Mrs. Miniver (1942)

1942’s Best Picture winner, Mrs. Miniver, tells a heartfelt story of an English family effected deeply by WWII. From blackout drills to avoid German bombs to participating in the civilian rescue at Dunkirk, Mrs. Miniver is fine-tuned William Wyler film.

Greer Garson, in her Oscar-winning turn as Kay Miniver, is the mother to three children in the fictional English village of Belham. The oldest, Vin, has a bit of a chip on his shoulder, to say the least, about all things– British class strife, his intellect, and the fallibilty of fellow townspeople. To that end, when war is officially declared, Vin enlists in the Air Force, confident in his duties.

What ensues is a powerful look at the daily devastation and stress the community feels. Watching the film again, during a “shelter in place” order caused by the COVID-19 pandemic makes the events in Mrs. Miniver feel a bit familiar. While hunkered down in their bomb shelter, the Miniver’s youngest asks “Is the war over?” when the commotion stops. A month of self-quaratining makes a person ask, “Is it over?” Seeing the Minivers live amidst the rubble and wounds to their home after a night of severe bombing makes one’s issues with wearing a mask in public seem trivial. Unfortunately, one common denominator between both situations is that the Minivers and the world at this moment are all trying to survive, desperate not to die.

In the film’s incredibly moving end, Belham’s residents come together to attend church, albeit in a nearly destroyed house of worship. As the camera turns to the altar, revealing the air and sky above, the audience understands the sacrifice and strength of this fictional family and all of the families, for which World War II was no imaginative tale.

Mrs. Miniver (1942) 134 minutes. Dir. William Wyler. Starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Henry Travers.

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How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Much like the previous year’s winner, it’s hard to believe that John Ford only had one film in his storied career win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  The distinction goes, not to one of his classic westerns, but to a heartfelt story of family and home How Green Was My Valley.  And what a year it was for this film to win!  It beat out the always-lauded Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon.  I can’t say that it’s altogether undeserving because we grow to love the Morgan family and that’s not a bad thing, I think.  Nonetheless, How Green Was My Valley (HGWMV) is a testament to Ford’s sense of storytelling– earnest and true.

The film follows the lives of the Morgan family, as remembered by the youngest Morgan, Huw.  Led by a young Roddy McDowall, the youngest Morgan boy narrates the struggles and triumphs of the coal-mining Morgan family in Wales.  The men of the house all work in the mines, despite poor wages and conditions on behalf of the mine owners.  Patriarch Mr. Morgan serves as a foreman with some of the tiniest bits of power a non-owner can have.  When his eldest sons decide to go on strike, the elder Morgan receives push-back from other miners when he continues to go to work.  After a year without a job, the eldest boys travel to America, hoping to find a better way of life.  Upon their departure, Huw attempts to carry his weight by working for pennies a day in the same mines.  Whether it’s the ill-fated marriage of daughter Angharad, the lost childhood of Huw, or the deaths that befall the men of the village, How Green Was My Valley focusses on the love and bounty of family, instead of the hardships that seem to plague the Morgan family.

The one glaring issue I have with the film is that it’s in black and white.  Maybe it’s because of the color in the title.  Maybe it’s because of scenes like the one above, where Huw, trying to recover from a serious illness climbs the Irish hills near his home.  The lushness of the green grass, trees, and yellow daffodils yearns to be captured in color… or so I think.  I can understand that the drabness of a Welsh coal-mining village may not have warranted such expenditures by Twentieth-Century Fox, in 1941, so I’ll merely imagine the overpowering beauty we miss out on.

How Green Was My Valley (1941) 118 minutes. Dir. John Ford. Starring Roddy McDowall, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Pidgeon, Sara Allgood.

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Rebecca (1940)

It seems inconceivable that the great Alfred Hitchcock only earned one Academy Award for Best Director and only one film named Best Picture.  That’s the reality, however and Rebecca is as fine a film as any for such a deserving distinction.  With one of the most memorable characters on film, Mrs. Danvers, Hitchcock’s thriller with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, in an Oscar-winning performance, holds up as a fascinating entre into the tales of love and death, past and present.

While on vacation on the Côte d’Azure, Maxim DeWinter meets the companion of an elderly, wealthy American named Mrs. Van Hooper.  As is usually the case in these ‘rich and poor’ love stories, we know that the wealthy DeWinter will surely fall in love with the simple woman beholden to Van Hooper, who’s brought the young woman to such an enclave of wealth and influence.

He does.

