Come and Get It (1936):  Bad Adaptation, Great Film

Frances Farmer and Edward Arnold around the gambling table in Come and Get It (1936)
Come and Get It 1936 Opening Banner

Sandwiched between Cimarron and Saratoga Trunk, Edna Ferber wrote Come and Get It, a novel criticizing the American logging industry of the 1880’s and detailing what she called “the rape of America.”

By this Ferber meant the non-sustainable practices of cutting down trees without replanting, polluting rivers and streams, and using barely legal tactics to scoop up huge tracts of land.  (The same illegal tactics the robber barons used to steal the farm of Clint Maroon’s parents in Saratoga Trunk.) 

Thus, the provocative Come and Get It title refers to the trees—and the wealth—there for the taking in the lush and seemingly endless American forests.

Ferber sold the film rights to producer Samuel Goldwyn, extracting a promise that he would make a prestigious “issue” film that got to the heart of her story. 

Goldwyn had every intention of honoring this promise, until fate—and Howard Hawks—intervened.

Goldwyn assigned Hawks—never known for “issue” films—to direct Come and Get It, with the plan to keep a close eye and tight leash on the independent director who had a habit of bending source material to his version of the story.

During the filming of Come and Get It, Goldwyn was hospitalized due to problems with both his gall bladder and appendix.  While Goldwyn recuperated, Hawks began a wholesale rewrite of the script.  His film begins with thirty minutes of impressive footage showcasing how trees are felled and then sent down the river to the saw mill using dynamite and the flow of river water.

After that brief nod to the logging industry, Hawks introduces us to Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold), a big, gregarious, and ambitious lumberjack.  He’s clutch in a barroom brawl (and we get to see a mighty one) but he’s also got big plans for his future.  He pitches a partnership to his boss based on a legally dubious plan to gobble up Wisconsin land for their logging operation.

Barney falls in love with Lotta Morgan (Frances Farmer), a beautiful barmaid he meets on the night of the aforementioned brawl.  He teases marriage, but in the end he throws her over to marry the boss’ daughter and secure his rise up the logging ladder.

Walter Brennan, Frances Farmer, and Edward Arnold in Come and Get It (1936)
Walter Brennan, Frances Farmer, Edward Arnold

Of her own novel, Ferber wrote many years later that it was, “about 70 per cent good.  In it I committed a serious error.  A little more than halfway through the book I killed the character called Barney Glasgow, and with his death the backbone of the book was broken.  He was the most vital and engaging person in the story.”

Howard Hawks didn’t make the same mistake.  He knew Barney Glasgow was the heart of the story, and he intended to keep the gregarious lumberjack turned magnate onscreen until the final frame.

We fast-forward a few decades to find Barney a rich and successful paper mill tycoon.  He butts heads with his son, who wants more sustainable logging practices, dotes on his daughter, and has a cordial if not loving relationship with his wife.

He has everything he’s ever wanted—except Lotta, the love of his life who (reluctantly) married his best friend (Walter Brennan) after he threw her over.

His life is upended when he meets the now-deceased Lotta’s daughter, also named Lotta (and also played by Frances Farmer), the spitting image the woman Barney loved all those years ago.

The rich and powerful Barney makes an absolute fool of himself in pursuit of young Lotta.  He gives her father a job in his company so that they can move closer to him.  He showers her with expensive clothes, buys her an apartment, pays for her education. 

He’s infatuated with now-Lotta, confusing her with the woman he once knew.  And confusing himself with the much younger man he once was.

Lotta is at first flattered, then increasingly alarmed and eventually repulsed by Barney’s attentions.  She fears retribution against her father if she outright rejects Barney.

Frances Farmer and Edward Arnold in Come and Get It (1936)
Frances Farmer, Edward Arnold

When she falls in love with Barney’s son Richard (Joel McCrea), the film has completely transformed from a critique of the logging industry into a highly entertaining yarn about an old man and his son being in love with the same woman that bears little resemblance to Ferber’s novel.

At this point of the film, I’m on the edge of my seat—how will Lotta manage this lecherous patron who has given her family so much?  What will Richard do when he finds out that his father has been making advances on the woman he hopes to marry?

What will Barney do when he realizes Lotta loves not him but his son?

Frances Farmer and Joel McCrea in Come and Get It 1936
Frances Farmer, Joel McCrea

It was about this time in the filming that Samuel Goldwyn recovered enough from his gastrointestinal issues that he first asked—then demanded when he met resistance—to see Hawks’ footage.

When he saw what Hawks had done to Ferber’s material, he blew a gasket.  Hawks felt that the second half of Ferber’s novel was “lousy,” and he’d made it into a good story for film.  They had a heated argument, and depending on who’s telling the story, Goldwyn either fired Hawks or Hawks quit. 

