Monday, March 4, 2024

Mrs. Miniver

Another of those movies that I'd seen bits and pieces of over the years, but had never seen all the way through, was the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1942, Mrs. Miniver. I put it on my DVR the last time it showed up on TCM. Now, it's getting another airing, tonight at midnight (well, with the intro, a few minutes into March 5, or still late in the evening of March 4 in more westerly time zones). With that in mind, I made certain I could watch my DVR copy in order to do a post for the upcoming airing.

The movie starts off in the summer of 1939, looking at a supposedly middle-class (really, more upper-middle-class at the very least) family in Belham, a village in one of the Home Counties just south of London: the Minivers. Kay (Greer Garson), the matriarch of the family, lives a relatively carefree life, going to London to do some "extravagant" shopping, which means buying a new hat. And how is she going to tell her husband about it? Of course, her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon), an architect, has decided on a big-ticket purchase of his own: a new car.

Kay returns home on the train, where the station-master, Ballard (Henry Travers), has been breeding roses. He's even come up with a beautiful rose he wants to name after Mrs. Miniver and enter in the local horticultural contest. But this is where the class issues of pre-war Britain start to rear their ugly head. Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty) also breeds roses, and she wins the trophy every year simply because she's "Lady" Beldon. Heaven forfend somebody on the class level of a station-master should win.

At dinner that night, Lady Beldon's granddaughter Carol (Teresa Wright) stops by the Miniver place, presumably not prompted by Grandma, asking Mrs. Miniver to do what she can not to get the Miniver rose entered in the competition since Grandma wins every year and it would kill her not to win. Not that Kay can do much about it. But even more miffed is Kay and Clem's adult son Vincent (Richard Ney), a student at Oxford. He's gotten some "radical", at least by 1930s standards, ideas on class and is none too pleased with Carol's showing up. But it's obvious that the two are soon going to fall in love.

Soon is darn right, because September 1, 1939 is about to come up. Germany invaded Poland that day, and on the following Sunday, September 3, the UK declared war on Germany, with everybody in the village learning of the declaration as they're at church from their local vicar (Henry Wilcoxon). Clem, being in his 40s, with an adult kid and two younger children at home, isn't going to be asked to fight, but Vin probably is, so he preempts this by trying to get into the RAF, which eventually does happen with him getting stationed at an airbase near Belham.

At this point Mrs. Miniver becomes a sort of pastiche of all the things that would befall a family on the home front during the early stages of the European theater of World War II between the UK and Germany. There's the Battle of Britain, with the Nazis trying to bomb the UK, leading to the requisite air-raid scenes. France would fall, resulting in the evacuation from Dunkirk. Since Clem has a boat, he's asked to set out on his boat to help evacuate Dunkirk. Vin and Carol have a quickie wedding, with Lady Beldon finally relenting. One of the Nazi pilots is shot down but survives, winding up injured in the Minivers' garden, with Kay finding him. And on and on, leading to the climax set against Belham trying to hold their garden show while the war is going on....

Mrs. Miniver is, like Boys Town yesterday, one of those movies where it's easy to see why it was such a huge success upon its release in the summer of 1942. The movie had been conceived earlier, while the US was still not in the war, with the aim of engendering sympathy among US audiences for the plight of the fellow English speakers on the other side of the Atlantic. But then Pearl Harbor happened, and now American audiences could see themselves facing the same issues as the Minivers and other cast members of the movie.

This being MGM, you can also the see the sentimentality that some critics, out of step with the public as always, would criticize. But there were British movies such as Millions Like Us that dealt with a lot of the same themes, just with a more hard-nosed look. In the drive to build morale, I think both approaches are needed, and with MGM behind it, the more sentimental approach makes the scenes of destruction a bit more surprising. That, combined with the high production values MGM always had, makes for a very well-crafted movie.

Best Picture of 1942? I'm not so certain; I think that if Yankee Doodle Dandy had been done in Technicolor it might well have won. But it's easy to see why Mrs. Miniver did ultimately win. It's also a movie that you should definitely watch if you haven't seen it before.

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