Maxim and his new wife return to Mandalay, his family home, and Mrs. DeWinter quickly sees, hears, and feels the presence of his deceased wife Rebecca, all around the estate.  When she explores her library, she sees monogrammed stationary with RDW beautifully embossed on the paper.  In her bedroom, she find a lovely embroidered pillowcase with the same RDW initials.  In fact, the viewer never learns Joan Fontaine’s character’s name.  She is only referred to as Mrs. DeWinter.  Even when working for Mrs. Van Hopper, she’s never spoken to by name.  It is as if she is void of any personality, any humanity until she is married.  And even then, she is a wife.  She never has her own identity like Rebecca did and seemingly still does.

In this nameless existence, Mrs. DeWinter finds herself constantly compared to Rebecca by her personal maid, Mrs. Danvers.  Judith Anderson creates one of cinema’s most compelling and chilling characters as the stilted, cold woman who once fiercely loved Rebecca and, arguably, still does.  This tension between Mrs. Danvers’s loyalty to Rebecca and her new duty to Mrs. DeWinter leads to a crisis between husband and wife, similar to the tension between Maxim and Rebecca that ultimately led to the end of their marriage.   Although a slower burn than other films like Psycho and North by Northwest, Rebecca is a classic Hitchcock film– full of intrigue, oddities, fine performances, and (of course) expert direction.

Rebecca (1940) 130 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, George Sanders.


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Gone with the Wind (1939)

Avengers: Endgame became the top-grossing film of all-time this summer. However, if adjusted for current inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind would still be at the top of the list. Depending upon who you ask, Gone with the Wind (GwtW) is either one of the best American films of all-time or one of the worst. Those proclaiming it one of the worst, point to the derogatory, racist language and caricature portrayals of slaves like Mammy and Prissy. Despite proclamations that GwtW is racist, it is not. (And not just because racism is a human trait and a film is not a person.)

GwtW, a highly anticipated film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel of the same name, was the first color film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The MGM Technicolor matched with the sweeping narrative of Civil War Atlanta makes for a grand spectacle that still sweeps audiences up in the romance of Rhett and Scarlett, 80 years later. From Victor Fleming’s expert direction to the Oscar-winning performances by Leigh and McDaniel, GwtW proves that albeit a document of a difficult time in our nation’s history, its representation of the time is appropriate and compelling.

It’s difficult to write about a film so entrenched in our cultural milieu. Like it’s fellow 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, how do you describe something so well known? Do I quote here Rhett’s famous “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” or Scarlett’s “Fiddly dee”? Prissy’s meltdown during Melanie’s childbirth? The inexplicable love Scarlett has for Ashley? Perhaps, this is more indicative of my appreciation for the film and the numerous times I’ve seen it. Instead, I believe it’s firm place in our culture is because of its quality, not its shortcomings.

Gone with the Wind (1939) 220 minutes. Directed by Victor Fleming. Starring Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland.

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You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

*After a hiatus, Oscar-winning films are back.

In the early days of the Academy, it seems as if the voting members weren’t quite sure what they thought movies were supposed to look like, sound like, and feel like in the new sound era.  For years, the industry had solidified and polished the artistry of filmmaking, albeit without sound.  Looking forward, from 1938 on, it seems as if the industry started to hit their stride.  With Frank Capra’s second Best Picture winner, You Can’t Take It With You, the Classical Hollywood tradition is well underway.  You Can’t Take It With You combines all the charm of It Happened One Night with the sincerity of Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, further proving Capra as one of Hollywood’s greatest auteurs.

In this latest of Capra’s effort, Jean Arthur’s Alice Sycamore is in love with Tony Kirby, son of the wealthy entrepreneur Anthony P. Kirby.  The elder Kirby is anxiously waiting for one final house to sell so that he and his business partners can build a multi-block, state-of-the-art factory in the middle of the city.  There’s one hiccup– the home of the Sycamore family/compound/community is the last piece of property needed for the Kirby building to move forward.  It’s against this backdrop that You Can’t Take It With You flourishes as a comedy/drama for the ages.

In this battle of bank accounts and values, the Sycamore family clearly wins with their dancing granddaughter, novelist daughter, firecracker-making father, tax-evading grandfather, xylophone-playing fiancé, and a couple of random gentlemen who came to visit and just never left.  It’s apparent that when the Kirby family arrives for dinner that the eccentric Sycamores will cause the effete Kirby much stress and embarrassment.  Mrs. Kirby, in particular, fulfills her role as the difficult, potential mother-in-law.  By the film’s end, the refrain of Capra’s Clarence the Angel rings clear, Kirby can’t take his money with him.  His only riches are those of the friends around him.

You Can’t Take It With You (1938) 126 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Starring Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold.

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