is to provoke an emotional response. I would say that any sort of provocation is an act of anger, and there was certainly anger motivating filmmaker William Wyler when he made Mrs. Miniver.

William Wyler was born Wilhelm Weiller in 1902 in the Alsace region of France, which at the time was part of Germany. His family was Jewish, and his mother was a relative of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle. In 1921, Wyler immigrated to America, where he worked in the New York offices of Universal. Wyler worked his way up through the ladder to become a successful director in Hollywood. In 1928, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States, and he became known as a director with relentless passion and perfectionism. He was notorious for demanding multiple takes from his actors, with often no reason aside from he did not think the performance was good enough or that he simply wanted to see it again. Despite his reputation, throughout his career Wyler’s films were magnets for critical acclaim. Actors and crew who have participated in his films garnered more Oscar nominations than any other director in film history. Wyler himself holds the record for the most nominations received for Best Director—at twelve—and won three times. Relentless perfectionism is what motivated Wyler as a director and a human being.

The United States entered World War II on December 7th, 1941, when the Japanese bombed the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. Europe was thrust into World War when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, though the continent had dealt with the rise of fascism for much of the 1930’s. Europeans were far quicker to realize the danger this threat presented to the globe. Americans preferred to have an isolationist policy in regards to the conflicts in Europe. Although the Germans and Italians declared war on the United States only four days after Pearl Harbor, U.S. military presence was not truly established until the end of 1942. Many of the filmmakers working in Hollywood were, like Wyler, immigrants who fled to the United States and became citizens. Wyler openly despised the Nazis, and fully admitted he made Mrs. Miniver to show that an isolationist policy would cause more harm than it prevented. The film is rooted in righteous indignation. Wyler was able to channel his anger into art.

Yet as the film begins in the summer of 1939, it is more concerned with the banalities of everyday life for the British upper middle class than it is with spurring a nation to war. Mrs. Fay Miniver—magnificently played by Greer Garson, the Meryl Streep of the 1940’s with five consecutive Best Actress nominations in the decade (she also received a nomination in 1939 and another in 1960)—is first seen in the film going on a shopping trip. She is well known in her neighborhood, and she buys a fancy hat. Mr. Clem Miniver (Walter Pidgeon, who would co-star with Garson in eight films), her architect husband, also makes an impetuous purchase—a new car. The Minivers return home to their two young children, Judy and Toby. After their kids are asleep, husband and wife question if they are spending their money unwisely, but they come to the conclusion that they are in a position to afford the little luxuries. I found it difficult to fully empathize with this family at the beginning of the film. After all, these are people who can afford cooks and servants and also have a private boat launch along the Thames.

Another subplot introduced early on in the film is an annual flower show, where for the past 30 years the top prize in the rose competition is always won by aristocratic Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty). Lady Beldon has some serious competition in the rose grown by Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers, best known for playing the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life). The stationmaster names his rose after Mrs. Miniver because he admires her beauty, and anyone who sees the flower agrees that not only is it aptly named, but it also has the best chance in years to unseat Lady Beldon from her domination of the rose competition. The day after the Minivers made their extravagant purchases, they meet their eldest son Vin (Richard Ney, whom Garson married after the film, and although he plays her son Ney was only eleven years younger than Garson), who is returning home from Oxford for the summer holiday. Kay, Vin and Clem all attend a dance later that evening, where Lady Beldon’s granddaughter, Carol (Teresa Wright), asks Kay to dissuade Mr. Ballard from entering his rose in the competition. Vin is quick to judge Carol as pompous, but Carol ends up being rather well grounded. Vin, in contrast, is the arrogant one, having returned to the village from Oxford with a know-it-all-attitude. However, Vin and Carol do recognize a mutual attraction, and they soon fall in love.

For the first half of the film, Wyler creates a world of banalities. Shopping trips, flower competitions, young love—these are hardly the subjects of a wartime propaganda film. As the film plays out, these details become crucial in establishing the world the characters live in. The audience has the foreknowledge that this perfect world will soon be thrust into chaos, and drama is created by seeing how these people will react in the story. Soon enough, news of the Hitler’s invasion of Poland reaches Britain. Later, at Sunday services, the sermon of the vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) is interrupted by the news that England is now officially at war with Germany. Vin decides to join the RAF. The villagers are encouraged to make preparations to defend themselves against air raids. Some, like Lady Beldon, don’t take these warnings seriously, but soon enough, all the homes have bomb shelters, emergency kits, and evacuation plans. Despite the chaos of the war looming, Vin does propose to Carol, and everyone tries to live as normally as possible.

The night of Vin’s proposal to Carol, he is summoned back to his airbase. Because the Minivers own a boat, Clem—along with thousands of other Britons who own private vessels—is ordered to help with the evacuation of British soldiers in Dunkirk, France. Rumors abound of a German soldier who parachuted out of his plane and landed in the village. Sure enough, Kay—alone in her home—is approached by the injured German. He holds her at gunpoint in her own kitchen, demanding to be fed. His injuries catch up to him and Kay is able to subdue the soldier and confiscate his revolver. As the police come to take him away, the German soldier rants about how England will fall to the might of Germany, just as Poland and Holland did. Kay responds by slapping him. Thereafter, Clem returns from Dunkirk and the family learns that Vin is also safe. When Vin returns home, Kay secures Lady Beldon’s approval for Vin and Carol’s marriage and the do so.

