A powerfully galvanizing war film like no other
I first saw “Mrs. Miniver” on the big screen at a repertory movie house while in college and was so taken by it and its star Greer Garson, that both became favorites. Evidently my reaction wasn't unique, for upon its original release Garson became a top star and the film became a resounding worldwide success and the highest grossing film in the US and Canada up to that time. It was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won six (including Best Picture and Best Actress), and over sixty years later the American Film Institute voted it the #40th Most Inspiring Film of All Time. This film is so categorically well executed and delivers such an abundance of emotions, you might want to keep a tissue or two handy.
“Mrs. Miniver” is a war film without battles, tanks, or gun fights. Taking place in rural England, the story is from the perspective of "Mrs. Miniver", an unpretentious housewife and mother, her husband “Clem”, and three children, “Vin”, “Judy” and “Toby”. It begins as characters are indulging in life’s simple pleasures (such as buying an extravagant hat or box of cigars) just as England enters World War II. “Vin” has returned from Oxford University with all the youthful idealism and vigor of a young man about to embark on life. He becomes romantically involved with “Carol Beldon”, the granddaughter of the blue-blooded pillar of the community, the prideful “Lady Beldon”. As the cloud of war arrives, all of their lives drastically change as they move from innocence to acceptance and sacrifice. The film exposes what it’s like to live through war from a home front point-of-view including jolting sirens warning of approaching aircrafts, air raids, a harrowing occasion in a bomb shelter, and even the Dunkirk evacuation. We see how war shifts priorities, shows us what’s really important, brings out the best (and worst) in humans, and dissolves differences between people - including those of class and stature.
Based on a collection of short stories by Jan Struther (later published as a 1940 novel), “Mrs. Miniver” began production before the United States entered WWII. Its director, William Wyler stated years later that it was intended as a propaganda film to encourage the US to help with the war effort. As the script was being written (by Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, and Claudine West - all of whom won Best Screenplay Oscars for their work) the US was inching closer to involvement in the war, so tweaks to the script were constantly being made. The December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor came just as filming completed, and with the US no longer just a sympathetic observer but now in the war, the script was slightly altered once more to reflect emotions of a country at war, and a couple of scenes were even reshot. With its heartwarming humor in the midst of horrific wartime, “Mrs. Miniver” had a profound effect on its original audiences. Watching a brave woman gracefully meet challenging situations the British were actually facing at the time gave wartime audiences hope, inspiration, and insight into their own predicaments. In his June 5, 1942 New York Times review, Bosley Crowther wrote, “It is hard to believe that a picture could be made within the heat of present strife which would clearly, but without a cry for vengeance, crystallize the cruel effect of total war upon a civilized people. Yet that is what has been magnificently done in Metro's ‘Mrs. Miniver’…”. One of the most impactful war films ever made, it galvanized Americans into supporting Britain as they entered the war. President Franklin Roosevelt prescreened the film and insisted MGM rush its release to help build morale. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was quoted as saying its effect on “public sentiment in the USA was worth a whole regiment”, and Britain’s Queen Mother told Greer Garson that the film "was the most wonderful boost for our morale. It made us feel perhaps we really are brave after all". Today audiences may view the film through different eyes, but “Mrs. Miniver” still continues to entertain, affect, and inspire.
It’s no accident that “Mrs. Miniver” is such a solidly entertaining film. It was directed by one of cinema’s paramount filmmakers, William Wyler. He created an emotional film about war filled with humor and horror, though never maudlin or heavy-handed. He easily captures the feel of family, a rural village, and a country at war, and one example of his ability to create an atmospherically real world is the scene at the flower show. In that sequence his directing approach gives a strong sense of the village’s colorful residents, disappearing class divides, and the threat of war - all with an amusingly gripping tone. He won a Best Director Academy Award for this film, and it was his fifth nomination. As of this writing he remains Oscar's most nominated film director, having received twelve nominations (with three wins - the other two being “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Ben Hur”). He was also nominated for two Best Picture Academy Awards as a producer. In addition, his films have won a combined 39 Oscars - more than any other director dead or alive (Steven Spielberg currently comes in second with a total of 32). William Wyler directed countless classics, and his credits look like a Greatest Films of All-Time list. To date, I’ve featured three of his film on this site, “The Heiress”, “Funny Girl”, and “Roman Holiday”, and you can read more about him, his accomplishments and life in those posts by clicking on the film titles to read more.
