White Cliffs of Dover, The (1944): MGM Sentimental War Melodrama, Starring Irene Dunne

MGM’s wartime melodrama, The White Cliffs of Dover, was one of the ten most commercially popular films of 1944, largely due to its timely subject and patriotic-sentimental tone.

Based on the 1940 poem by Alice Duer Miller, the story chronicles the trials and tribulations of one courageous woman, beautifully played by Irene Dunne, as she lives through two major wars.

Multiple Oscar nominee (but never winner) Dunne plays Susan Ashwood, an American woman who falls in love with a titled Brit, Sir John Ashwood (Alan Marshal). After marrying him, she goes to live with his aristocratic family, headed by his strong mother (Gladys Cooper).

At the end of WWI, in 1918, when John is killed in the battlefield, the distraught but loyal wife vows to pull herself together for the sake of their boy.

Played by Roddy McDowall in his early scenes, Susan’s son grows up to be Peter Lawford. At the outbreak of WWII, Irene despairs at the thought of losing another loved one, but Lawford convinces her that his father would have wanted him to be patriotic.

While working as a Red Cross volunteer, the mother is forced to tend her own mortally wounded son. Unable to save his life, she is grief-stricken, but is gratified with the notion that both her husband and her son have died as heroes.

The film is smoothly directed by Clarence Brown from a screenplay by Claudine West, Jan Lustig and George Froeschel.  West and Froeschell had won the writing Oscar two years earlier for Mrs. Miniver, which may explain the similar ideas in both films.

The secondary cast of this prestige production includes Frank Morgan as Irene Dunne’s father, May Whitty as a nanny, June Lockhart as the grown girl (played by Elizabeth Taylor as a young one), C.Aubrey Smith, Van Johnson, and Jill Esmond.

There is one particularly touching scene between child actors and later friends, Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor, who plays the neighboring girl in love with McDowall.

Like many films of its era, White Cliffs of Dover struck a responsive chord with filmgoers, grossing over $4 million at the box-office.  Clearly, this was MGM’s flag-waving picture, trying to reprise the success of the 1942 Oscar winning Mrs. Miniver.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Cinematography (b/w): George Folsey

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The Oscar winner was Joseph LaShelle for Laura.

 

Cast 

Irene Dunne as Susan Ashwood

Alan Marshal as Sir John Ashwood

Roddy McDowall as John Ashwood II as a Boy

Frank Morgan as Hiram Porter Dunn

Van Johnson as Sam Bennett

Aubrey Smith as Colonel Walter Forsythe

Dame May Whitty as Nanny

Gladys Cooper as Lady Jean Ashwood

Peter Lawford as John Ashwood II as a Young Man

John Warburton as Reggie Ashwood

Jill Esmond as Rosamund

Brenda Forbes as Gwennie

Norma Varden as Mrs. Bland

Elizabeth Taylor as Betsy Kenney at Age 10

Ian Wolfe as Skipper of Honeymoon Boat

 

Running time: 126 Minutes