Mrs. Miniver: Best Picture, 1942

The 15th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Bob Hope. World War II (which the United States had entered just a few months prior to the previous ceremony) was in full swing in Europe and the Pacific, and the nominations reflected the heightened sense of patriotism with entries like Yankee Doodle Dandy (8 nominations, 3 wins), The Pride of the Yankees (11 nominations, 1 win), and Wake Island (4 nominations, 0 wins). Mrs. Miniver was nominated for 12 awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Walter Pidgeon), Best Actress (Greer Garson), Best Supporting Actor (Henry Travers), Best Supporting Actress (Teresa Wright), Best Supporting Actress (Dame May Whitty), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Special Effects, and Best Sound.

Pidgeon lost out to James Cagney’s iconic performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Travers (best remembered today as the angel Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life) lost to Van Heflin for Johnny Eager. Best Supporting Actress went to Teresa Wright (also nominated as Best Actress for The Pride of the Yankees) over Dame May Whitty. Best Editing, Sound, and Effects were awarded to The Pride of the Yankees, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Reap the Wild Wind, respectively, leaving Mrs. Miniver to scoop up the rest for a total of 6 Oscars.

This was Director William Wyler’s 5th nomination, and his first win (the other two being for post-WWII weeper The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 and the much-ballyhooed Ben-Hur in 1959). It is the story of the lives of a middle-class English family and their rural coastal village during the first part of World War II. Alternating skillfully from comedy to tragedy and back, the plot juggles such elements as German bombing raids, the rescue of British troops from Dunkirk, a local rose-gardening contest, young love, a downed enemy pilot, and the continuing erosion of the influence of England’s landed gentry, all the while keeping the focus squarely on the characters themselves.

Mrs. Miniver begins unimpressively, and is soon showing signs of some of the worst excesses of sentimentality common to the time. The initial portrait of village life is a quaint cliche, and the children of the family turn in stilted performances that come off as more revolting than adorable. In short, it seemed that this would turn out to be a tiresome example of feel-good wartime pablum. But a funny thing happened about half an hour in: the characters came alive. I would probably have to watch the film again (and believe me, I will) to pinpoint exactly when this takes place, but well before the halfway point I had become caught up in the ups and downs experienced by the Miniver family. This is truly great stuff, full of wonderful, memorable moments. The Dunkirk rescue sequence, though obviously done with models, is as stirring as it is awe-inspiring, and a scene where Mrs. Miniver and her daughter-in-law creep home during a black-out as German and British planes dogfight overhead is breath-taking. As evidenced by the effects nomination, their is a lot of great technical work to marvel at here.

However, as the record-setting number of acting nominations clearly shows, the performances are really at the heart of things. There are so many that stand out. I would have added supporting nominations for Richard Ney (who married Greer Garson shortly after the film came out) as the grown-up Miniver son, and Henry Wilcoxon for his brief but very powerful performance as the Vicar. The actors and actresses just make you fall in love with their characters, and with this movie. They all stand out.

Released in 1941, Mrs. Miniver was obviously not made in a vacuum. With America having recently entered the global conflict, the filmmakers wanted to produce something that would galvanize the public to support the war effort. Their specific intention in making the film was to show American civilians what their British counterparts were experiencing. The message hit home, and Winston Churchill himself would later comment that Mrs. Miniver was “more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions.” President Franklin Roosevelt also openly admired the film, and he had the Vicar’s closing speech (known as the “Wilcoxon speech” after the actor who delivered it) reprinted in widely-circulated American magazines, broadcast over the radio, and even translated and dropped in leaflet form over German-occupied Europe.

The speech stirringly describes the fight against Nazism as a “people’s war,” that is, a war to be fought and won as much by the civilian population as by soldiers on the front lines. The speech is delivered in the ruins of a rustic country church which has been bombed by the Germans, and the scene (and the movie) end as the camera moves up and out through a gaping hole in the ceiling while the congregation sings “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and formations of British planes pass by in waves overhead. It is, perhaps, a rather hokey display of militant patriotism, but it is an undeniably powerful image nonetheless.

Wyler walked the walk, too, joining the army as part of the Signal Corps after finishing the film. On the night of the awards ceremony, he was overseas with nearly 28,000 other members of the film industry and countless other Americans. But, of course, in the view of the Allied leadership, he had already made his greatest contribution to the war effort by then, in the form of this justly-celebrated movie.

Of the other possible winners in 1942, Yankee Doodle Dandy would probably have been an acceptable alternate choice, though in my opinion it isn’t as good as Mrs. Miniver. I have heard great things about The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane, but I have not yet seen it. However, there is one other film that I would say is most deserving of the award this year, and it wasn’t even nominated . . . for anything. That film is Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges’ excellent tale of a pretentious Hollywood director who wants to make the Great American Film, and sets out to cross the country disguised as a hobo in order to experience the tragedy of common life, only to discover something completely unexpected about himself, his craft, and his fellow man. It is a fantastic, timeless piece of work.

~ by Jared on August 17, 2008.

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