A haunting classic about the harshness and beauty of life, told through the eyes of a boy from a Welsh coal mining family
Movies have the ability to expand our world, allow us to find unseen beauty, and even foster compassion for our own struggles and those of others. “How Green Was My Valley” is among those rare films that manages to do all three. Exquisitely filmed, this tender drama set in a Welsh coal mining town, displays the joys and sorrows of childhood and the disillusionment of life. The film is simple, powerful, and a true cinematic work of art bound to leave an emotional impact. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five including Best Picture (beating out nine other films such as the classics “Citizen Kane” and “The Maltese Falcon”). Its director, John Ford, named it as his personal favorite of his own films - which says a lot when you consider how many outstanding classics he directed.
At the film’s center is “Huw Morgan”, the youngest of seven children. He narrates the film as an adult, and "How Green Was My Valley” is an affectingly sentimental flashback of his childhood in the late 19th century. The film opens as “Huw” says, "I am packing my belongings in the shawl my mother used to wear when she went to the market, and I'm going from my valley. And this time, I shall never return. I am leaving behind me my fifty years of memory”. And thus our journey begins as we watch “Huw” among his kindred family in his idyllic town with its tight-knit community. His father and five older brothers all work in the coal mine (like most of the men in the village), while his mother and sister tend to the home and men. In this paradise of flowered fields and clear skies, “Huw" befriends the village pastor, gets a crush on his sister-in-law, watches siblings marry, sees brothers lose jobs, and watches the town divide over the idea of a labor union. As he slowly loses his innocence and sense of harmony, so do his surroundings. The coal begins to blacken the valley and sky as his community and family begin to crumble. Sometimes bleak, sometimes joyous, the narrative is always told from the heart as it quickly flows in a dreamlike state. The lyrical magic of “How Green Was My Valley” potently reflects on love, family, hard times, injustice, and the people and times that have touched us and have gone.
Based on a 1939 Richard Llewellyn bestselling British novel, producer and Twentieth Century Fox executive and co-founder, Darryl F. Zanuck bought film rights to the book with the hopes of making Fox's four-hour epic answer to “Gone with the Wind”. After a couple of unsuccessful versions of the script, he hired screenwriter Philip Dunne to rewrite it by downplaying the book’s labor conflicts and amping up the family aspect. William Wyler was hired to direct, filming was to take place in color on location in Wales, and the proposed cast included Katharine Hepburn, Greer Garson, and Tyrone Power. World War II changed everything. Wales was a major bombing target for the Nazis, and the expense of the film and fear of the book’s pro union ideas (a hot topic at the time) led to the studio shelving the film. Determined to make it, Zanuck persisted and presented the film to director John Ford, who accepted. Ford’s involvement was enough for the studio to once again green-light the film. Zanuck and Ford had successfully collaborated together the year before on the prestigious classic, “The Grapes of Wrath”, though the two famously clashed. Once Ford came aboard, “How Green Was My Valley’s" script was shortened, it was no longer a big budget epic, was now to be shot in black and white, and no major stars (at the time) were cast. Such is the creative process! The film was made in stressful times just before the US entered WWII, and it offered audiences a sense of family and hope. It was a resounding success.
This intimate yet sprawling film is the work and vision of director, John Ford. Considered by many to be the greatest director in the history of cinema, “How Green Was My Valley” showcases Ford’s artistic storytelling genius to full extent. It's not the dialogue that resonates, but the situations and emotions created by Ford's visuals. An expert at composition, Ford fills the frames over and over with stunning imagery, often filling fore, middle, and background with informative and emotive design. A prime example is the first time he shows the crowd of men coming down the hill from the mine. As they leave the colliery and funnel into the village en masse singing in unison in Welsh, we immediately grasp the setting and its united working class community, while being visually awestruck. Spellbinding images like these are unforgettable, and are part of Ford’s uniquely poetic directing style. He was known for capturing his characters in long shots, enveloped by locations (whether a room or a hillside). There is very little camera movement in the film as his expressive angles are so masterful they show us everything we need to see while evoking emotion.