In great films you usually find unforgettable performances, and in the title role as "Mrs. Kay Miniver", Greer Garson gives one of the screen’s best and most indelible. As we watch the film largely through her eyes, we also feel the film through her enormous heart. Expertly underplayed and devoid of artifice, Garson’s depth of emotion and humanity ring entirely true. There’s an unassuming ease to her performance as layers of deep feelings glide across her face through penetrating looks. Whether listening to “Vin” talk of joining the Air Force or explaining the preciousness of time to “Lady Beldon”, Garson manages to strike chords of compassion, bravery, strength, love, and humanity at its best. It’s one thing for an actor to tackle a meaty role, but to play an everyday person and make them interesting is a rare skill. She is even able to make a simple storyline about a hat compelling. Garson and co-star Walter Pidgeon (who plays her husband, “Clem”) have a sparkling, easygoing chemistry in which their temperaments perfectly mesh. Their generous display of mutual warmth, respect, and love (rarely if ever matched in films or TV today) serve as comfort in a time of calamity. This was their second film together, and the two quickly became one of cinema’s most popular screen couples - appearing as a married couple in a total of eight films. Fearful that playing the mother of an adult son would relegate her to older roles, Garson was apprehensive about playing “Mrs. Miniver”. But being under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and at studio chief Louis B. Mayer’s strong “request”, she complied. Little did she know her brilliant performance as “Mrs. Miniver” would earn her a Best Actress Academy Award, an iconic place in film history as a noble matriarch, and raise her to one of the top ten box-office stars in the world (remaining so though 1946). Garson was so perfect in the role, she became typecast playing high moral, do-gooder women, and became a symbol of strength, dignity, and courage during the war. She was quoted as calling herself “Metro’s Glorified Mama”. One of Hollywood’s most talented actresses, Garson was also famous for her beauty, trademark red hair, eloquent diction, and regal air.
Born in London to an Irish mother and a father of Scottish decent, Greer Garson became interested in acting while at the University of London. After graduating and working in an advertising agency, she began appearing in local stage productions, eventually joining the Birmingham Repertory Company in 1931. Her stage career got a big boost when she appeared with Sir Laurence Olivier in “The Golden Arrow” in 1935. Garson appeared in a short film in 1934, and began to appear on British TV in 1937. Also in 1937, she appeared in the play, “Old Music”, which Louis B. Mayer happened to attend one evening. He signed her to a seven year contract with MGM, and she made her way to Hollywood at the ripe old actress age of 33 (most of the screen’s leading ladies began in their teens or 20’s). She sat idle until MGM finally cast her as the female lead in her first film, the 1939 classic, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, and with it she instantly became a star and earned her first Best Actress Oscar nomination. In 1940 Garson starred opposite Laurence Olivier in "Pride and Prejudice”, followed by her first pairing with Pidgeon in 1941’s "Blossoms in the Dust” (for which she received a second Oscar nomination). Already a star, her sixth film, “Mrs. Miniver” made her MGM’s most valuable star, gave her a third Best Actress Oscar nomination, and her only Academy Award win. Her acceptance speech became legendary (being said to have been over forty minutes long). Though it was actually only five minutes and 30 seconds in length, it is still the longest acceptance speech in Academy history, and shortly after, Oscar “thank-you” speeches were limited to forty-five seconds. To date, Garson is the fourth most Oscar nominated actress in history, earning seven acting Academy Award nominations (beaten only by Meryl Streep with 21, Katharine Hepburn with 12, and Bette Davis with 10).
While filming “Mrs. Miniver”, Garson became romantically involved with Richard Ney who plays her son “Vin” in the film. Worried about the age difference, the studio tried to hide the romance to no avail, and they married in 1943 when she was 39 years old and he was 26. They divorced in 1948. After "Mrs. Miniver" came the classic "Random Harvest”, followed by several more excellent films. Once the war ended, audiences grew weary of her Pollyanna type roles and her popularity began to dip starting with the 1946 film “Adventure” opposite Clark Gable. Garson's career never quite recovered. The studio tried changing her image with the 1948 comedy "Julia Misbehaves”, but it didn’t click with audiences. In 1950 the studio made “The Miniver Story”, a sequel to “Mrs. Miniver”, which lacked the original’s magic and box-office success. She did not renew her MGM contract in 1954, instead turning primarily to television, making just a handful more films, including her semi-comeback role as Eleanor Roosevelt in 1960's, “Sunrise at Campobello”, for which she earned her final Academy Award nomination. Her other classics include "Madame Curie", "The Valley of Decision", "Mrs. Parkington", "Julius Caesar", "The Singing Nun", and Walt Disney's "The Happiest Millionaire”. Her final appearance was in a 1982 episode of the TV series, “The Love Boat”. For her achievements, Queen Elizabeth II invested Garson as Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993. She married three times (including her marriage to Ney), and her final marriage to Texas millionaire and horse breeder, E.E. Fogelson, whom she met while filming “Julia Misbehaves”. The two were married for close to forty years, until his death in 1987. Greer Garson died in 1996 at the age of 91.
