Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Director: John Ford

Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Black and White)

The film was dreamt to be a prestigious Technicolor picture for 20th Century Fox, but due to the events in the world at the time the picture would be cut back. Despite the alterations How Green Was My Valley was an artistic and emotional story that would be perhaps most famous for winning Best Picture for the year of 1941, defeating Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane.  The film capture the essence of a boy maturing quickly to learn his world is not a bright and beautiful as it was when you are innocent.

How Green Was My Valley is a drama of a Welsh family in a small mining town told through the eyes of the youngest son as he learns of the hardships of life, changing how he saw his once bright home into a world of painful maturation. The Morgan’s live in a beautifully green Welsh town based around the coal mine. The youngest of the Morgan’s, Huw (portrayed by Roddy McDowall as a boy and narrated by his older self, voiced by Irving Pichel), we are given a glimpse at this community as a bright and lovely place to live and grow up in, with loving parents, strong handsome brothers, and a beautiful sister.

Brightness of memory....
Through time Huw begins to see that his home is not as green as he remembers it. Through this time the family quarrels over labor issues, the ugliness of community gossip, Huw’s want to help provide for his family, and the ultimate call for maturity with deaths within the family. Huw in a short period grows form na├»ve boy without a care in the world to understanding that life is about hardship and work. His valley is no longer as green as it was before, not just from the filth produced by the coal mine, but with the loss of innocence and from simply growing up.

Huw merely provides the conduit in which the story of the Morgan’s is shared in this emotional picture. The picture contains a great deal of heart when it concerns the ideas of home, memory, coming of age, loss, and family adversities.

...harshness of reality.
Based on the vastly popular novel of the same name How Green Was My Valley was intended to be 20th Century Fox’s purposed production that was to rival the scope of 1939’s Gone with the Wind in epic size and stunning visuals. Initially the production was planned to be completely shot in the Welsh countryside in beautiful Technicolor with a substantial running time of nearly four hours to turn the story into a massive theatrical experience. However, due to consistent bombardment of England by Germany 20th Century-Fox abandoned location shooting and recreated the Welsh town on their sizable Fox “Ranch” in the hills just outside of Hollywood. The sets would be beautiful, but would fail to match the lush greens of the English landscapes, therefore the decision was made to soot in black and white instead of Technicolor which would have failed to mask Southern California brown and green hills as a stand in for naturally green covered country it was meant to be.

William Wyler was the projected director of the picture, but the studio found his perfectionist filmmaking style to be a possible hindrance on this large production costs and John Ford was hired in his place. Ford was known for his well planned production schedules and shots only needing one or two takes to get the way he wanted allowing the production to move a rapid pace. This would help keep costs down in a film that already spent vast amounts on the art direction. It is recorded that film took only two months to shoot, a remarkably short time for such a feature.

The cast of How Green Was My Valley is well assembled and carried with it the seemingly perfect mix of Hollywood know-how and English sophistication that made the characters balance out as down to earth family believable to audience. Many would be lesser known performers or actors on a down swing of their careers, yet together they provided a wonderful mix that accented each other in a wonderful ensemble cast.

McDowall as Huw with his parents as he comes home from a bad day at school.
Roddy McDowall would only have been in America two weeks since his family relocated due to the war when he was cast as Huw, thus beginning his career in Hollywood. His innocence is authentic as the youngest Morgan, providing the right touches for Huw in an industry full of, let’s say, poor children actors.

Donald Crisp whose credits in the movie industry go all the way back to D.W. Griffith’s A Birth of a Nation provided the performance as the Morgan patriarch. At this point in his career known as a character actor Crisp rises amongst the cast in a shining performance. Here his character struggles with family, politics, and religion, all while attempting to provide for his family in a strict, but loving manner. An Academy Award would be bestowed on Crisp for his fine supporting role, a marvelous prize in his long career.

The film would help the struggling actors of Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O’Hara, who at this time both suffered from poor roles in recent works and here where given the new opportunities the revitalize their standings as performers. Together they provided the film’s major love story as Huw’s sister Angharad and the new local preacher, Mr. Gruffydd. The story shared is of the two being in love, however Angharah is married off, with influence from her father, to the mine owner’s son, a sort of political move for the family. When Angharad returns without her husband rumors swirl that she and the preacher are having an affair, which leads he preacher to resigning his post scorning the self-righteous townspeople on his way out, despite no misdoing. The two’s performances are rather light, with very little dramatic “Hollywood” romance, yet remains a very strong story of the picture.

This love story leads to some of John Ford’s best planned shots of the feature. The filmmaker’s simple style of shooting with usual static camera is utilized to slow down the heavy emotion of the situation while he frames some of the finest dramatic moments of the film.

Interesting to note is the political matter of organized labor as an issue amongst the Morgan’s concerning the coal mine early in the picture. The quarrel between the conservative father and more liberal adult sons brings up the issue of socialism and whether it is right and wrong. Despite the miners eventually striking and the mistreatment of the laborers, the issue does not go into detail too much further, although it does cause quite a stir in the story. As you may know socialism would be a sensitive issue in Hollywood directly after the fall of Germany with the rise of the Cold War and the Red Scare. To have the issue of socialism come up at this time in American cinematic history is interesting to see before the rest of the century would play out.

How Green Was My Valley would release to immediate success becoming one of most profitable films in the years 1941-1942. Despite large production costs the picture brought in great returns while garnering colossal critical reviews. The film would be nominated for a revered ten Academy Awards and took home five, including prizes for Donald Crisp, John Ford, and the Oscar for Best Picture.

The feature was one the most beloved pictures of its period, perhaps even on par, or perhaps a little below Gone with the Wind. With the passage of time and the historical look back on 1941, film historians remember the year less for How Green Was My Valley and more for the fact it won the Best Picture award in front of what many consider the best American film of all time, Citizen Kane.

How Green Was My Valley is a slow movie that takes more focused mind to truly appreciate the film for what it really is, meaning most might find it too slow or uninteresting. This story that takes a look at how one’s maturing dampens the innocent joys in life teaches us that sometimes memory is brighter than reality. Still considered by film historians as one of the great films in America’s history, the feature is sadly not as well remembered due to its time in history. However, How Green Was My Valley will forever be known for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and that will never be taken away from it.

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