Either way, Hawks was off to RKO to make Bringing Up Baby with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and Goldwyn was left with an unfinished picture.

Samuel Goldwyn called in William Wyler to finish directing the film.  William Wyler would go on to have a stellar career making prestige films, including Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Heiress (1949), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Roman Holiday (1953), and Ben-Hur (1959).  He would collect three Academy Awards for best directing and twelve nominations throughout his long career.

Had Wyler directed Come and Get It from the start, I’m certain he would’ve better captured the spirit of Ferber’s novel.  But I’m not sure he would’ve made a more entertaining film.

Regardless, Wyler was loathe to finish the work of another man, and only did so after Goldwyn threatened to sue him for breach of contract if he refused.  He ended the film but kept Hawks’ vision intact.

In the final moments of the film, father and son get into a physical altercation over Lotta.  She breaks them apart, begging Richard to stop hitting his father, and calling Barney, “just an old man.”

The words land harder than any punch he’s ever taken.  He suddenly sees himself through Lotta’s eyes—not a legitimate rival for her affection, but a pathetic old pervert.

His ambition has brought him money, wealth, and power.  But it never brought him either Lotta, and it can’t preserve his youth.

Wyler never counted Come and Get It as one of his films; he’d completed only 14 days of shooting vs. Hawks’ 42.  He fought against Goldwyn’s desire to remove Hawks’ name completely from the film.  Wyler insisted they share screen credit (though he would have preferred his name left off entirely) and insisted Hawks’ name come first.

Come and Get It is an unjustly forgotten film; perhaps because of the two directors, perhaps because the stars aren’t as well remembered today.  And although it doesn’t tell Ferber’s story, it does tell a good one.  Hawks wasn’t one to moralize, but he knew how to keep an audience’s attention.  Watching Barney throw over one Lotta only to leer at another is a fascinating study of human behavior.

It’s got a quick pace, a good cast, and Edward Arnold nails his part as Barney Glasgow.  Perhaps due to Wyler, the somewhat zany story comes to a poignant end.

For future Jeopardy players, take note that Walter Brennan won the first ever Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Swan, Barney’s best friend and young Lotta’s father.

And what did Ferber think of this fast and loose adaptation?

Across two memoirs, she never once mentions the film.  She had no problem praising or criticizing the films made of her books, so we’ll all just have to draw our own conclusions regarding her silence.

Come and Get It Verdict:  Give It A shot

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.
  • Madsen, Axel. William Wyler:  The Authorized Biography.  2015.

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

Frances Farmer and Edward Arnold around the gambling table in Come and Get It 1936.

The Heiress (1949):  Ascending to New Heights

Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
The Heiress (1949)

And now we come to The Heiress

In a career that included Gone With the Wind, breaking the studio system’s seven-year contract practice, and five Academy Award nominations, The Heiress is undoubtedly Olivia de Havilland’s crowning achievement.

It is her best performance and my personal favorite of her films.

Based on a play adapted from Henry James’ novel Washington Square, directed by William Wyler and co-starring newcomer Montgomery Clift in one of his earliest roles, The Heiress is a masterclass in prestige filmmaking.

De Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, a plain and pathologically shy young woman living in mid-nineteenth century New York.  Catherine lives in the shadow of her dead mother, a woman her father has on such a high pedestal that even a woman more beautiful and accomplished than Catherine could not live up to her memory.

Catherine spends her days eschewing parties and the company of others in favor of needlepoint until she meets Morris Townsend (Clift), a handsome but penniless man with expensive taste.  He sweeps Catherine off her feet, but her father fears that Townsend is a fortune hunter with his eye on Catherine’s considerable inheritance.

Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)

Reader, I don’t mind admitting that I was unsure throughout the first half of the film of Townsend’s true intentions.  Surely he could not have fallen so quickly into love with Catherine, who is awkward and painfully naïve.  And yet, he convinced me as he convinced Catherine—perhaps he could see the woman beneath the veil of shyness to the woman within.

Catherine blooms under his attentions.  She has none of her father’s reservations, and is determined to marry Morris.  Her widowed Aunt Lavinia supports the match, though Catherine’s father (Lavinia’s brother) puts no stock in her opinion.  She is portrayed throughout the film as nothing more than a gossipy biddy who never shuts up.

Miriam Hopkins and Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)

But Miriam Hopkins (she’s really excellent supporting material here) infuses Lavinia with a subtle wisdom—so what if Morris Townsend is a fortune hunter?  Won’t that still be a happier life for Catherine, who has no other prospects and is shunned as a weirdo by every other man?

