Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
William Wyler's directorial talent shines through in almost all of his pictures. Mrs. Miniver
is a wartime morale booster and is just as dated as any other film of the period, but Wyler's skill with
drama soon overshadows the film's sketchy messages and ersatz England-in-Hollywood tone. Excellent
performances make a thin story honest and compelling.
The picture won a fistful of Oscars in 1942, for Greer Garson, Teresa Wright, the screenplay, William
Wyler and Best Picture.
Middle-class Englishwoman Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) deals with petty problems and
along with her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) watches her Oxford-educated son Vin (Richard Ney)
court Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), the charming granddaughter of the local nobility, Lady Beldon (Dame
May Whitty). Then the war comes, and Vin joins the RAF while Clem participates in the evacuation of
Dunkirk. To her surprise, Kay is confronted with the enemy on her doorstep.
Mrs. Miniver begins on a note of triteness. The charm and grace of Greer Garson
(a Louis B. Mayer 'discovery' on a pre-war trip to London) is oversold, and the English setting
is never quite convincing. The propaganda aim was obviously to acknowledge and honor the courage and
resolve of the British people; unlike America, their cities and towns were directly bombed by the enemy.
Until the richly drawn characters and their problems take hold, Mrs. Miniver is bad propaganda.
An opening title card tells us that the Minivers are 'middle class' people, but what we see is a
very well-off architect's family that sends its son to Oxford, and has two domestic servants. Even
bearing in mind the Hollywood
tendency to optimize and sanitize family life of any kind - Andy Hardy being the ripe example -
Mrs. Miniver stoops to flatter the Minivers even when it seems to criticize them. The opening
scenes showing Clem and Kay absorbed in their petty luxuries (a fancy hat, a new car) take several
reels of more relevant drama to forget. The Minivers' beautiful house is nestled against the river, and
Clem has a private boat over 30 feet long. Yep, that's real middle class (if you're Louis B. Mayer). 1
Mrs. Miniver is also one of those wartime films meant to flatter our Allies, even though it
was planned and begun before Pearl Harbor. The obvious example was Mission to Moscow, which
rather shockingly endorsed Stalinist show trials and purges. Miniver took the already healthy
tendency in Hollywood even further with its look at the English class system. Young Oxford student
Vin Miniver makes a pompous stand against Lady Beldon's privileges, and his criticism is judged
as rash, hypocritical (Beldon's daughter does charity work!), and most importantly, impolite. Lady
Beldon, the film proposes, is just a local bigwig and her undisguised contempt for the commoners is not
to be taken seriously. Under all the pomp and arrogance she's a down-to-Earth, good woman. All it takes is
some tactful charm from Kay to melt her resistance to an interfamily engagement.
The center of the film is a competition for a prize rose, seen as the kind of quaint and civilized
activity those 'cultured' English are wont to pursue. Abandoning horticulture in wartime would be like
defeat to the Germans. There's a mawkish subplot with the cute & sexless Henry Travers (Clarence from
It's a Wonderful Life) daring to put his rose in competition with Lady Beldon's, as she's
always supposed to win. The rose theme advances Mrs. Miniver's most annoying material.
Henry Travers' character is an adorable schlub, a Capra-like peripheral guy to worship the leading
lady from afar. Naming his rose the Mrs. Miniver sets up the class conflict, a mini-revolution. But,
because the War has changed England forever by erasing class barriers (pardon me while I fall down
I Know Where I'm Going!), the 'revolution' is
quashed by a generous gesture from Her Ladyship, who of course only becomes more popular and beloved.
The class system isn't really a class system, see ... the villagers prefer limited employment and
educational opportunities, and enjoy kowtowing to their hereditary superiors.
But the superior dramatics of Mrs. Miniver overshadow its elitist politics. Kay and Clem see
their entire world threatened and must fight and sacrifice to hold it together. All of the
wartime content is underplayed with admirable restraint. Vin goes to battle but isn't lauded as an air
ace. Clem participates in the Dunkirk evacuation, and a direct confrontation between Kay and the
enemy is concocted for a dramatic highpoint. Wyler's discipline makes it all believable - the Nazi
threats of the German flier (Helmut Dantine) can be partially chalked up to delirium. The natural
strength and resilience of England is reinforced - Kay receives the enemy in her kitchen
and overcomes him with polite hospitality.