With his choices of camera angles, lighting, and attention to detail, Ford can make the simplest shot explode with personality - whether it be “Huw” and “Mr. Gruffydd” standing in a field of daffodils, or a bride walking down a church aisle while women extend their hands to feel her dress as she passes. Ford manages to constantly keep the story moving, never ceasing to provide evocative imagery. It is an emotional and visual treat. Although based on a book, Ford claimed “How Green Was My Valley” was autobiographical. It wasn’t, but there were some similarities. American born Ford was born to Irish immigrants, was the youngest of their eleven surviving children, and like “Huw” was bedridden where he discovered books such as “Treasure Island”. Perhaps he felt “Huw” represented a part of him, and what emerged is considered Ford’s most personal film. It was his final film before serving in WWII. For his incredible direction, he received his third Best Director Academy Award (his first two were for “The Informer” and “The Grapes of Wrath”), winning a fourth for the 1952 classic, “The Quiet Man”. Ford still holds the record for winning the most Best Director Oscars to date. I previously wrote about John Ford in my entry about his classic, “The Searchers”, where you can find out more about him and his career. Please check it out.
In lieu of filming on location in Wales, the film’s picturesque village was built in the hills outside Malibu, California, on what is known today as Malibu Creek State Park in Calabasas. The town was designed by Richard Day and based on actual Welsh villages in the Rhondda Valley. Day, Nathan Juran and Thomas Little, all won that year's Best Art Direction Academy Awards for their work on the film. The imagery in this film leaves an indelible mark, packing much of the film’s mesmerizing punch. I visited Malibu Creek State Park in 2016, and was directed to the hill on which they shot the iconic home-lined path going down the hill from the colliery. Though the sets are long gone, you could still see a tree that was featured in the film - which gave me goosebumps. Well over one hundred films and TV shows were (and still are) filmed at the park (including "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", "Planet of the Apes", "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House", "100 Million BC", "Logan's Run", and TV shows such as "M*A*S*H", and “Roots”) but none are as memorable as the set from “How Green Was My Valley”. While there was only one actual Welsh actor used in a prominent role (Rhys Williams who plays boxer “Dai Bando”), many extras were Welsh. Ford loved music and often used it emanating naturally from his characters, and there are ample songs sung by the coal miners in this one. Members from a Los Angeles Welsh church were employed as singers, led by English concert singer Tudor Williams (who also appears in the film as one of the singers). According to Evan Stephens who played "Gwilym Morgan Jr." (one of the five "Morgan" brothers), the songs were recorded on the set and not overdubbed, to give a realistic feel.
“How Green Was My Valley” launched the careers of three actors. One was Roddy McDowall who plays “Huw Morgan”. Unlike other child actors at the time, McDowall was not polished or Hollywood cute, but was a bit awkward and real. His is the standout, heart-stealing performance, and because of that, “Huw” is the heart and soul of the film. He has intelligence, sensitivity, sweetness, emotion, and a kind of wisdom - all while still a young and naive boy. There’s zero doubt that McDowall’s very mature and truthful performance is one of cinema’s greatest by a child. His authentic innocence and simplicity is astounding, whether looking lovingly at “Bronwyn”, or trying to get his father’s attention while alone with him at the dinner table. On the strength of McDowall’s screen-test, it was decided (by original director Wyler and screenwriter Dunne) the character of “Huw” would remain a boy in the film, and the script was rewritten to reflect this. Thus, we hear “Huw’s” voice as an adult but only see the character as a boy. English born Roddy McDowall was a child actor in the UK, having appeared in over a dozen British films. In 1941, he and his family fled war torn England for Hollywood, and he quickly got his first part in a Hollywood film - Fritz Lang’s "Man Hunt”. “How Green Was My Valley” was his third US film, and it made him a child star and household name. He went on to become a well-known character actor, appearing in theater and well over 250 films and TV shows, including his most remembered role as “Cornelius" in the original “The Planet of the Apes” film (and several of its sequels and TV series spin-off). He also appeared in “The Poseidon Adventure”, a film featured on this blog, and you can find out more about him and his life in that post.
Walter Pidgeon stars as “Mr. Gruffydd”, the village pastor. Reflecting the puritanism of the time, “Mr. Gruffydd” finds himself caught between a sense of duty to his job and to God, and his love for “Huw’s’” sister “Angharad”. He is a man who dreamed of conquering the world with truth and tolerance, only to find deaf ears. Pidgeon excels at playing authoritative type characters, and it shows in his scenes with “Huw”. For a man unable to give love, “Mr. Gruffydd” allows his sensitivity and deep caring to surface with the boy in a perfect mix of firmness and joy - particularly in the scene when he brings “Huw” to the field of daffodils. Though he had been appearing in films since the silents, Walter Pidgeon was playing second leads at the time of “How Green Was My Valley”. Even though the film is truly an ensemble piece, this starring role established him as a leading man and was the beginning of stardom and the height of his career. He worked well into the 1970s, and appears in many classics, including two already written about on this blog, “Funny Girl” and “Forbidden Planet”. You can read more about his life and career in both those posts.