Her father outright rejects Morris’ request to marry his daughter, and Morris and Catherine plan an elopement.  When Catherine’s father finds out, he grows cruel, telling Catherine that Morris must be a fortune hunter, because she is such a bore and a waste that no one could love her.

The moment forever embitters Catherine, as she realizes her father has only ever had contempt for her, not love.  She puts all of her eggs in the basket with Morris, telling him she wants to elope that night.  He agrees, but before he leaves to get things in order, she tells him that her father has cut off her inheritance.

That night, Lavinia finds Catherine packed and waiting for Morris, who has promised to pick her up at midnight.  She is dismayed when Catherine tells her that she has told Morris about her lost inheritance.

“Why couldn’t you have been just a little more clever?” Lavinia laments.

But of course, clever is the one thing Catherine isn’t.

She insists Morris isn’t marrying her for money, and even so, she still has her inheritance from her mother’s death.

“It is a great deal of money!” Catherine claims of her ten thousand a year.

“Not when one has expected thirty,” Aunt Lavinia says.

Catherine never doubts that Morris will arrive, but as midnight comes and goes, minute by minute Catherine comes to see the awful truth.

Morris has forsaken her.

He returns a few years later, after Catherine’s father has died, wanting to pick up where they left off, claiming he always loved her but didn’t want her to lose her inheritance.  She agrees to marry him and once again sends him off to get the coach.  But when he returns, she bolts the door and lets him bang on the door all night screaming for her as she ascends the stairs to a life of bitter loneliness.

It is not a film that could be made today.  Her moment of turning Morris away would today be celebrated as a feminist power move, not the bittersweet ending portrayed here—Catherine cuts off her nose to spite her face.  She has her revenge, but at the expense of any shred of happiness.

Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)

In fact, in 1993 Tom Cruise and director Mike Nichols discussed a remake, but ultimately decided that they could not improve upon the film that Wyler and de Havilland had made in 1949.1

On the night of her jilting, the depth of Catherine’s weariness is shown in a long shot where she drags her packed suitcase back up the stairs, thwarted of her escape and left imprisoned with the father she can no longer stand.

Director William Wyler, well known for his excessive takes made de Havilland drag the suitcase up the stairs again and again.  He knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what.  In a moment of exhausted frustration, de Havilland threw the suitcase down the stairs when Wyler demanded yet another take.

Wyler realized immediately what was wrong—the suitcase was empty.  He had it filled with heavy books and started the film rolling.  Now de Havilland was no longer pretending to lift a heavy suitcase, she actually was struggling with it.2

Details like this are what made Wyler one of Hollywood’s best directors, collecting twelve Academy Award nominations for Best Director (including for The Heiress) and winning three.  He also directed fourteen actors to Academy Awards, including none other than Bette Davis (Jezebel), Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday), and Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur).

And Olivia de Havilland.

Olivia de Havilland poses with her Oscars from To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949)

That’s right, her performance in The Heiress earned her a second Academy Award for Best Actress, inducting her into one of the most exclusive clubs on the planet.  At the time, de Havilland was only the third actress (and fifth actor overall) to win more than one Academy Award for a leading performance.  Even today, only thirteen other women and ten men can boast this feat.  It’s a club that includes Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Vivien Leigh, Spencer Tracy, Tom Hanks, Gary Cooper, Meryl Streep, and Marlon Brando.

Hollywood royalty, indeed.

The second Oscar cemented de Havilland’s place as a prestige actress, and validated her three year absence from the screen during her court battle with Jack Warner.

She also won the New York Film Critics Circle award for both The Snake Pit and The Heiress, becoming the first actress to win the award in consecutive years.3

“I want respect,” Olivia de Havilland had told Errol Flynn way back on the set of Captain Blood, her first major film.  “By that I meant serious work well done.”4

Olivia de Havilland arrived in Hollywood in 1935 at nineteen years old.  Now, after fourteen years, thirty-five films, and a bloody divorce with Warner Brothers, she’d finally gotten what she came for.

The Heiress (1949) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Notes

  1. Herman, Jan.  William Wyler:  A Talent for Trouble:  The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director.
  2. Ibid
  3. Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  4. Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

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

Jezebel (1938): “Triumph of Bitchery”

Bette Davis and Fay Bainter in Jezebel (1938)
Jezebel (1938) opening banner

It’s hard to pick Bette Davis’ best film, but Jezebel will always be in the conversation.  Davis plays Julie Marsden, a headstrong southern belle living in 1850’s New Orleans.  She’s rich and beautiful and she knows it.  She’s engaged to Preston Dillard, played by Henry Fonda. 

