HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)

howgreenIn 1941, Orson Welles, multi-talented enfant terrible from stage and radio, made the leap to film, bringing many of his Mercury Theater associates with him. For his debut effort he was both star and director and despite having no experience in filmmaking, he somehow secured final cut privileges. Somehow, it all went horribly right- artistically speaking – and the end result was a movie that appears at or near the top of every “best ever” list you will come across, the feature often labeled the the Greatest Movie Ever Made: Citizen Kane. Which, you will notice, is not the title of this entry.

Followers of this blog know that our purpose, aside from the opportunity to watch and rewatch some good movies, is to evaluate past winners and losers; to play the “should have won” game. So in this case we elected to do something slightly unorthodox and watch one of the losers first and viewed Kane, as I hadn’t seen it in many years, then doubled back to see our current Best Picture. How better to experience the movie that beat the “best movie ever”?

How Green Was My Valley depicts several years in the life of the Morgan family in a Welsh mining community in the late 19th century, as told by the youngest member, adolescent Huw. In the episodes depicted, the Morgan men experience the danger and increasing dehumanization of large industry and the family grows close to local clergyman Gruffydd, especially Huw’s sister Angharad.

This is the story of a large coal mining family in a small, rural community. One aspect of the film that is both a strength and a weakness is that it follows several disparate storylines at once, all connected loosely by the relationship to the Morgan family. Perhaps if this film had been written in the era of more television programming, it could have made an excellent serialized show. I found it somewhat distracting the way the story jumped from character to character, but I suppose that was consistent in keeping with the Llewellyn novel on which it was based.

But back to the story of this small town. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody has opinions on what everyone else is doing. The Morgan men are faced with economic hardship when more people come to their town, willing to work the mines for lower wages. There is discord in the family when it comes to how to respond – whether they should just continue to work, head down and nose to the grindstone, or whether they should attempt to organize and fight back for better treatment.

Huw is significantly younger than his brothers and older sister, and we see the story unfold through his eyes – through indelible childhood memories. He is able to process some of the issues his brothers face from a distance at first, as he is yet too young to be working. His father and mother, hoping for more for him, encourage him to go to school. This proves a challenging experience, as he is poorer and different from the other students. He experiences ridicule and harassment from both students and the teacher, but becomes emboldened and learns to stand up for himself. After pursuing such an education, though, Huw eventually comes to the realization that he wants to continue his family’s tradition of working in the mines. His father accepts this, and so he does.

Valley reminds me a bit of Out of Africa, in that it is mainly a series of episodes presented as first-person recollections and lacks a single strong narrative. As such, I found it a little hard to judge how much time is passing in the story. I got the impression that several years pass between beginning and end. In fact I referred to Huw as an “adolescent”, but I’m really not sure exactly how old he is supposed to be.

This movie has taken its unenviable place in history as the winner in The Academy’s most egregious oversight. But How Green Was My Valley is no hack job. In fact it’s a beautiful movie.  I read somewhere that as part of his crash course in filmmaking before Kane, Welles watched and rewatched John Ford’s Stagecoach literally dozens of times. Perhaps oddly fitting then, that Ford’s 1941 effort would beat Kane at the podium.

Beautiful as it is, I couldn’t help wondering why this story wasn’t given the Technicolor treatment. The cinematography and set design show obvious care for the visual aesthetics of the film. The change in seasons and the beauty of nature underscore several scenes and serve as a counterpoint to the smoke and grime of the mines. And there’s even the name. Was the decision to film in black and white economic or artistic? I’d love to know.

As for comparisons with Citizen Kane? Yes, in retrospect it does seem to undermine the credibility of the Academy Awards to see them fail to recognise the feature that is probably taught in most film programs to this day. But if honest and accurate ranking of art is even possible, I don’t think the Academy has made any credible claim to do so. Obviously winners are likely to reflect the economics and internal politics of the industry as much as anything else. Who would be so naive as to expect a movie from a second-tier studio, made by an unknown to actually win? Furthermore, just what do we mean when we say “best”? No one would dispute the technical mastery of Kane. But it is something of a filmmaker or film critic’s film. Many of the more subtle aspects, compelling as they certainly are, could perhaps be overlooked by the more casual moviegoer. And so Kane would have to join Moby Dick, The Velvet Underground and Nico, and every canvass Van Gogh ever painted in that special group of works which history has evaluated so much more generously than their contemporaries.

