Saturday, July 12, 2014

The John Ford Blogathon: How Green Was My Valley

This is my principle entry into The John Ford Blogathon. I sometimes spill out my entire head when writing about my favorite films. I hope you'll indulge me.

How Green Was My Valley (1941, directed by John Ford) is a film that one should not approach with a cynical eye. It's far, far too earnest a film to reward such a viewer. It's a film so drenched in nostalgia and sentiment that the fact that it's a really dark, really disillusioned film isn't immediately obvious. But it is. It's a film about loss: lost innocence, lost loves, lost loved ones, a lost place, a lost era. It appeared at a point in time where the hinges of history were turning, and it's very much of its zeitgeist.

For most of its running time, How Green Was My Valley is a picaresque that wanders between stories and incidents. It's almost an anthology film, featuring three main narratives. Eventually, the filmmakers tie them all together in a way that makes the overall design of the film manifest and unified. The film is centered on the Morgans, a coal mining family in Wales near the end of the 19th century. All of the Morgan brothers except for young Huw work in the mines alongside their father. They gather their wages, walk down the hill to their home, and toss the coins in the apron of their mother for safe-keeping. The Morgan brothers are dissatisfied with their lot in life when the mine owners move to cut their wages and against their father's wishes, form a union and strike. Meanwhile, their sister, Angharad, is being courted by the son of the mine owner, even though her heart belongs to Dr. Gruffydd, the pastor at their church. Gruffydd can't stand the idea of Angharad subsisting on the pittance of a church man and steps aside as she's wed to a man she doesn't love. Unfortunately for them both, tongues in town will wag. The movie is told by Huw, looking back, and his story finds him injured in a winter accident and working with Dr. Gruffydd both to find his feet again and to improve himself through education so he might escape the life of a miner. He's sent to a brutal school where he's bullied by his classmates and thrashed by his teacher, who despise his poverty. He's taught to box by his family's friends, who soon after teach the boy's reluctant teacher how to box, as well. Meanwhile, the influx of desperate men to the valley makes the more highly-paid Morgan brothers expendable. Additionally, one of the brothers is killed in a mining accident, leaving his widow and newborn child bereft. Even though Huw has better prospects, he eventually chooses to go to work in the mines both to help his family and his sister in law (upon whom he has a crush). Meanwhile, Angharad returns from abroad without her husband and rumors of divorce spread, tainting Dr. Gruffydd's position in the Church. A final cataclysmic mining accident unites the Morgans for one last time before scattering them all to the wind...

How Green Was My Valley had a rough path to the screen. Daryl Zanuck bought the rights to Richard Llewellyn's novel for the unheard-of price of $300,000, intending to make a technicolor epic out of it along the lines of Gone With the Wind. He ran into immediate problems from his financiers, who were scared of the novel's pro-union stance. Zanuck, himself a Republican, smelled enough money to go ahead with it anyway. The first director he hired to make it was William Wyler, who intended to make the film on location in Wales. The outbreak of World War II put the kibosh on that. The necessity of filming in California--the film was shot in the Santa Monica Mountains in California--ruled out Technicolor. Suddenly, a planned epic began to shrink in its scale. Art sometimes thrives on limitations, and this film is one of the best examples of that dictum.

Maureen O'Hara in How Green Was My Valley

How Green Was My Valley occupies a pivotal place in John Ford's filmography. It comes at the end of his greatest critical successes of the late thirties and early forties, right before he went to war as the head of a documentary unit. In some ways, it's a capstone to the Murnau-influenced films of the 1930s. Parts of it play as if it were a silent film, a characteristic of many of Ford's 1930s movies. Angharad's wedding, for instance, can be played without sound (the Welsh singing not withstanding), though the tolling bell of the wedding chapel adds a note of doom to the proceedings. The film has a narrator--I suspect that the narrator is a device to ease the storytelling of a three hour movie that has been compressed into two--but it's not difficult to imagine the narration as title cards. The final montage is very much a legacy of the silent era. Ford held on to the principles learned in his early career longer and more tenaciously than many of his contemporaries. Perhaps that's his greatest strength as a director.

Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O'Hara in How Green Was My Valley

The film is a gateway to Ford's later career, too, particularly insofar as it introduces Maureen O'Hara to the director's films. O'Hara, just 20 years old when the film was made, would become a fixture of Ford's post-war films. Her performance as Angharad opposite Walter Pidgeon's Dr. Gruffydd is more nuanced than anyone has a right to expect from such a young actress, and the steel in O'Hara's spine that so attracted Ford was already in full force. O'Hara had a face sculpted for movies, even in black and white (if ever there was an actress born to be filmed in Technicolor, it's Maureen O'Hara), and Ford had an eye for faces.

Sara Allgood in How Green Was My Valley

Sara Allgood in How Green Was My Valley

The other prominent women in the film are Sara Allgood as Beth Morgan and Anna Lee (another of Ford's favorites), and the role of women in How Green Was My Valley is not only typical of Ford, it's downright archetypal. Mrs. Morgan is a distillation of Ma Joad, given both a nostalgia-tinged sweetness and a surprising ferocity. When she berates the miners who are tormenting her husband for disapproving of the strike, she's a more proactive character than Ma Joad. Likewise, Anna Lee's Bronwyn is a variant of Stagecoach's Lucy Mallory, a mother without a partner who attracts a romantic protector. That that protector in this film is 12 year old Huw would be comical if the film wanted to play with that. Fortunately, it doesn't. The end of the film finds Ford filming the three of them as if they're saints, as if they're the women who followed Christ as they wait for him to be removed from the cross, a notion underlined by the shot of young Huw cradling his father as he is returned to the surface. It's a Pietà of sorts.

Maureen O'Hara, Anna Lee, and Sara Allgood in How Green Was My Valley

Roddy McDowall in How Green Was My Valley

The men are types familar from Ford's other films, too, with loveable drunks, blustering patriarchs, righteously rebellious sons, and sacrificing lovers. Donald Crisp gets the plum role of Mr. Morgan and even though he's a type, the actor humanizes him so much that one can't help but admire the man the same way that Huw admires him, even when he's being a pig-headed obstruction. Crisp won an Oscar for the role, and I don't argue the accolade. He's a wonderful character.

Donald Crisp in How Green Was My Valley

Even so, my eye winds up looking at Walter Pidgeon's Dr. Gruffydd whenever I watch the film. He's got a bigger, much more complicated part to play than Crisp, and he's surprisingly good in the role even though at 44, he was probably too old to be cast as the suitor for 20 year old Maureen O'Hara. Gruffydd is a type that shows up throughout Ford's films, whether in the form of Wyatt Earp turning his back on Clementine at the end of My Darling Clementine or Tom Doniphon stepping aside so Hallie can find happiness with Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Ford finds sacrificing one's personal happiness for the object of one's desire deliriously romantic, and that was never more true than it is in How Green Was My Valley. While I think this idea might actually be bullshit, I can't deny that Ford invests the idea with all his art when he really wants to convey it. Certainly, Gruffydd's reasons for denying his love for Angharad seems manufactured, but this is completely bulldozed by the images Ford puts on screen, whether it's the scene when Gruffydd is just a shadow in the background as Angharad is driven off by her new husband or the glance that he gives her when they meet at the mine cave-in at the end of the film, after both of them have already destroyed their lives. This was Roddy McDowall's first film, and he was already fully formed as an actor. Huw is a difficult, physically demanding role, and McDowall is never false in it. He's an adorable figure, but a disillusioned one, too.

