Mrs. Miniver (1942): Prestigious Propaganda

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon as Mr. and Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Part VI: The Fabulous Forties

Mr. and Mrs. Miniver (1942) opening banner

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.

Teresa Wright at Carol in Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Teresa Wright as Carol Miniver

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.

Viewing the wreckage of war in Mrs. Miniver (1942)

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.

Mrs. Miniver (1942) Verdict:  Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

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Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon as Mr. and Mrs. Miniver (1942)

The Good Life

#20 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can't Take It With You (1938)
James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can’t Take It With You
You Can't Take It With You (1938) opening banner

Frank Capra was on a roll.  Starting in 1934 with It Happened One Night, he won the Best Director Oscar in three out of the next five years.  In 1938, he won his third and final Oscar with the ensemble comedy You Can’t Take It With You.  He also began to cement his legacy as a director who perfected a tone in his films that celebrated the best parts of the American dream and gave audiences wholesome and upbeat films to take their minds off their Depression troubles.

Capra was still working under Harry Cohn at Columbia, turning out critical and commercial successes without the benefit of the huge budgets and roster of stars his competition enjoyed over at Paramount and MGM.  In You Can’t Take It With You, Capra managed this by pulling sparkling performances by both young and up-and-coming actors and old favorites.

You Can’t Take It With You started out as a 1936 play by George Kaufmann and Moss Hart.  Capra and writer Robert Riskin expanded the play for the screen.

The film’s initial setup is simple enough—ruthless, greedy banker Anthony Kirby is planning to buy up all the real estate around a competitor’s factory to prevent expansion and put his competition out of business.  It’s an underhanded plan, but it is spoiled by the one eccentric old man who refuses to sell his family home.

Lionel Barrymore plays Grandpa Vanderhof, the lone holdout and benevolent patriarch of the eccentric Vanderhof family, a group of misfits that eschew convention in favor of spending their days—and thus their lives—doing exactly as they choose.  This includes daughter Penny Sycamore writing bad plays all day just because someone once left a typewriter at their house, her husband setting off fireworks in the basement, and granddaughter Essie dancing ballet in the living room, despite her teacher’s continued assertions that, “Confidentially, she stinks!”

Kirby’s dilemma is simple, and unsolvable:  He is a man who throws money at every problem, and the Vanderhofs can’t be bought.

Grandpa Vanderhof refuses to sell for the simple reason that he doesn’t want to leave the home filled with happy memories, and his refusal to sell protects the rest of the neighborhood from being evicted from their homes.

This clash of ideas about what makes a good life—Kirby has more money than he could ever spend but lacks fulfilling relationships with his wife and son, and treats his employees like dirt, while Grandpa Vanderhof lacks wealth and status but has the love and respect of family and friends—is the heart of the film.

Lionel Barrymore as patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof in You Can't Take It With You (1938)
Lionel Barrymore as patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof

Capra thickens the plot, of course.  The life philosophies of two old men might be interesting, but a Hollywood film needs youth, beauty, and romance.

In his first starring role James Stewart plays Anthony’s son Tony, the reluctant vice president and heir apparent in his father’s company.  Jean Arthur, also in an early starring role, plays Grandpa Vanderhof’s loving and slightly less crazy granddaughter Alice, who is a stenographer at the Kirby’s bank.

Unbeknownst to both old men, Tony and Alice are in love. 

And we’re off.

There is an inevitable clash of cultures when the Kirbys and Vanderhofs meet, a plot twist where Grandpa Vanderhof nearly loses the house but is saved by the senior Kirby’s dawning realization that Grandpa Vanderhof is the richer man, surrounded by people who love and respect him.  And of course, Tony temporarily loses Alice.

Don’t worry, he gets her back again.

It’s amazing to me that this film was nominated for seven Oscars and won Best Picture and Best Director.  Not because I think it’s undeserving—it certainly is (and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Barrymore wouldn’t have been out of line)—but a picture like this wouldn’t even have been considered for a nomination today.  It’s a comedy with a message so pure and positive it borders on corny.

Its complete lack of cynicism would invalidate its legitimacy in the minds of today’s Oscar voters.  As a critique, it says more about the trend of the Oscars than it does about Capra’s film.

You Can’t Take It With You also serves as a changing of the guard in terms of Hollywood’s leading men.  Though he would act for fifteen more years, at sixty Lionel Barrymore’s best years and films are behind him.  He’s on crutches throughout the film, and this is explained by an accident, but the truth is in real life he was plagued by painful arthritis that would increasingly trouble him the rest of his life.

Barrymore is the heart of the film, and he gets all the best lines.  Yet he’s clearly passing the torch—however reluctantly—to James Stewart.  

Only three years into his nearly sixty year career, James Stewart is already oozing charisma and speaking in his inimitable stutter-step accent.  His wide-eyed Tony is head over heels in love with Alice and her crazy family.  Alice knows it is a bad idea to fall in love with someone whose family will never accept her, but really, what woman could resist Jimmy Stewart when he turns up the charm?