Walter Pidgeon stars as “Mr. Clem Miniver”, the cool, collected head of the family. Pidgeon found his forte in this type of role as it fit his calm yet weighty manner like a glove. With zero sign of histrionics, he captures a fatherly aura of strength, amusement and love, no matter whom he’s opposite, and with his charm he injects humor into the film. As stated above, through their natural rapport and chemistry, he and Garson somehow embody a happy husband and wife more authentically than possibly anyone else on-screen ever has. Like “Kay”, “Clem” is self-composed in the face of fire. A prime example is his behavior in the film’s famous bomb shelter scene. He plays it with an exquisitely delicate balance between stoic thoughtfulness for his wife and kids, and panic. Walter Pidgeon was riding high when “Mrs. Miniver” came about. A star in the early thirties whose light had somewhat dimmed, he scored a major comeback as the lead in the Oscar winning, “How Green was My Valley”. With “Mrs. Miniver”, he earned his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination, followed by a second (and final) the next year for “Madame Curie” (also opposite Garson in another of her nominated performances). He appeared in many classics, including three already written about in this blog, “Funny Girl”, “Forbidden Planet” and “How Green was My Valley”. Please check them out to find out more about Walter Pidgeon.
Teresa Wright plays “Carol Beldon” the delightful granddaughter of “Lady Beldon”. Highborn but down to earth, "Carol" bridges the gap between the upper class and the “Minivers”. Not just a pretty face but a woman with spunk, she has no qualms about putting “Vin” in his place at their first meeting in the film - which is quite entertaining. The very genuine and likable Wright brings youth and geniality to the role and is quite convincing in both humorous and serious moments. This was only her second film, and for it she won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. In addition, she was nominated that same year as Best Actress for her third film, “The Pride of the Yankees”, opposite Gary Cooper. To date, Wright is the second of twelve actors nominated in both “Best" and “Supporting” acting Oscar categories in the same year.
Teresa Wright decided to become an actress at an early age, acting in school plays. After graduation she continued appearing onstage, and in 1939 Samuel Goldwyn spotted her in the play “Life with Father” and signed her to a contract with Goldwyn Studios. He immediately cast her in her first film, as daughter to Bette Davis in “The Little Foxes”, for which she earned her first Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Successes in “Mrs. Miniver” and “The Pride of the Yankees” were followed by perhaps her most famous role - the lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller, "Shadow of a Doubt”. After appearing in several more films (including the Oscar winning "The Best Years of Our Lives”), Wright had a falling out with Goldwyn who cancelled her contract. After appearing in some lesser films, come the mid-1950s she almost exclusively appeared on television and stage, eventually earning three Emmy Award nominations. Her final film appearance was in the 1997 version of “The Rainmaker” starring Matt Damon. Some of her other notable films include "The Actress", "The Men”, “Pursued”, "The Good Mother”, and "Somewhere in Time”. She was married three times, including marriages to screenwriters Niven Busch and Robert Anderson. Teresa Wright died in 2005 at the age of 86.
A familiar face and personality to those watching the films on this blog, Dame May Whitty plays the upper class “Lady Beldon”. She always stands out as highly entertaining in her roles (no matter how small) and “Mrs. Miniver” is no exception. With her distinct flair, she paints a heartfelt portrait of a woman humbled by war. One of the most important people in the town, “Lady Beldon’s” great pleasure is her flower show, and in particular, its rose competition which she has won unchallenged for thirty years. As war arrives, her world slowly begins to fall apart as her granddaughter wants to marry below her grade, and she has a competitor for the first time in her rose contest. Whitty is able to show this woman’s world devolve, while maintaining appropriate grace and humor. She is a joy to watch, and garnered a second Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for the role (her first was for 1938's "Night Must Fall”). Though she began her successful film career at 72 years old, she appeared in many classics, and I wrote more about her life and career in my post on “Gaslight”. Please check it out for more on this fabulous actress.