Donald Crisp in How Green Was My Valley

The other Morgan brothers are bound up with the film's politics, and you can see the tension between the man who made The Grapes of Wrath and his conservative minders in the scenes between the Morgan brothers and their father when the subject is the strike. Ianto Morgan's rebuke to his father, "We are not questioning your authority, sir, but if manners prevent our speaking the truth, we will be without manners," is a line I hope to direct at anyone who wants to police the tone of dissent. I hope it made Zanuck uncomfortable and I hope it gave his financiers some sleepless nights. This is a film that skirts toward a socialist message--Morgan even uses the word, derisively--and it's the backbone of everything that happens in the film. This is a film that chafes itself raw at the social order. Huw's school days are this theme in microcosm, in which those in power thrash the little guy, literally. The scene where Dai Bando and Cyfartha deliver a boxing lesson to the vile Mr. Jonas is a lovely fantasy in which class war is smuggled. Indeed, all of the film's villains represent the institutions of capitalist order: The Evanses are capital, the hateful Mr. Parry is the church, and the hateful gossips are "respectable" society. The scene where Parry condemns a single mother to "the outer darkness" is a more forceful rerun of the town church ladies in Stagecoach driving Dallas out on the stage. This is another film in which Ford's sympathies are with the fallen, the poor, the drunkard, the disabled. Ford, the person, was described by multiple collaborators as a sadist in real life, so one can only wonder at the compassion--almost to the point of schmaltz--in the man's films. I dunno. Maybe all of this is a hangover from the Great Depression, which was the only time the political left ever had any leverage in American politics. Ford was accounted a conservative after the war, perhaps because of his association with John Wayne, so the fact that he was dallying with Marxism at all in his films--and, really, he wasn't if you get down to brass tacks--is emblematic of a brief social milieu.

Roddy McDowall and Walter Pidgeon in How Green Was My Valley

Certainly, there's a romantic longing for an agrarian past in How Green Was My Valley and the film's visual style contrasts the ugliness of "progress" with an idyllic lost paradise. This reminds me a bit of The Magnificent Ambersons. In the long opening of that book (somewhat compressed in the movie), Booth Tarkington laments the "darkening" of his fair city as industry and capitalism take over (he might also be talking about the ethnicity of that city, too--you can make an argument--but this is way outside the bounds of the point I want to make). Orson Welles declared his only teachers in cinema to be John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford, and you can see some of the structures of How Green Was My Valley seeping into what remains of his version of The Magnificent Ambersons. In any event, the expressiveness of landscapes was already a hallmark of Ford's films, and this film takes that to an extreme. In this, he's aided by the stark black and white photography of Arthur C. Miller and the creative sets designed to turn California into Wales. There's an element of "movieland" in the look of the film, a left-over of the influence of Sunrise, I think, but that set of unreality only enhances the melodrama rather than detracting from it. The scenes out in "nature" in which Dr. Gruffydd teaches Huw to walk again seem like pre-Raphaelite paintings (and it should be noted that using a heightened depiction of nature was one way that the pre-Raphaelites rebelled against the Industrial Revolution).

In truth, the film shouldn't work. It's overstuffed and occasionally drenched in sentiment. And yet, somehow, it does. There are passages in this film that I'd hold up to any other great film you'd like to name. By my lights, it's one of the most beautiful films on this green earth.

I'll tuck this after the end, but occasionally when I rewatch How Green Was My Valley, I sometimes find myself screaming at the characters to the effect that young Huw will eventually take the name Caesar and lead the apes in revolt. Maybe this is just me.

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Dan Day, Jr. said...

This is an excellent post. I'm going to share it on my Hitless Wonder Movie Page on Facebook.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Dan,


Beth Daniels said...

GAH!! I couldn't post this last night. I hope you'll still accept this entry!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

No problem, Beth. There have been a couple of stragglers. The blogathon is open for business as long as submissions keep coming in.

Caftan Woman said...

"Ford held on to the principles learned in his early career longer and more tenaciously than many of his contemporaries. Perhaps that's his greatest strength as a director."

Very well said. "How Green Was My Valley" isn't a movie that is viewed, it is a movie that is lived.

Silver Screenings said...

Ha ha! I LOVED that you added the part about Huw changing his name to "Caesar" and leading an ape revolt. Perfect!

This is a beautifully-written post. "How Green was my Valley" makes me cry every single time I watch it. It is SO sad and, as you said, quite dark.

I really enjoyed the extra historical info you added about the making of this film. I think I'll be seeing the film with new eyes next time. Thanks!