She’s shrewish and obstinate—interrupting Pres at work and refusing to mind his orders.  But when she wears a red satin dress to a ball when convention mandates unmarried women wear white, she pushes Pres too far.  She wears the dress in a fit of pique to embarrass him, but ends up humiliating only herself.

Pres walks out on her, but Julie is confident he will return. 

Bette Davis and Henry Fonda in Jezebel (1938)

A year passes and the plot thickens when a wave of yellow fever breaks out. 

I’d seen Jezebel twice before I viewed it for this blog.  I remembered Julie’s red dress, her stubborn pride, and the quaint southern customs.  The yellow fever subplot is critical to the film’s ending, but otherwise I didn’t remember the details.

But watching this time, during our own pandemic, every throwaway line about yellow fever sent shivers of recognition up my spine.

Our first inkling that something is amiss is a scene in a bar where men discuss the fever.  One says he takes a shot every time the death wagon rolls by, and that’s why he’s drunk.  Another says you can’t catch the fever if you’re drunk.  And yet another says that there are many more cases than reported because doctors don’t want to diagnose yellow fever and cause panic.

Buck Cantrell dismisses their concerns.  “Ain’t anymore yellow fever than this time last year.  You never hear fever talk in racing season, do you?  Why?  ‘Cause folks got something better to talk about.”

Sound familiar?

The part of Dr. Fauci is played by Dr. Livingston, the forward-thinking doctor who urges Julie and her Aunt Belle to leave New Orleans for their plantation.

He tells them, “The city’s not going to be so pleasant.  No parties, theaters liable to be closed as a precautionary measure.”

Julie doesn’t want to leave, dismissing the doctor as a fearmonger, but Aunt Belle remembers the last outbreak in 1830, and fears the worst.

In the end, they go to their Halcyon plantation

And finally, Pres returns—but with a Yankee bride.

Julie is devastated but not defeated.  She throws a party, scheming all the while to make Pres jealous and ultimately get him back.

She eggs on Buck Cantrell, who plays the part of an anti-masker. 

You see, it isn’t just the yellow fever that echoes today.  The film is set about a decade before the Civil War, but the country is already deeply divided between North and South.  When Pres returns after time up North with his Yankee wife, the cultural clash is on full display.

Each night, cannons boom across New Orleans.

Amy—the Yankee wife—asks why, and Cantrell tells her “It starts air currents to carry the fever away.”

Pres retorts, “They might better drain the swamps and clean up the city.”

“Is that what they do in Yankee land?” Cantrell sneers.

“They do.”

When Pres insinuates that the South might learn something from the North on handling the epidemic, Cantrell all but accuses Pres of betraying his Southern roots.

As the fever spreads, the lockdowns tighten.  Armed guards prevent anyone from going into or out of New Orleans.  We see a man shot dead for breaking the fever line.

They begin shipping fever patients off to Lazaret Island.  They won’t have a chance, and will die alone in filthy conditions, but they won’t spread the fever to others.

New Orleans descends into chaos.  Households lying about having the fever so they won’t be sent away, fires in the streets, wagonloads of dead and sick carried out each day.

When Pres passes out in a bar, the crowd disperses in fear.  No one will help the man they’ve branded a “yellow jack.”

Julie crosses the fever line in the dead of night to get to Pres, and takes care of him as he slips into delirium.

Margaret Lindsay, Bette Davis, and Henry Fonda in Jezebel (1938)

Pres’ brother is outraged when Dr. Livingston reports Pres’ condition to the authorities, thus condemning him to a death sentence at Lazaret Island.

Dr. Livingston defends his decision by asking, “Have you any idea what would happen to New Orleans if folks thought there was one law for the rich and another for the poor?”

We know all too well.

The film ends with Julie accompanying Pres to Lazaret Island.  She has convinced Amy—and the doctor—that she should be allowed to nurse him back to health or die trying.  She’s more equipped than Pres’ wife to deal with the slaves, the Creole language, and the down and dirty fighting for food and water that will be required for Pres to survive the fever and Lazaret Island. 

She convinces Amy that she needs to redeem herself for the wicked things she’s done in trying to steal Pres away from her.  His wife reluctantly agrees, and on one level the film ends on a note of self-sacrifice.

But…Bette Davis herself and director William Wyler make the ending more complicated than a simple redemption story.  For though Julie has likely sentenced herself to death, she will be the one at Pres’ side in the end.

She has won.

It is, as writer Edmund Goulding said, “the triumph of bitchery.”

And it’s marvelous.

Jezebel (1938) Verdict - Film Buffs Only

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

Bette Davis and Fay Bainter in Jezebel (1938)

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

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

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