Friday, March 6, 2015

"Mrs. Miniver" with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon (1943)

I’ve been watching a lot of my favorite old films this past week; and realizing that here is yet another one I have never posted about before. Odd; considering that it is among my favorite films. Within just 3 years of her film debut in “Goodbye Mr. Chips”, Greer Garson was an established screen presence on both sides of the Atlantic. There was a down to earth quality about her that could not be ignored.

In this film, directed by William Wyler, Ms. Garson plays the role of Mrs. Miniver, who is married to a man named Clem, played by Walter Pidgeon. They are the picture of the rising middle class in England before the advent of the Second World War. If you are a fan of Downton Abbey then you are familiar with the changes taking place at the time of the First World War. By necessity, England was becoming fairly democratic, and the old guard was yielding territory to the new.

The Miniver’s have 3 children; two boys and one girl. The eldest is Vin; played by Richard Ney; who is a student at Oxford and home for a visit when the war breaks out. Since he is of age to serve, he enlists in the RAF and enlists at the outbreak of the war. The other 2 are just children.

They are also neighbors to the formidable Lady Beldon; played regally by Dame May Whitty; along with her granddaughter Carol; played by the lovely Teresa Wright. We first meet them when Carol comes over to ask Mrs. Miniver if she would consider coaxing the local stationmaster Mr. Ballard; played wonderfully by Henry Travers; to pull his new rose from the competition in the upcoming flower show sponsored by her grandmother. Lady Beldon has won the prize for best rose for as long as the contest has been around. She is old, and Carol argues that it would break the old lady’s heart to not win.

This sparks a spirited debate between Carol and Vin; in which the young man is rude in his presentation of his argument that this is a perfect example of what is wrong with the world. It smacks of the feudal system as far as he is concerned.  He storms off after having made quite an impression on Carol. The Miniver’s are embarrassed at their son’s outburst, but Carol is very gracious and you can see the beginnings of a romance budding from the episode.

By this time the war is on and bombs are falling in nearby towns and villages. The British are cornered at Dunkirk and all available boats are rounded up to evacuate the troops and bring them home. Mr. Miniver takes the family boat and joins the others for the daring rescue of several hundred thousand soldiers.

While he is gone Mrs. Miniver is walking in the garden when she spots a pair of boots sticking out from beneath the bushes. She realizes that it is the enemy pilot who was shot down the previous day and is still at large. He commands her to take him in the house and demands food; which she gives him; before he passes out form his injuries. When he comes to he realizes that she has called the police and that he is now a prisoner. She has taken his pistol while he was out. But before the police arrive he harangues her with the superiority of the Nazi’s over the British and she slaps him. This is one of the best film slaps ever; until Sidney Poitier does his bit in 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night.”

When her husband returns from Dunkirk she is silent about her own adventure with capturing the German pilot, until the maid spills the beans. Her husband; just back from his own brush with the war; is flabbergasted that his wife handled the situation alone so well. Now he challenges her to go meet Lady Beldon, who has arrived for a visit. That, he opines, will take real courage.

Lady Beldon is old school and likes it that way. She lords her position as the dowager of the town. She was married when she 16 years old to a man who went off to fight in the First World War and didn’t make it home. Now, when Carol and Vin are planning to marry, she is opposed to it for two reasons. The first is that Carol would be marrying beneath her station; which Mrs. Miniver ejects as foolish.

The old lady then objects on the grounds that the boy may never come home. Mrs. Miniver; in her inimitable way; convinces the older woman that it is best to have a snatch at happiness than not. After all, didn’t she marry at an even younger age? And, secondly, would she trade that love now, even years later, for anything else in the world? Lady Beldon caves in and declares that if Vin has any class at all, she now knows where he got it from. That is as close to a compliment as the old woman has ever come.

When the flower show comes up it is a true test of the changes the war is bringing to Britain. The old woman is adamant about winning and has stepped up her campaign to have Mr. Ballard pull his rose; which he has named the “Mrs. Miniver”; from the competition. He refuses. In his own way the old man is in love with Mrs. Miniver and this is his only way to show that. He is equally adamant about leaving the rose in the competition.

When the day arrives the judges judge and the old lady waits for the results she knows will be forthcoming. After all, this is her contest and always has been. She is the sponsor and feels she is entitled to win. But the judges have figured out a way to make her do what is right.

When Lady Beldon gets up to announce the winner, she has in her hands the judges written decision; which shows her in first place and the Miniver Rose by Mr. Ballard as second. To be sure she gets the message they place the two roses side by side where the audience can clearly see them. They then place the trophy behind the Miniver Rose; as if to underscore their true feelings.

Lady Beldon hasn’t got a chance. She can claim the prize or admit that the other rose is the better of the two. But will pride let her? In a wonderful scene, which always leaves me a bit teary eyed, she does the right thing and even manages to endear herself to the people of the town, while still holding on to her revered place in society. She is surprised that giving can bring so much joy to everyone; including herself.

There is one last dark chapter left in the film. That comes during an air raid when Carol is killed. Vin returns home and the family bury her. The next Sunday finds everyone at the bombed out church where the Vicar; played by Henry Wilcoxon is holding services under an open roof. The Miniver’s file in and fill their pew. But Lady Beldon; with all of her wealth; is accompanied by only a footman who covers her with a lap robe and then retreats to the rear of the church, leaving the old woman alone in her pew.

Vin cannot help but notice that with all her wealth she really has nothing. As the Vicar leads the congregation in a hymn Vin crosses the aisle and shares a hymn book with Lady Beldon and the two are almost united by their love of God, Country and the recently deceased Carol. Once again, this scene leaves me teary eyed as they two close the gap between the classes with their common grief.

This movie is a beautiful tribute to the changing of the guard in England after the war, as well as a salute to the perseverance and charm that have always managed to carry the British people through whatever crisis has beset them. And did I mention that it’s also a great movie?

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