A problem with having a lot of rich storylines, too, is that you can’t pursue all of them in depth. In the small town that is the scene of this film, there is but one preacher – Mr. Gruffydd. He and Angharad share a mutual attraction for a love that is, alas, not meant to be – but which is fodder for endless gossip and speculation, especially when she marries another. There are other religious zealots in the town, though, and one in particular attempts to humiliate and exile a woman who is pregnant out of wedlock. Angharad is brave and leaps to the woman’s defense, following her out of a town meeting or service while the woman shakes with sobs. I wanted to hear more about this story, more about Angharad’s convictions and defense of someone so gravely wronged by her community. It was inspiring to see her strength of character, and I wished it could have been teased out more. Again, this might have happened had this story been serialized into a television program rather than a film.

One other quick note – I have a Welsh godmother, and visited Wales when I was about twelve. It is a beautiful country – and indeed, if memory serves, green beyond belief. It also has, in my experience, a haunted feel. The stories of the characters we meet in this film seem equally able to haunt the viewer and of course the narrator. Their lives and experiences are forever ingrained in his memory. While Llewellyn described the novel he wrote, on which this film is based, as semi-autobiographical, that was later disproven. It makes you wonder whose stories he thought he was telling, or why he might fabricate such information. I’d be interested to read the book. My hunch is it has a flow similar to something like Jane Eyre, but it would be worth finding out firsthand.

I think most of what I know about Wales comes from watching Torchwood. I guess there are less aliens in real life, or maybe just in Cardiff?

I found How Green Was My Valley a worth-watching film; probably one of the more deserving “undeserving winners,’ an examination of the bonds of family and community and of the dignity of labor in the face of capitalism. And if you just can’t get enough singing Welsh miners – or if you need a Deep Impact for every Armageddon – you can check out The Proud Valley, starring West Philly’s Paul Robeson.

A few weeks after How Green Was My Valley premiered, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor ended American hope for neutrality in the war that had already consumed much of the world. By the time the year’s Academy Awards were held, the United States had been at war for two months. (The so-called “Battle of Los Angeles” had occurred the night before.) There was uncertainty about whether to hold the ceremony at all but life in Hollywood, as it did elsewhere, would go on, albeit with changes to reflect wartime austerity: no formal wear and a “dinner” rather than a “banquet.’ Hollywood’s wartime years had begun.

In closing I would just like to say that Mouse is right – this is a film about family, and struggle, and community. In fact, I would highly recommend watching this with family you don’t always get along with, or with whom you share great love but significant political, ethical or religious difference. The way the film deals with just such issues might very well warm your heart – and even bring you closer to one another.

Also nominated in 1941:
Blossoms in the Dust
Citizen Kane
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Hold Back the Dawn
The Little Foxes
The Maltese Falcon
One Foot in Heaven
Sergeant York
Suspicion

Next film: The Hurt Locker (2009)

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2 Responses to “HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)”

  1. Quite a year for best picture nominees, how do you pick just one between Valley, Sergeant York, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane?? Personally of all of them Sergeant York is my favorite, which I just watched again the other night thanks to TCM!

    I really liked How Green Was My Valley and am a huge sucker for John Ford movies. For a guy known for his westersns, which are great for the most part, he really shines making a drama like Valley or Grapes of Wrath or even a comedy, reteaming with O’Hara just over 10 years later to make The Quiet Man, a movie I could watch (and do watch) a dozen times in a row. There’s something special about the way his movies feel and I think it has a lot to do with the setting and and how he uses supporting characters, which in a way are a part of the setting in a Ford movie. Even in the black and white Valley it’s such a rich world he creates for the characters. There’s also some kind of sentimentality that runs like a dart through just about all of his movies that really draws me in.

    As far as the possibilites of this movie working as a series the BBC made a short series based on How Green Was My Valley in 1975, I’ve never seen it and can’t find so much as the intro anywhere on YouTube etc. but who knows, at 50 minutes an episode maybe they were able to flesh out some of those stories further.

    Also, just of note and relating to some of the directors here, Tuesdays in September Turner Classic Movies is presenting a look at the wartime progoganda films of three of the best picture nominees from 1941 including John Ford, William Wyler and John Huston and joined by Frank Capra and George Stevens (Shane, A Place in the Sun, etc..), each night to focus on a different filmaker.

  2. Sergeant York, that was about Bewitched, right? EL oh el! Speaking of Bewitched, I only recently realized Samantha’s mom is Kane’s mom. It’s all connected!!

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