Monday, September 12, 2016

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Daryl Zanuck, 20th Century’s Fox’s founder, was on fire in 1941. Coming off the colossal success of the previous year’s The Grapes of Wrath, which he produced, he next turned to a beloved book about Welsh coal miners. How Green Was My Valley was Fox’s first Best-Picture win (Cavalcade was technically a 20th Century film), but ironically it’s for that reason that a lot of film snobs (and I was one, back in the day) look down in it. You see, 1941 was also the year a little film called Citizen Kane was nominated, which is generally regarded as the greatest film of all time. So how could any film ever be considered better than the greatest?

But it’s unfair to penalize Valley for that, because even though it’s not as great as Kane (and what film is?), it’s still pretty great. And even better, and to my delight, it holds up pretty well. Sure, it falls prey to the overripe, theatricalized acting style common in mainstream cinema until Brando, but it also features pitch-perfect, verisimilitude-adding Welsch accents that lend an earthy authenticity. Add to that a perfect blend of message and melodrama, along with John Ford’s understated (for its time) direction and some stark yet beautiful black and white cinematography, and you’ve got a film for the ages, if modern audiences would just find the initiative to see the darned thing.

A Welschman named Huw narrates his memories of growing up in Wales in the late 19 century. The youngest member of a large brood, of which all the male members, including the father, work at the local coal mine, he enjoys the day to day life of a typical boy. Family dinners are moments to share the day’s events, the men drop their pay off to the mother, who buys the groceries, and the singing of Welch hymns gets them through the rough patches.

But when the mine owner cuts everybody’s salaries, it precipitates a chain reaction of events that leads to the family’s, and town’s, downfall. The workers rally to form a union for protection, but it winds up turning the sons against their father. They strike, but not everyone returns to work as a result, and the now unemployed sons opt for a better life in America. Huw and the family matriarch nearly die in a frigid lake; the boy nearly loses his legs, only managing to walk after months of convalescence. And a mining disaster takes the life of the father, despite the heroic efforts of his son and a few of the locals – the final straw in the slow, coal dust-poisoned decay of a town that was once as green as the valley which nestled it.

But throughout it all, a decent upstanding pastor named Gruffydd (Pidgeon) stands as the moral center, nurturing the boy through his hardships and lending out his sage council to whoever may require it. That includes not simply the boy but his brother’s wife, who is abruptly widowed after a mine accident. And it also includes Anghard (Maureen O’Hara), the family’s only daughter, a beautiful young women who clearly has his eyes on the dashing clergyman. Meant to be? Hardly – he couldn’t bear the thought of subjecting her to an acetic life of poverty, despite requiting her feelings entirely. She winds up marrying the stuffy, pompous son of the mine owner, and her unhappiness is all but assured. The local tongues start gossiping of divorce, and Gruffydd is implicated, despite the absence of any kind of proof for the accusations. Before the holy man hightails it out of town, he gives his hypocritical deacons a tongue-lashing and calls it a day.

There’s much to admire her, but I’d like to revisit my observation that the message is so front and center. That’s easy to take for granted: so many studio efforts from the era either shied away from serious themes or buried them behind haloed movie stars kissing to the swells of pumped up film scores. But Valley took care to underscore its attitudes toward labor and socialism (gasp!), which might be residual from Ford and Zanuck’s previous preaching in The Grapes of Wrath. In any case, it heightens the film’s import, and abets its timelessness. Isn’t the oppresson of the working class still an issue we wrangle with to his day.

And speaking of undying issues, how ‘bout that love story – that achingly unfulfilled love story that made many a late-show viewer an emotional wreck? O’Hara is marvelously luminous in her role – a spunky yet vulnerable woman yearning for emotional freedom yet subject to the societal strictures that bind her to a man she has no interest in whatsoever. Pidgeon is her equal, a resoundingly honest man, sort of an Atticus Finch before his time. Rarely do you get such a mix of romance and tract all in one film – Reds is the only other film that comes to mind – but when you do… fireworks.

And binding it all up is the fact that this is a memoir, which provides the overriding tone of nostalgia. The narration, somewhat reminiscent of Earl Hamner’s in The Waltons, not only provides warmth and dramatic irony but helps diffuse some of the more over-dramatic moments in the film. (Given the litany of tragedies which befall his poor family, we sure need it!) Roddy McDowell, in his first film role, is terrific in the role of Huw. He could so easily have played him with all the cloying precociousness of a typical child actor, but he doesn’t. His expressions – wide eyes and all – do most of the performing, and for that he avoids the pitfalls that limit most juvenile acting, then and now.

Only quibble: the father’s death at the end feels sort of like a tack-on, either out of place or out of sequence. Gruffydd is leaving; what does one more tragedy have to offer except interrupting his walk into the sunset? Perhaps he gets one more glimpse of unrequited love at Anghard. Don’t know but it doesn’t quite offer the closure that would make the film a flawless home-run.

But whom am I to say? The film is a bona fide classic, and it deserves that status in every frame. 

 Rating:  ****

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