New This Week
How Green Was My Valley had its world premiere at the Rivoli Theatre on Broadway between 49th and 50th streets on October 28, 1941. It wouldn’t open in Los Angeles until January 8, 1942 in a year when the cutoff for Oscar consideration was January 12 instead of December 31 of the previous year. On March 2, 1942 it would become the first Oscar winning film of World War II.
John Ford’s film of Richard Llewellyn’s novel was the first of numerous inspirational films that got us through the war. If you’re looking for films to watch while being homebound during the coronavirus crisis, you would do well to look to the films that got us through that terrible time.
Here then are six commendable films of the era, some of which only marginally deal with the war and some of which don’t reference it at all. Coincidentally Roddy McDowall is in three of them.
How Green Was My Valley takes place in a Welsh coal mining town at the turn of the 20th century. Although it centers on the youngest of a brood of five boys and one girl, it is very much about family, the entire family and what keeps them together in one another’s hearts even though they are scattered in many directions around the world. Ford’s unabashed sentimentality was at its strongest here. Donald Crisp deservedly won the year’s best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of the family patriarch. Sara Allgood was justly nominated and should have won for her equally moving portrayal of the family matriarch, a performance rivaled only by the similar work of Margaret Mann, Henrietta Crosman, and Oscar winner Jane Darwell in similar roles in Ford’s Four Sons, Pilgrimage, and The Grapes of Wrath, respectively. Where, though, was Roddy McDowall’s Oscar for perhaps the finest juvenile performance ever turned in by a young actor? Nominated for ten Oscars, it won five and deserved every one of them.
Released in March 1942, a scant few weeks after the death of Carole Lombard, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be was not a hit with either the critics or the public at the time but has since proved to be one of the most popular films ever made. Lombard, killed with her mother and others, when the plane carrying her home to husband Clark Gable from an early World War II bond drive crashed, plays the Polish actress-wife of a second-rate Polish actor played by Jack Benny. The title stems from the famed soliloquy in Hamlet which, the moment Benny says the line, prompts Polish soldier (Robert Stack) to leave the auditorium of the Warsaw theatre where the play is being performed to rendezvous with Lombard in her dressing room. Complications ensue and it gets funnier and funnier as the actors make fools of the invading Nazis. If only it were as easy in real life. It was successfully remade in 1983 with Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, and Tim Matheson in the Benny, Lombard, and Stack roles.
Released in June 1942, William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver was made by MGM in order to bolster U.S, support for the war in Europe, which by the time the film was released, was in full bloom. Featuring an England as it never was, it stars Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon as the perfect middle-aged British couple, Richard Ney and Teresa Wright as the perfect younger couple, Henry Travers and Dame May Whitty as the perfect oldsters. All except Ney were nominated for Oscars. His prize was marriage to Garson who played his mother in the film, Garson, Wright, Wyler, and the film itself were all Oscar winners. The film ran for an unprecedented twelve weeks at Radio City Music Hall, a feat duplicated by Mervyn LeRoy’s film of James Hilton’s Random Harvest with Garson and Ronald Colman at year’s end. The most romantic of films, it brought together the stars of previous megahits based on Hilton’s works, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon and was itself nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture and Actor.
The perfect wartime romance, George Stevens’ The More the Merrier dealt hilariously with the Washington D.C. housing shortage. Jean Arthur sublets a room in her apartment to elderly Charles Coburn who in turn sublets a portion of his room to Joel McCrea and then plays cupid to bring Arthur and McCrea together. Stevens’ last comedy earned Coburn an Oscar and Arthur her only nomination for the story written by Garson Kanin (My Favorite WifeSullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story, thought Cary Grant should have had his part. Grant eventually played the Coburn role in the 1966 remake, Walk, Don’t Run, with Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton in which the locale was moved to Tokyo where it took place during the 1964 Olympics.
Clarence Brown’s The White Cliffs of Dover had its world premiere at Radio City Music Hall in May 1944 and ran and ran. Based on Alice Duer Miller’s poem, the film received one of two Oscar nominations that year for cinematographer George J. Folsey. The other was for Meet Me in St. Louis. The film’s star, Irene Dunne, was oddly missing from the year’s roster of Best Actress nominees for her sublime portrayal of the woman who loses a husband to World War I and a son to World War II. An American nurse who unexpectedly weds a British soldier (Alan Marshall), Dunne’s story is told in flashback as she awaits the arrival of wounded soldiers including her son (Peter Lawford in the present, Roddy McDowall in flashbacks). Prominent in the cast are Gladys Cooper as her initially disapproving mother-in-law, Dame May Whitty as Cooper’s housekeeper and McDowall’s nanny, Frank Morgan as Dunne’s father, and C. Aubrey Smith as his British friend. Elizabeth Taylor is McDowall’s playmate who grows up to be Lawford’s fiancé, June Lockhart.
John M. Stahl’s The Keys of the Kingdom had its world premiere on December 29, 1944 at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City, but Fox held the film back in Los Angles until 1945 so it wouldn’t compete with Leo McCarey’s Going My Way for the 1944 Oscar. Based on the best-selling novel by A.J. Cronin (The Citadel, The Green Years), the film made an overnight star of Gregory Peck who later in 1945 would star in The Valley of Decision opposite Greer Garson and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound opposite Ingrid Bergman, but would receive his first Oscar nomination for Keys in which he plays a missionary priest in China. Told in flashback from 1878 to 1938, Peck’s best friends are atheist doctor Thomas Mitchell, grumpy nun Rosa Stradner, faithful aid Benson Fong, and Protestant missionaries James Gleason and Anne Revere. His worst enemy is his bishop (Vincent Price). Roddy McDowall plays Peck as a boy.
More suggestions for isolation viewing next week.
This week’s new releases include 1917 and the Blu-ray release of Godspell.