Maureen O'Hara plays “Angharad Morgan”, “Huw’s” beautiful sister, and the woman in love with “Mr. Gruffydd”. O’Hara manages to make “Angharad” complex, headstrong, alluring, and poignant. Her scenes with Pidgeon are touching, as is her sisterly interplay with “Huw”. One of the film’s most famous scenes is when "Angharad” is leaving the church after her wedding. The devastating look on her face is heartbreaking. Combine that with the way Ford has her veil fly around as if trying to escape until her husband stops it - and you get a heavy dose of movie magic (a magic that took many takes and several strategically placed wind machines to achieve). It is clear that Ford liked O'Hara, since the few close-ups in this film are mostly of her exceptional face. Ford managed to bring out the best in her, and gave her some of the finest roles of her career. I personally think this is her best performance. “How Green Was My Valley” was the first of five Ford films in which she appeared, the others being "Rio Grande”, "The Quiet Man", "The Long Gray Line", and "The Wings of Eagles”.
Irish born Maureen O’Hara was a bit of a tomboy in her youth, which might explain the roots of her no-nonsense attitude and rambunctious screen persona. Trained in music and dance as a very young girl, she discovered a passion for performing and began appearing in amateur theater when she was ten years old. Her first screen-test came when she was seventeen, which was noticed by actor Charles Laughton, who ended up giving her a seven year contract with his company Mayflower Pictures. Her first film was the 1938 British musical comedy “Kicking the Moon Around”. Laughton took an interest in her, changed her last name from FitzSimons to O’Hara, and helped her get a part in the 1939 British Alfred Hitchcock thriller, “Jamaica Inn”, in which he starred. That was her third film, and Laughton had her cast again with him in what would be her fourth film (and first in Hollywood), as “Esmeralda" in the 1939 classic, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Because of WWII, Laughton feared for Mayflower Pictures’ financial ruin and sold O’Hara’s contract to RKO Pictures. Dismayed at first, it ended up beginning her rise to fame. Decades later she said "Laughton is totally responsible for my career”. Four films later came “How Green Was My Valley”, which made her a star and a WWII pinup. This role finally let her toughness shine through, and she eventually became known for portraying strong-willed Irish lasses in both dramas and comedies. In 1942 she made her first Technicolor film, “To the Shores of Tripoli” with John Payne. Technicolor magnificently captured her red hair, green eyes, and flawless complexion, and she became labelled “The Queen of Technicolor”. In 1950, Ford paired her with John Wayne for the first time in “Rio Grande”. The two had instant chemistry and would become one of the screen’s most popular and exciting couples. They made four more films together ("The Quiet Man”, “The Wings of Eagles”, “McLintock!”, and “Big Jake”) and remained lifelong friends. She also starred opposite Anthony Quinn in six films, including “The Black Swan” in 1942 - a pirate swashbuckler in which she did her own stunts (as she often did), earning her the nickname, “The Pirate Queen”.
Maureen O'Hara is best remembered for westerns and action films, her strong fearlessness, and for having an unassuming, un-movie star type air. She worked pretty steadily in film and TV until retiring in 1973. During retirement she owned and edited the travel magazine “Virgin Islander”, ran a clothing store, and became the first woman president of an airline company in the United States. She returned to the screen one last time in 1991’s “Only the Lonely”, and then appeared in three TV movies, with her last appearance being in “The Last Dance” in 2000. Among her sixty-five film and TV credits are the other classics, "Miracle on 34th Street", "Our Man in Havana", "The Parent Trap", "Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation", and "Sinbad the Sailor”. In 1993 she was made a Fellow of the British Film Institute in recognition of her outstanding contribution to film culture. Though she was never nominated for an Academy Award, in 2014 she was given an Honorary Oscar for her body of work. She was known off-screen for speaking her mind, being extremely religious, not drinking, not smoking, and being a staunch Conservative. She was married three times, and had one daughter whom she named Bronwyn, after Anna Lee’s character in “How Green Was My Valley” (O’Hara and Lee became close friends). Maureen O’Hara died in 2015 at the age of 95. I was able to see her interviewed in person by Robert Osborne at the 2014 TCM Film Festival, and though she was in a wheelchair and ninety-three years old, she still had spunk!
