Thursday, December 06, 2007

Random Movie Report #39: How Green Was My Valley

HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY has a rather odd distinction in film history; it’s the film that beat the legendary CITIZEN KANE at the Oscars. This isn’t as good as it sounds since critics are generally of the opinion that KANE was the superior film and only lost due to industry politics (and the fact that people booed Orson Welles’ name at the ceremony does support the latter assertion.) So the film has a bit of negative baggage that it didn’t really bring on itself, but fortunately it’s not hard to put that aside when it comes to actually watching the movie. HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY is a strong entry in the “memoir” subgenre, the kind of movie that doesn’t so much tell one story as it does take us through a whole community’s worth over the space of a few years. It’s lush, well-acted, and if it’s too treacly at times it’s got some solid drama to back it up.

The whole thing is set in a Welsh mining town, and for the life of me I can’t remember what the name of it is. It’s in a valley, though. It’s the turn of the century (the last century, that is), and despite the giant coal pit, life in the town is reasonably pleasant. The story is told by young Huw Morgan (Roddy MacDowall), youngest of the Morgan family, all miners except the women and all enjoying a simple small Welsh town kind of life. Simple meals, church on Sunday, everyone singing Welsh songs, etc. After about fifteen minutes of this we get around to the first major dilemma, in which the mine starts cutting wages because people are coming from another town seeking work and they’re willing to take whatever the company will give. Some of the Morgan boys talk of forming a union, but the father (Donald Crisp) won’t hear such socialist talk. Eventually the union gets formed and a strike ensues, and the father becomes a target of threats for his opposition (although he doesn’t break the line as far as I can tell.) This leads to his wife (Sara Allgood) making a stirring speech in the snow, and on the way home she and Huw fall into the river and the townsfolk pull them out, leaving them both bedridden for a time (during which the strike gets mostly resolved.) In the meantime the family’s only daughter, Angharad (Maureen O’ Hara), is coming to be of marriageable age, and though she gets courted by apparently the wealthiest young man in town, she has her eyes and heart set on the local priest, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon.) He’s technically allowed to marry, but is so poor that he doesn’t want to doom her to his life. And so trouble begins, as it does when Huw is sent off to school under a headmaster who makes the guy from Pink Floyd’s THE WALL look like Jaime Escalante.

This is a film with a very episodic structure, which takes some getting used to. It’s very much more about the place and the people than about any specific thing happening. There’s a wedding sequence, complete with all sorts of drunken festivities and songs, that after a while starts to feel like a home movie. A little pageantry goes a long way, for me at least. When the plot actually gets moving, the pace is still casual, unhurried. It’s never actually dull, but sometimes less-than-compelling.

John Ford built his reputation on big movies, and it shows here- the recreation of this unnamed village and a pre-soot-blackened Wales is ripe with detail, creating an authentic sense of place even though the whole thing was shot in Southern California (for reasons that make more sense when you think about it.) Visible low ceilings pop up to remind us that people are living in close quarters, and there’s a lot of contrast between the lush hills and fields outside the village and the black pit at its center. Ford even gets some neat visual tricks out of the two-tiered elevator leading into and out of the mine. If anything, the film goes a bit overboard in establishing the humble, pastoral virtue of town life; even though many of the villagers have flaws a plenty, most everyone we see from the outside is even worse, and the former at least pull together in times of crisis. It’s the sort of community where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking (okay, not all), and all the children are above average. Of course, if the nostalgia is laid on with a trowel at times, it’s partly because a much older Huw is narrating the story and looking back wistfully.

There are some very good performances here- Pidgeon gets a very nice impassioned speech near the end (it’s no “By God, do your duty” but it’ll do), Maureen O’ Hara is bewitching, and there are a lot of bit parts and comic turns that help bring the community to life. “Master” Roddy MacDowall carries his substantial screen time very well, though he confuses things a bit by never aging even though we have to infer that the events of this film take place over years. There may also be a few too many cast members (when a brother dies in a mine accident, one can’t help but feel it would be a lot sadder if one could remember who the heck that one was), but the ensemble feel ultimately works in its favor. A lot goes on and it’s quite diverting.

HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY falls just short of greatness, but it’s never less than well done either. It’s got John Ford doing what he does very well, and several actors showing off their skills, all with a solid script, and if it suffers next to the widely-proclaimed Best Movie Of All Time, that’s a juxtaposition it never really asked for or deserved in the first place. This is a picture worth seeing and judging on its own, a splendid example of a unique dramatic subgenre, and a just plain good two hours of cinema. That’s all anyone can ask.

From the novel by Richard Llewellyn
Screenplay by Philip Dunne
Directed by John Ford

Grade: B+

(HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY can be purchased from Amazon by clicking here or on the image above.)

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