You Can’t Take It With You isn’t a perfect film.  It’s a little too long, and sometimes the antics of the Vanderhof family become irritating.

But honestly, let’s not quibble.  This is a movie made to distract you from your troubles.  You munch on popcorn while watching young people fall in love and old people coming around to the idea that love triumphs over money, and that the American Dream is alive and well.

What could be better than that?

Verdict for You Can't Take It With You (1938):  Film Buffs Only

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James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can't Take It With You (1938)

The Walls of Jericho

#19 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in pajamas on opposite sides of the blanket Wall of Jericho in It Happened On Night (1934)
It Happened One Night (1934) Opening Banner

In his unparalleled thirty-year career, Clark Gable starred in 66 films.

Though nominated three times, he won only one Best Actor Oscar.

Can you guess the film?

If you’re like most people, you are certain he won the Oscar for his legendary performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.

You’re wrong.

The King of Hollywood won his lone Oscar for a little film called It Happened One Night.

One of the first screwballs ever made, this little gem shows that the cream does indeed rise to the top.

Columbia started out as a B-movie studio on what was then un-affectionately called poverty row.  Unlike the Big Five, Columbia didn’t own any theaters, and they couldn’t afford to keep big stars on the payroll.  

Upstart director Frank Capra (who would eventually go on to make It’s A Wonderful Life) convinced the notoriously cheap,crude, and hard-nosed studio head Harry Cohn to get some A-list stars on loan to make a funny little escapist road trip that Capra was sure would cheer up Depression audiences.

It’s a simple setup—Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a spoiled rich heiress who runs off (again) when her father wants to annul her marriage to a gold digger.  To elude her father’s detectives, she hops on a bus and finds herself sitting next to Gable’s Peter Warne, a newspaper reporter who recognizes her and smells a great story.

He agrees to help her find her husband in exchange for an exclusive.  With no money and no street smarts, Ellie has no choice but to reluctantly agree. 

At one point, they are forced to spend the night in a one-room cabin, and Peter puts a blanket over a clothesline and pronounces it the Wall of Jericho to protect his—not her—modestly.  When Ellie at first refuses to cooperate, Peter begins slowly undressing until she is forced to retreat to her side of the wall.  He’s teasing her, but there’s no malice.  We know that while Peter would like to get to know Ellie in a more biblical manner, he’s a gentleman and no threat to her reputation.

From his side of the wall, Peter watches Ellie’s shadow as she undresses, and though the scene exists to circumvent production code rules, it’s a sexier moment than if they’d torn each other’s clothes off.

Capra and the code leave something to the imagination, to great effect.

Peter and Ellie learn to appreciate one another—Peter teaches Ellie how to properly dunk a donut, and she shows him a thing or two about successfully hitching a ride.

And when her father’s detectives show up, Peter and Ellie work together seamlessly as a team to throw them off the trail.  When they laugh at their success, both Ellie and the audience have forgotten all about her soon-to-be annulled marriage.

As their madcap adventure progresses, their initial disdain slowly melts into love.

We’ve seen this plot a hundred—no, a thousand times before.

But the audiences of 1934 had never seen anything like it, and romantic comedies writers have been ripping off It Happened One Night ever since.

Clark Gable didn’t want to make the film.  He was used to the posh comforts of MGM, and he was angry at Louis B. Mayer for loaning him out to Columbia.  His co-star Claudette Colbert also wasn’t much interested in the film.  She’d been planning a vacation and was forced to cut it short when Columbia met her asking price.

And to be honest, Harry Cohn himself didn’t expect much from the film.  It had no big advertising campaign, no thought of Academy Award nominations.

No one involved, it seemed, understood what a special movie they were making.

No one but the audience.

They loved it.  Its success came from word of mouth, and the good word spread like wildfire.  People saw it, then brought their friends and saw it again.  Its initial run went on and on, far longer than anyone could’ve predicted.

And when Oscar time rolled around, this little film that no one thought was anything special became the first film to win all five major awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay.)  In all of Oscar’s history, only two other films have completed that particular quinfecta.  The other two are from the modern era:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

It charmed audiences and critics, and if you give it a chance, it’ll charm you too.

Gable is in the type of role he was born to play—a charming rascal with a well-concealed heart of gold.  Colbert is perfect as the spoiled heiress with a lot more going on beneath the hood.  Their chemistry crackles as they practically burn up the screen with their bickering.

When I covered Possessed, I said it would be the first on a list of six essential films to understand why people still love old Hollywood films.

The second film on that list is It Happened One Night.

It’s the most charming screwball, a movie full of heart and laughs, and a great scene with Colbert and Gable in matching pajamas.

You can stream it for three bucks on Amazon.

Rent it tonight, and see for yourself what happens when the Walls of Jericho come tumbling down.

And learn how to properly dunk your donuts.

It Happened On Night (1934) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in pajamas on opposite sides of the blanket Wall of Jericho in It Happened On Night (1934)