Part VI: The Fabulous Forties
It is with some regret that we leave the great films of 1939. However, we are entering the 1940’s, the best decade in Hollywood history. The movies of the 1940’s radiated the glamour most often associated with Old Hollywood.
Unlike the quick transition from silent films to talkies, color films moved into the mainstream at a turtle’s pace. Despite wowing the public with technicolor in 1939 with The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, black and white was still the default for most movies made in the 1940’s. Color did not become a standard feature until the early 1950’s.
Actors and directors gained more independence from the studios, and the studios began making fewer, better films. In 1946, more Americans went to the movie theater than any other year in film history.
In Part VI of this blog, we’ll take a romp through some of the best known and most loved films of this decade, as well as hopefully discovering some hidden gems that are less known to the casual viewer.
The films made in the 1940’s were defined by World War II—as both distraction and propaganda. The Office of War Information collaborated with Hollywood to make films that focused on the war effort and the importance of defeating the Axis powers and celebrating American contributions on the homefront and the battlefield. And the disillusionment after the war led to film noir, a dark genre that highlighted the cynical and predatory nature of man.
In the crowded field of mediocre propaganda films, Mrs. Miniver stood out.
Director William Wyler already had a reputation for prestige pictures—when he started Mrs. Miniver, he’d made six films that had been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, including Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, and The Little Foxes. He’d go on to garner 7 more nominations (including some wins) post Mrs. Miniver.
Wyler had a way of getting the best out of his actresses—Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Audrey Hepburn, and Barbara Streisand would all win best actress Oscars starring in William Wyler films.
So too would Greer Garson, for her titular role in Mrs. Miniver.
When Wyler started the film, the United States was neutral, but by the time it was released in 1942, Roosevelt had declared war.
Mrs. Miniver tells the story of an ordinary British family who “keeps calm and carries on” in the midst of the Blitz. Mrs. Miniver moves—as do many of Wyler’s films—at a leisurely pace. The war does not immediately come to Belham, their fictional village outside London. Mrs. Miniver indulges herself by buying an expensive hat while her husband Clem does the same with a car. Their son Vin meets and falls in love with Carol. There’s a subplot about a competition of who can grow the most beautiful rose in the village.
Yet during it all the threat of war looms, and soon enough it is upon the Minivers, who do their duty with courage and honor. Vin joins the Royal Air Force, Clem stocks their bomb shelter and hangs blackout curtains, and Mrs. Miniver successfully disarms a German soldier who breaks into her home.
You can’t help but watch the film with a sense of foreboding—it is clear that this film is meant to show the courage and sacrifice of Kay Miniver and her family, and you know that someone she loves is going to die. Will it be Vin, shot down in the line of duty? Or Clem, who has taken his fishing boat to help evacuate the soldiers at Dunkirk?
But when the death comes, it is an unexpected gut punch. Mrs. Miniver and Carol, now Vin’s beautiful young wife, are driving home from the rose festival when a German fighter plane goes down and crashes in a field in front of them.
It takes a moment for the horror to hit Mrs. Miniver and the audience—Carol has been hit by a stray bullet.
She is no soldier. She was not intentionally targeted by the Germans. She has her whole life ahead of her.
Yet she is the Miniver who will not survive the war.
The film does not end on this note of senseless tragedy, but with renewed purpose and hope. A preacher gives a rousing speech telling his congregants that they must all fight the war. They must persevere in the name of freedom and to defend their way of life.
We in this quiet corner of England have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us, some close to this church. George West, choirboy. James Ballard, stationmaster and bellringer, and the proud winner only an hour before his death of the Beldon 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’s scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart. And why? Surely, you must have asked yourselves 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 the 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.
President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill used this speech to inspire Americans and Brits. It was played over the radio, printed in magazines and in leaflets dropped on German-occupied countries.
Winston Churchill said it was “propaganda worth 100 battleships.”
It was a huge commercial success and a top box office draw in 1942. It was nominated for 12 Oscars and won six, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for Greer Garson.
Wyler was not there to receive his Oscar in person; he’d joined the Air Force and was in Europe filming combat missions for war documentaries.
I don’t think contemporary audiences can truly appreciate the impact Mrs. Miniver must have had on American moviegoers in 1942. We’ve been stuffed to the gills with World War II movies, everything from Patton to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan. Few subjects have been covered as thoroughly on film. We’ve seen the homefront, the gory horror, and the atrocities committed in concentration camps.
Against all the guts, gore, and angst, Mrs. Miniver feels quaint. Her encounter with the German soldier, while riveting in its day, is not violent enough for our bloodthirsty modern sensibilities.
But at the time, this was the first film that most people saw explicitly about the war.
More importantly, we know how the story ends. Britain triumphed; so did America.
But the audiences in 1942 didn’t know that either would. Pearl Harbor was fresh; many were predicting imminent British defeat.
The fight for our way of life was in full force; and all anyone knew was that many more would die before victory or defeat was determined.
That final sermon probably made their hair stand on end.
When I give this film a verdict of “Had Its Day, But That Day Is Done,” it is an acknowledgement of the gap between the 1942 and 2020 audiences that can never be bridged.
The beauty of watching these old films is how relevant they sometimes are to the modern world, or how universal the stories. Or that the emotional impact is similar, despite all the years between us and the original viewers. A film like Gone With the Wind gets under my skin in the same way it did audiences in 1939. Those people didn’t experience the Civil War either.
But Mrs. Miniver is locked to a moment in time that audiences felt in their bones in a way that I can never access.
Like watching Garbo speak for the first time in Anna Christie, or the beast menacing Fay Wray in King Kong, I guess you had to be there.