Oscar: Best Picture–How Green Was My Valley (1941)

how_green_was_my_valley_5Like the previous Oscar-winning family drama “Cavalcade,” John Ford’s 1941 “How Green Was My Valley” was a smash-hit at the box-office even before earning its Oscar nominations.

Unlike “Cavalcade,” however, Ford’s film was superior in every respect, celebrating what the N.Y. Times critic Bosley Crowther described as “the majesty of plain people,” and “the beauty which shines in the souls of simple, honest folk.”

how_green_was_my_valley_4Indeed, “How Green Was My Valley” reaffirmed Ford’s populist ideology, propagated the year before in another Oscar-nominated family saga, “The Grapes of Wrath,” starring Henry Fonda. Nonetheless, “How Green” was not associated with the anger and leftist politics of John Steinbeck, the author’s book, upon which “Grapes of Wrath” was based.

how_green_was_my_valley_3Based on Richard Llewellyn’s novel, adapted to the screen by Philip Dunne, “How Green” tells the story of a Welsh mining family, narrated by its youngest son, Huw Morgan (child actor Roddy McDowall).

Ford’s idealized view of the past is seen through the memory of the boy, surrounded as he is by a large, loving family. As in other films, Ford draws parallels between the breakdown of the Morgan family and that of the surrounding community, and by implication America society at large.

Detailed Plot:

The film opens with a monologue by an older Huw Morgan (Irving Pichel): “I am packing my belongings in the shawl my mother used to wear when she went to the market. And I’m going from my valley. And this time, I shall never return.” The valley and its villages are now blackened by the coal mines that fill the area.

The story then uts to the Huw (Roddy McDowall) as a boy, the youngest child of Gwilym Morgan (Donald Crisp), walks home with his father to meet his mother, Beth (Sara Allgood). His older brothers, Ianto (John Loder), Ivor (Patric Knowles), Davy (Richard Fraser), Gwilym Jr and Owen all work in the coal mines with their father, while sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) keeps house with their mother.

Huw’s childhood is idyllic, the town is beautiful and the household is warm and loving. Huw is smitten when he meets Bronwyn (Anna Lee), a girl engaged to be married to his oldest brother, Ivor (Patric Knowles). At the boisterous wedding party Angharad meets the new preacher, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), and there is an obvious mutual attraction.

Trouble comes when the mine owner lowers the wages, and the miners strike in protest. Gwilym’s attempt to mediate by not supporting a strike estranges him from the other miners as well as his older sons, who leave the house. Beth interrupts a late night meeting of the strikers, threatening to kill anyone who harms her husband. While returning home, crossing the fields in a snowstorm in the dark, Beth falls into the river. Huw dives in to save her with the help of the townspeople, and temporarily loses the use of his legs. He recovers with the help of Mr Gruffydd, further endearing him to Angharad.

The strike is settled, and Gwilym and his sons reconcile. Yet many miners have lost their jobs and the town is poorer. Angharad is courted by the mine owner’s son Iestyn Evans, though her heart is set on Mr Gruffydd. Mr Gruffydd loves her too, to the malicious delight of the gossipy townswomen, but cannot bear to subject her to an impoverished churchman’s life. Angharad submits to a loveless marriage to Evans, and they move out of the country.

Huw begins school at a nearby village. Mercilessly picked on by the other boys, he is taught to fight by boxer Dai Bando (Rhys Williams) and his crony, Cyfartha (Barry Fitzgerald). After a beating by the cruel teacher Mr Jonas (Morton Lowry), Dai Bando avenges Huw with an impromptu boxing display on Mr. Jonas to the delight of his pupils.

When Bronwyn (Anna Lee) gives birth to their child, Ivor is killed in a mine accident. Later, the four Morgan sons are fired in favor of less experienced, cheaper laborers. With no job prospects, they leave to seek their fortunes abroad. Huw is awarded a scholarship to university, but to his father’s dismay he declines it to work in the mines. He moves in with Bronwyn to help provide for her and her child.

When Angharad returns without her husband, vicious gossip spreads through the town of an impending divorce and where her true affections lie. Mr Gruffydd is denounced by the church deacons, and after delivering a stinging condemnation of the town’s small-mindedness, he leaves.

The alarm whistle sounds, signaling another mine disaster. Several men are injured, and Gwilym and others are trapped.  Young Huw, Mr Gruffydd, and Dai Bando descend with others in a rescue attempt. Gwilym and his son are briefly re-united before he succumbs to his injuries. Huw rides the lift to the surface cradling his father’s body, his coal-blackened face devoid of youthful innocence.

Narration by an older Huw recalls, “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.” The film ends with a montage of touching family vignettes showing Huw with his father and mother, his brothers and sister.

William Wyler, the original director, saw the screen test of McDowall and chose him for the part. Wyler was replaced by John Ford. Fox wanted to shoot the movie in Wales in Technicolor, but events in Europe during World War II made this impossible. Instead, Ford built a replica of the mining town at the nearly 3,000-acre Fox Ranch in Malibu Canyon.

“How Green” is one of Ford’s most beautiful, if sentimental, pictures. The critic Andrew Sarris has described the movie as an elegiac poem, and for many it was. The film’s portrayal of the disintegration of a mining community is of epic and heroic dimensions.

Nominated for ten Oscars, the film won five, honoring Ford’s Direction, Arthur Miller’s Cinematography and Art direction. Sara Allgood was nominated for Supporting Actress, as the gentle but strong mother, Beth Morgan, and Donald Crisp won the Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Mr. Morgan, the stern patriarch who is later killed in the mine.

Not to be underestimated is the fact that “How Green” film was selected by the Academy voters while the U.S. had already been involved in the War. The film’s warmly sympathetic depiction of family unity must have hit deep chords in the country’s collective consciousness, which may explain, at least in part, why its two major competitors, Orson Welles’s masterpiece, “Citizen Kane” and William Wyler’s “The Little Foxes,” each with nine nominations, were the losers. Both films, and particularly “Little Foxes,” represented dark and somber visions of the American family. Once again, the “right” contents and ideological approach made the difference, though it is noteworthy that “How Green” was as visually distinguished, as it was thematically acceptable.

After winning the 1941 Oscars, Fox’s Darryl Zanuck told his colleagues: “When I think of what I got away with, and won the Academy Award with the picture, it is really astonishing. Not only did we drop five or six characters, we eliminated the most controversial element in the book, which was the labor-and-capital battle in connection with the strike.”

Indeed, there was nothing really divisive or particularly agitating and provocative about this well made, enjoyable film, which focuses on the family as a scared institution.

Cast

Walter Pidgeon – Mr. Gruffydd
Donald Crisp – Gwilym Morgan
Maureen O’Hara – Angharad Morgan
Anna Lee – Bronwyn, Ivor’s wife
Roddy McDowall – Huw Morgan
John Loder – Ianto Morgan
Sara Allgood – Mrs. Beth Morgan
Barry Fitzgerald – Cyfartha
Patric Knowles – Ivor Morgan
Morton Lowry – Mr. Jonas
Arthur Shields – Mr. Parry
Ann E. Todd – Ceinwen
Frederick Worlock – Dr. Richards
Richard Fraser – Davy Morgan
Evan S. Evans – Gwilym Morgan
James Monks – Owen Morgan
Rhys Williams – Dai Bando
Lionel Pape – Evans
Ethel Griffies – Mrs. Nicholas
Marten Lamont – Iestyn Evans
Irving Pichel – adult Huw Morgan (the unseen narrator)