Another familiar face to watchers of films on this site is Henry Travers who plays “Mr. Ballard”, the local stationmaster. You should recognize him from the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” as the lovable angel “Clarence” (the role for which is best known). Playing yet another lovable character in “Mrs. Miniver”, Travers presents what someone in the film describes as a “humble man of spirit”. When given the right part, Travers is one of those actors whose heart radiates off the screen, and with only a couple of scenes he makes a lasting impression. In his scene at the flower show, he displays a spectacular mix of humility, joy, embarrassment, and kindness without speaking almost any dialogue. For this role he earned his only Academy Award nomination (Best Supporting Actor). He appeared in many other classics, and you can read more about Henry Travers and his career in my “It’s a Wonderful Life” entry.
Another artist I’ve previously written about is the film’s cinematographer, Joseph Ruttenberg, who won an Academy Award for “Mrs. Miniver” for his gorgeous cinematography. It was his second Oscar win (his first was for 1938’s “The Great Waltz”. He went on to win two additional Oscars (for “Gigi” and “Somebody Up There Likes Me”), out of a total of ten nominations. I wrote about him in “The Philadelphia Story” post, and mentioned him in “Gaslight”.
“Mrs. Miniver” also earned an Academy Award nomination for its Sound Recording by Douglas Shearer. His realistic sounds of aircrafts and bombs alone are enough to make anyone nervous. In addition to Sound Recording, he was also nominated (along with A. Arnold Gillespie and Warren Newcombe) for the film’s Special Effects. If you read film credits you will see Shearer’s name listed for sound or recording supervisor on just about every MGM film made before the mid-1950s. A vital figure in cinema history, the Canadian born Douglas Shearer moved to Hollywood in the 1920’s to join his already relocated mother and sisters Athole and Norma (yes - that Norma Shearer - the one who became one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars). Starting out in MGM’s technical department, with the arrival of sound (and his interest in it) Shearer was made sound recorder on MGM’s first sound film “White Shadows in the South Seas” in 1928. As sound films became the norm, MGM created a sound department with Shearer at its helm. As head of MGM’s recording department, from his soundproof office he could listen to and supervise recordings from any soundstage on the lot with just the flip of a switch. As the chief sound engineer for MGM, he developed innovations in sound and recording (including creating a contraption to house the noisy cameras used in the early days of sound), refined recording techniques (such as putting felt on the floor to soften the sound of rain), developed a two horn system for theaters (separating music and sound), and much, much more. For his innovations, Shearer won seven Technical Academy Awards, two for Special Effects (out of six nominations), and five for Sound Recording (out of fifteen nominations). His last feature film was “Her Twelve Men” in 1954 (also starring Garson), though he remained as MGM’s Director of Technical Research until 1968. He worked on all the MGM films already mentioned on this blog, including - "Singin' in the Rain", "Red Dust", "The Good Earth", "The Philadelphia Story", "The Wizard of Oz", "Freaks", "Camille", "The Thin Man", "Gaslight", "Red-Headed Woman", and "An American in Paris”. He was married three times (and widowed twice). Douglas Shearer died in 1971 at the age of 71.
In addition to its six Oscar wins (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography) and five nominations (Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Sound Recording, Special Effects) all mentioned above, “Mrs. Miniver” was also nominated for its editing by Harold F. Kress.
One last mention of the film’s incomparable Art Director, Cedric Gibbons. Through his sublime art direction we are beautifully transported into war-torn England. As the head of MGM’s art department for over thirty years, Gibbons is another name I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, as he worked on innumerous Hollywood films and classics. He served as Art Director/Production Designer for eight films on this blog (so far), where you can read more about him - “Gaslight”, “The Thin Man”, “Camille”, “Forbidden Planet”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “The Wizard of Oz”, "An American in Paris", and in particular, “The Good Earth”.
Through its place in history, this week’s film reminds one of the power of cinema and its ability to comfort and inspire. A refreshing beacon of hope, light, and inspiration - whether seen in 1945 or today, enjoy “Mrs. Miniver”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
The Vicar’s speech at the end of "Mrs. Miniver" was as much for the churchgoers in the film as it was for the moviegoers in the audience at the time. Said to be rewritten by director Wyler and actor Henry Wilcoxen (who plays the Vicar), it intentionally echoed the words of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The speech was also said to have been translated into various languages, printed on leaflets, handed out to audiences, and dropped through the air over occupied territories.