(spoilers from here on in)
Greer Garson makes up in dignity what she lacks in excitement, being sort of a glamour girl 'in
transition' to venerated motherhood. They're an okay pair and grate only when the script has
the Minivers reacting to the 'amusing' antics of their clownish servants. The maid's jovial boyfriend (Rhys Williams of Our Man Flint) is welcomed in the Miniver
household, but is shown a milder version of the condescendsion reserved for black servants in even the
classiest American movies of the time.
But when Kay goes all-out to pacify Lady Beldon on the subject of her son's engagement, it doesn't
play as subservience. The Minivers understand the status quo but place their family higher. The drama
comes through their adaptability to outside threats. Kay isn't in denial about the war (as Eliza
Birdwell will be in
Friendly Persuasion) and lets her
barely-adult son go off to fight without protest. We understand that his flying combat has an extremely
high mortality rate, and she defends Vin and Carol's need to be married without delay as a necessity of
war. The film works because none of these threats are glamorized or overstated.
Most Americans watching in 1942 immediately understood that the English civilians were the ones
on the front lines. Even the 'onward Christian soldiers' ending, with planes forming V's for Victory
through the roof of a bombed church, can't flatten the honesty of this aspect.
Much of the heart in Mrs. Miniver comes via one of William Wyler's favorite actresses
of the time, Teresa Wright. She exudes integrity and sincerity, held her own against Bette Davis
in The Little Foxes and was a standout in
The Best Years of Our Lives. She also
humanized Alfred Hitchcock's thriller
Shadow of a Doubt. The basic honesty of this propaganda picture over the majority being made in 1942 can be seen in Ms. Wright's final scenes.
Sharp eyes will easily find Ian Wolfe among the bit parts. Peter Lawford, Tom Conway and Miles Mander are supposed to be in there somewhere as well, but I didn't spot them.
Warner has given their DVD of Mrs. Miniver a fine sendoff. The image is in great shape, mostly sharp and free of excessive grain. A few hairline scratches are in evidence here and there, but only if you're really looking for them. There's no mini-docu this time out so you'll have to read about MGM, Wyler and wartime movies to learn more about the film's context. As fitting compensation Warners has included two perfectly chosen wartime short subjects.
For the Common Defense is an installment of the Crime Doesn't Pay series, and was clearly made as part of the U.S. campaign to foster good wartime relations with Latin America. Douglas Fowley scowls through his role as a Yank gangster who tries to smuggle counterfeit Axis money from Chile to Colombia for evil German and Japanese spies. Luckily, American counteragents John Litel and Van Johnson are on the job, and along with unbilled Colombian cop Steven McNally, they nab the bad guys. The presence of an Italian femme fatale gives equal time to all the enemies. It's an entertaining simplification of the kinds of espionage that occurred in our 'neutral allies' to the South; the great spy story down there hasn't been written yet.
The amusing Mr. Blabbermouth! is rumor-busting propaganda that uses comedy schtick with actor Ralph Peters as a morale-killer who spreads defeatist rumors. The narration rebuts his blab with facts about America's production superiority over its enemies. One clever extrapolation shows the Axis' post-war plans with a map of the U.S. divided into Japanese, German and Italian zones, just as in the Philip K. Dick novel Man in the High Castle. The short is heavily laden with wartime racial slurs and starts with the hysteria-driven false air raids over Los Angeles and San Francisco, just as in the comedy 1941. This is important history, and it is to Warners' credit that idiotic revisionism
hasn't tried to sweep its un-P.C. content under the rug.
A large still section (33 images), footage of Garson receiving her Oscar and a handsome trailer
round out the disc's offerings.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mrs. Miniver rates:
Supplements: Two Short subjects, still gallery, newsreel, trailer
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: February 1, 2004
1. 'Middle Class' is of
course a relative idea. In Latin America, there are the fabulously wealthy, a tiny middle class
that's really an upper-upper class, and the innumerable poor. In America, the giant middle class
that used to be so strong is being eroded. Professionals with reasonably secure jobs and
secure homes are now a real minority, with the rest of the country becoming, in all practical
ways, far poorer - the Wal-Mart majority. 'Middle Class' in pre-war England may be the proper term,
if the middle is actually a fortunate minority.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson