Best Picture: HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)
By Witney Seibold on May 22, 2014
Welcome to week 14 in Witney Seibold’s quest to watch every Best Picture winner. This week, he takes a good hard look at the film that famously beat Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
How odd that John Ford’s 1941 film How Green Was My Valley – a tragic story of the financial, spiritual, and social dissipation of a small mining community in Wales – should only be remembered today for what it’s not. It came out in 1941, which was the year of Citizen Kane, often held to be the Best Movie of All Time, and famously beat Orson Welles’ classic for Best Picture. Many critics and film historians cite this incident as definitive proof that The Academy never really knows what it’s doing, and never did. How could anything, anything, beat Citizen Kane? Clearly, Academy voters never vote with their hearts or their heads.
This is usually said, however, by people who are not familiar with How Green Was My Valley which – I must admit – I had not seen until this article. I can see why it won; it’s very good.
How Green Was My Valley tells the story of a coal mining town located in a verdant valley in Wales, and the Morgan family that lives therein. The lead characters are a multigenerational gaggle of miners who live richly and happily, scrounging enough money to buy good-enough meals for everyone. The patriarch of the clan is Gwilym (Donald Crisp). The matriarch is Beth (Sara Allgood). The story is told through the eyes of the young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall). The central player in young Huw’s life is the town’s preacher, Mr. Gruffy (Walter Pidgeon), a forthright and clear-headed man, and his sister-in-law Bronwen (Anna Lee) who seems to be placid no matter what turbulence she encounters.
When the unseen mine owners lower the workers’ wages, the miners strike. The strike is pretty much an alienating experience for everyone, and soon schisms divide the town into pro- and anti-miners’ rights. Young Huw is crippled in an accident, but heals only to be picked on in school. Gwilym is estranged from his older sons who would rather work than strike. An extra shilling a day becomes the central deterioration of a gorgeous valley that was once rich and peaceful. The Welsh valley becomes a microcosm for economic pressure everywhere. This is not the first Best Picture winner to address the Great Depression, but it is the first to be expressly about the horrors of poverty, and the moral deterioration that occurs when one’s livelihood is threatened.
I commented last week that the 1940s saw a shift in the types of films that would win Best Picture, shifting from gigantic historical commentaries into more intimate character studies. How Green Was My Valley walks the line between the two. It feels a lot like classic literature in its rich tapestry of characters, but tells its story in much more palpable, humanist terms. Those who have been following my reviews here on Nerdist, have likely noticed my tendency to make constant reference to Émile Zola’s book Germinal. I have to do it again, as the subject matter is the same: This is a story about how industry – the mining company – is the unseen villain.
So let’s compare How Green Was My Valley to Citizen Kane, just to be fair (and I assume you’ve all seen Citizen Kane, right?). They are both films about money. One is about how wealth does not cure loneliness. The other is about how poverty threatens a community. Both films seem to be making a similar comment: Money comes between you and other people. Citizen Kane is much more poetic in its personal tragedy, while How Green Was My Valley tells a tale of wealthy from much more sentimental angle. Citizen Kane is the better film, and still rings salient today. It’s also more lively and humorous. How Green Was My Valley has a halcyon quality, but it is far more grounded and earthy than some of the nostalgia trips we’ve seen in the past (I’m looking at you, Capra, you with your awesomely brilliant movies).
Ultimately, How Green Was My Valley is a mourning of a bygone era, an era where working and praying and singing (there’s a lot of music in this film, and having meals with the family seemed to be easy and clear and idyllic. But it’s also a film with dirt on its hands and clenched fists. It mourns, but it’s also upset about it. There are a lot of rich characters and good instances of moral outrage. It may not be better than Citizen Kane, but it’s still a pretty damn good movie.
Join me next week for Mrs. Miniver.