Mrs. Miniver

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Call it Cavalcade, the Sequel. But really, folks, that’s almost accurate, and I don’t use the name to totally diminish the movie. I didn’t mind Cavalcade, and actually found some things to appreciate about it. Like that film, even though this movie kind of hits you over the head with its propagandistic message, it’s a sweet and powerful movie on some level despite that. (You can also say it’s The Best Years of Our Lives, the Prequel and you’d be even be closer to the mark.)

The Minivers are a middle class English family living peaceful, unassuming lives in Canterbury in the days and months leading up to WWII. Clem Miniver (Walter Pidgeon) is the lawyer father, Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) the housewife, Vin (Richard Ney) is the eldest son away at college, and Judy and Toby are the younger children. They worry about little, relatable things like spending a bit too much money on a new hat, and dissecting the class system in England with a bunch of big words learned at Oxford. In the surrounding town, most people’s biggest concern is the annual flower show, always dominated by the ruling class, represented currently by Lady Beldon (Dame May Whittey). There is a newcomer to the fray however, the humble station master Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers), who’s named his rose after everyone’s favorite middle class housewife, Mrs. Miniver.

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The movie was explicitly made to help build support in America for its coming involvement in WWII, so even though wikipedia describes it as a “romantic war drama film” it should definitely add propaganda to that description. I don’t mean that as a totally derogatory term, because the film still works as a story, but I remember watching it in a film class specifically as an example of pro-war propaganda in the Hollywood studio era. The foundation of the film as an argument for entering WWII is painfully clear underneath the struggles of the characters.

It shows the sacrifices that these brave but ordinary English people have had to make, and makes them more egalitarian as if to combat that idea that America wouldn’t want to help England with their horribly classist society (I don’t know how accurate this was at the time, but the film seems hellbent on leveling the class system in England). It specifically shows women and children as the main object of German wrath (interestingly enough, they don’t actually go into any of the specifics of Nazism and always refer to them as Germans), with Teresa Wright’s character’s fate and the appearance of the German airman in the Miniver home while Clem is away. Like Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, it ends with a direct address to the audience on the importance of fighting the war, and is cloaked in religious importance at the same time. (It also tells you via text on the screen during the end credits to buy war bonds with every pay check.)

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That’s not to say none of these things aren’t effective; I believe this to be a very effective film. The characters are all very sympathetic and they are in a horribly dire situation. The film makes them extremely relatable to your average middle class American (even now), so it forces you to imagine what you would be doing in their situation. They see their houses blown apart, rock their children to sleep to the sound of bombs falling every night, and yet keep an admirably English stiff upper lip throughout the whole ordeal. Wyler and his cast manage to put forth real sentiment here, not just sentimentality (though there’s a fair amount of that as well). It gains historical value and emotional authenticity having been released right in the middle of the war too; if you made this movie today I doubt it would have any real emotional impact at all.

It’s 1942, there’s a war on, uncertainty and death is all around, so you’re not going to win hearts and minds with a daring avant-guard approach. That said, this film displays classical Hollywood style at its best (though I suppose that is even more true of next year’s winner, Casablanca). There’s no flashy editing or lighting, just solid, dependable craft in service of solid, dependable acting. The film does generate an admirable amount of suspense during the scene with the German airman, and then brushes it off with some humor later. Though at first glance there’s nothing really special going on here, you can’t deny the film is working its magic on some level.

Mrs. Miniver is definitely a film designed to play upon your emotions, and it’s not shy about the ways in which it does it. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work though, especially against the backdrop of the largest and most horrifying global conflict in history. My mind says Mrs. Miniver might not be a great film, but my heart disagrees on a lot of levels. I can one hundred percent see why the Academy chose it as best picture, if it pulls on the heartstrings now what must it have been like back then?

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At the 15th Academy Awards honoring the films of 1942, Mrs. Miniver won six of its twelve nominations. Though The Invaders (or 49th Parallel), Kings Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Pied Piper, The Pride of the Yankees, Random Harvest, The Talk of the Town, Wake Island, and Yankee Doodle Dandy (whew!) were up against Mrs. Miniver for best picture, they lost. For my part, I’d like to point out a few other films from that year, some of my favorites: Woman of the Year, To Be or Not to Be, and Now, Voyager. To Be or Not to Be would be my pick for the year, hands down, though I understand it not winning, given that it must have been hard to take at the time and it wasn’t well critically received then either. Not to go out on too much of a tangent into another film, but it saddens me that Carole Lombard wasn’t recognized for her role in that movie either.

Mrs. Miniver also got wins in both actress categories, leading for Greer Garson and supporting for Teresa Wright. Wyler won best director, and the film also won black and white cinematography and adapted screenplay. It lost out on lead actor for Pidgeon, supporting actor for Henry Travers, supporting actress for Dame May Whittey, sound recording, film editing, and special effects. Though it may show the circumstances of its time period a bit, it’s easy to see why Mrs. Miniver won best picture, as well as its other awards. If it was any less emotionally affecting I would be upset about it, but it is actually that powerful.

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“I’m sorry to disturb the harmony of this occasion, but our enemies are no respecters of flower shows.”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The New York Times review 
Nerdist review
BBC article on historical context

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