While the young couple are away for their honeymoon, the stage is set for the most harrowing and effective sequence in Mrs. Miniver. Air raid horns have sounded and the Miniver family is spending the night in their bomb shelter. It is hardly larger than a tool shed, and one gets the impression that if the shelter were to take a direct hit, everyone inside would perish. More than anything, Kay and Clem want to preserve a sense of normalcy for their youngest children, Toby and Judy. As the children are put to bed, Kay knits and Clem reads a passage from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland pertaining to the joys of childhood. The passage lulls the children to sleep, and Kay then wonders if Carroll would have ever figured that his novel would become so beloved decades after it was written. I found this to be tremendously effective, because at their core, despite their many blessings, Kay and Clem are simply two people reading a bedtime story to their children and marveling over its enchanting power. What parent hasn’t wondered this?

It is at that point that the bombing intensifies. At first, Kay and Clem do their best to ignore the buzzing of planes flying overhead and the cacophony of the explosions, but the shelter becomes shaken and the children awaken frightened. The power in the bomb shelter is soon cut off, and the family huddles together, desperately clinging to one another, knowing full well that the only chance they have to make it through the night is to pray that a bomb does fall anywhere near them. Random luck will determine if the family survives; they have no choice but to hold one another. Wyler films the entire bomb shelter sequence in one incredible take, and the sound effects really hold center stage and seem to shake the frame apart. When the family is clinging together only the whites of Garson’s eyes illuminate the screen. It is the most desperate moment for the family in the film, and Wyler does an incredibly effective job of placing them alone, in the dark, with utter chaos enveloping them.

I was not prepared for the visceral reaction I had to watching the bombing sequence. I watched the film late at night, in my darkened living room, while my wife and daughter slept. The power of the scene shook me to tears. I think because now that I am both a husband and father, it was easy for me to feel as vulnerable as Kay and Clem Miniver. I have no doubt that audiences in 1942 felt the same, and we have the brilliance of William Wyler, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon to thank for it (not to mention the two fine young actors playing Toby and Judy). With the bomb shelter sequence, Wyler succeeds in placing his audience inside the film, and the emotions the characters experience become our own.

Despite that harrowing sequence, the final act of the film does find time for levity. The flower competition gathers the entire village together, and the climax of the show pits Mr. Ballard’s Mrs. Miniver rose against Lady Beldon’s championship flower. The judges, each terrified of Lady Beldon and the power she wields in the community, have again awarded the top prize to her. Kay convinces Lady Beldon that the judges are only choosing her rose because of her status, not because her rose is indeed better. Lady Beldon announces that the Mrs. Miniver rose has won the top prize, and an extraordinarily humbled Mr. Ballard tearfully accepts. With his victory, the entire village finds cause to celebrate, but it is short-lived, as the air raid sirens have again sounded. On the way home, Kay and Carol are driving together when a plane falls from the sky. It glances off the car and fatally wounds Carol.
The final scene in the film has the entire community attending service in their bombarded and hollowed out church. The vicar delivers a memorable and stirring speech that I will reprint in its entirety:

“We, in this quiet corner of England, have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us—some close to this church: George West, choir boy; James Ballard, station master and bell ringer and a proud winner, only one hour before his death, of the Belding Cup for his beautiful Miniver rose; and our hearts go out in sympathy to the two families who share the cruel loss of a young girl who was married at this altar only two weeks ago. The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There is scarcely a household that hasn't been struck to the heart. And why? Surely you must have asked yourself this question. Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness. Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed? I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is a war of the people, of all the people, and it must be fought not only on the battlefield, but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home, and in the heart of every man, woman, and child who loves freedom! Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves and those who come after us from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down. 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 congregation then rises to sing, “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and a formation of RAF planes can be seen flying in a V formation through the bombed-out hole in the roof of the church. Propaganda? Certainly, and so highly effective that Winston Churchill declared the film did more for the war effort than a “flotilla of destroyers”. President Franklin D. Roosevelt incorporated the vicar’s sermon into leaflets about morale building and was translated into many languages and dropped over enemy lines. The public was also captivated by the film. Mrs. Miniver became the highest grossing picture for MGM, it was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was easily the highest grossing picture of 1942. The American magazine Film Daily polled 592 critics as to the best film of 1942, and 555 named Mrs. Miniver. By November of that year, the United States was wholly involved with on the European front of WWII.

One of the main criticisms Mrs. Miniver has faced is that its propaganda is too slick; that the film exists solely for purposes of manipulation. My response is to say film is manipulation. We enter a dark auditorium with the purpose of allowing a story to carry us away. Audiences yearn to feel emotional. We want to laugh. We want to cry. We want to be inspired. Wyler—who made Mrs. Miniver fully intent as a way to funnel his anger at America’s isolationist policy into the viewing audience—made a film that slowly sneaks up on its viewers, drawing them into an England concerned with dance parties, flower shows and above all keeping up appearances. When each of these comforts are taken away, Mrs. Miniver shows us characters that react with dignity, pride, and grace while also leaving them with a call to arms, that the true battles and tests of character were yet to come.

Sixty-eight years later, a lone viewer in a small apartment—one fully aware of the outcome of history—was also manipulated. The potency of the propaganda within Mrs. Miniver has not waned. The genius of Wyler’s direction and the artistry of the acting (the film was the first for receive five acting nominations, one in each category)—especially from the magnificent Greer Garson—will keep the fires contained within the film well stoked.


Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Director: William Wyler

Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Dame May Whitty, Henry Travers, Richard Ney, Henry Wilcoxon

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Total Oscars: 6 (Best Picture; Best Director—William Wyler; Best Actress—Greer Garson (*an interesting sidebar: Garson’s acceptance speech was the longest in the history of the Oscar ceremony, clocking in at over 5½ minutes); Best Supporting Actress—Teresa Wright; Best Adapted Screenplay—George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West, and Arthur Wimperis; Best Cinematography, B&W) out of 12 nominations (Best Actor—Walter Pidgeon, Best Supporting Actor—Henry Travers, Best Supporting Actress—Dame May Whitty, Best Editing, Best Sound Recording, Best Special Effects)

NEXT: Casablanca

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