Donald Crisp plays “Gwilym Morgan”, the father and head of the “Morgan” family. Even with “Gwilym’s” strict principals and unflinching pride, Crisp manages to infuse humor and make the character completely believable and likable. This is a man of strength who comes to realize he has no power. The subtlety of Crisp’s performance is brilliantly endearing. Watch his physicality and expression as he pushes his son towards his fiancée, the unrestrained manner in which he sings the Irish drinking song, or the way he slightly moves his body when directing miners in the rain - all impressively executed. The impassioned banter with his wife is so real, one can’t help but love them both and get a true sense of family. This is a great performance. For his portrayal of “Gwilym”, Crisp won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award - his only win or nomination. The English born Donald Crips was an actor and a film director who began in early cinema. He directed just over seventy films (almost all silent), including the Buster Keaton classic, “The Navigator” in 1924. A prolific actor, he appeared in over 150 films from 1908 until 1963, and became one of the most popular character actors of the 1930s and 1940s. His other countless classics include "Intolerance", "Broken Blossoms", "Jezebel", "The Life of Emile Zola”, "Mutiny on the Bounty”, "Wuthering Heights", and film #6 on this blog, “Red Dust”, where you can read a bit more about him. He is an actor I love.
Anna Lee plays “Bronwyn”, the wife of “Ivor Morgan”, and sister-in-law of “Huw”. Looking angelic at times, “Bronwyn” represents purity, and it’s no wonder “Huw” is smitten with her. She has a bit of a dream-like quality which fits perfectly with the tone of the film. One of my favorite moments (which is a throwaway) is her expression as she watches her wedding cake almost fall to the floor - it is priceless. Lee does a super job in the role, especially in her scenes with McDowall. The two bonded immediately upon meeting and it shows in the film. They remained lifelong friends until his death in 1998. In fact, the entire shoot was an unusually happy one for a Ford film (he was known to be a tyrant), and there was such a feeling of family on the set that the women in the film (along with Ford and McDowall) met for lunch on the anniversary of the first day of shooting for decades, calling themselves “The Daughters of the Green Valley”. English born Anna Lee began appearing in films in 1932, and amassed just over 120 film and TV credits in a career lasting until 2003. After appearing in British films, she moved to Hollywood in 1941, and “Seven Sinners” with John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich was her first Hollywood film. “How Green Was My Valley” came two films later, and she appeared in seven additional Ford films (and one Ford directed TV episode), including "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, “Two Rode Together” and “Fort Apache”. She later became a character actress appearing in many classic films in small but very notable roles such as the neighbor in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and as “Sister Margaretta” in “The Sound of Music”. Her final role was as “Lila Quartermaine” on the TV soap opera “General Hospital" from 1979 until 2003 (yes, twenty four years!), for which she was posthumously awarded a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award. She was married three times. Anna Lee died in 2004 at the age of 91.
Sara Allgood plays “Mrs. Beth Morgan”, the wife and mother of the “Morgan” family. A tough, forceful woman, she somehow unofficially rules the family. Allgood is fantastic in the role, bringing the inner workings of a frustrated, loving, hopeful mother to light. Her speech in the snow to the miners exemplifies a wife protective of her husband, and her interplay with the other actors in the film is impeccable and highly entertaining. For her work, she earned her only Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination. Allgood was the exception to the “family” feel during the shoot, and she and Ford did not get along at all. According to Anna Lee, Allgood was unhappy during the entire shoot, and was not part of the “The Daughters of the Green Valley”. Irish born Sara Allgood started on the Irish stage and began appearing in films in 1918. Her second film was the early British Alfred Hitchcock 1929 classic, “Blackmail”, and she appeared in two more Hitchcock films, "Juno and the Paycock” in 1930, and “Sabotage” in 1936. After touring in theater, she moved to Los Angeles in 1940 and began a career as a character actress often playing sympathetic motherly types. Some other classics in which she appears include "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Jane Eyre”, “The Lodger”, “The Keys of the Kingdom”, “The Spiral Staircase”, and “That Hamilton Woman”. She was married once (just shy of two years), sadly losing her day-old baby and husband in the same year. Sara Allgood died in 1950 at the age of 69.
In addition to its Oscar wins for Best Picture (Zanuck), Director (Ford), Supporting Actor (Crisp), and Art Direction (Day, Juran, and Little), Arthur C. Miller won a Best Cinematography Academy Award as well for his spectacular photography. Along with the film’s Oscar nominations for Supporting Actress (Allgood) and Screenplay (Dunne), the film was also nominated for Best Sound Recording (Edmund H. Hansen), Best Film Editing (James B. Clark) and Best Music Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (Alfred Newman).
This film is bound to spellbind you by its bewitching beauty, stirring performances, and inventive narrative. This is a film that leaves an unforgettable mark in the mind and the heart. Enjoy “How Green Was My Valley”!
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