Best Picture: MRS. MINIVER (1942)
By Witney Seibold on May 29, 2014
Week 15 in the Best Picture series comes to 1942. In 1942, America had now officially started its still-lasting intimate relationship with World War II, by awarding Best Picture to Mrs. Miniver.
William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver was the first Best Picture winner to be made after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it shows. This is a film all about the sad destruction of war and the (very British) notion of staying upright during times of crisis. It doesn’t seek to tell the entire story of conflict, or record the accurate biography of the people who changed the course of history. This is a slice-of-life portrait of a seemingly average, upper-middle-class British family enduring what most all of England was enduring at the time. More so than Cavalcade, this is a powerful drama about watching your loved ones perish in a conflict more sizable than any we’ve seen before. But all from the viewpoint of your own home. Which, in England, could actually be bombed by the Germans.
This also seems like the first time the Academy began its love affair with Best Picture winners that are topical… but safely topical. Mrs. Miniver does indeed deal directly with a war that was still raging in Europe, but it seems safe for an American institution to give an award to it, as it doesn’t deal with Americans, American politics, or the Americans’ place in the war. The Academy has done this many times since, dealing with political issues in an off-to-the-side sort of way. Notice, for instance, that in a time of growing gay rights, Hollywood has made a series of Best Picture nominees that deal with slavery. Surely there’s a cultural analogue in there, although there are much fewer films about actual gay rights.
So Mrs. Miniver‘s Oscar is essentially America facing the war through the eyes of another. It won’t be until The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 that the American experience of WWII would be directly dramatized in a Best Picture winner.
The film itself is grounded and pretty good. Greer Garson plays the title character, the loving wife of a London architect (Walter Pidgeon) who lives in a large estate outside of London. She’s a bit flighty and neurotic, Mrs. Miniver, and before the war, her greatest drama is whether or not to buy an especially expensive hat. Also, that the local botanist (Henry Travers) has elected to name a new breed of rose after her. Mrs. Kay Miniver is raising two young children, and has just welcomed back her eldest, Vin (Richard Ney) from university. Vin is a classical college student, convinced that his newly-discovered (but actually very old) political views will change the world. He doesn’t impress, but is strongly attracted to Carol (a very good Teresa Wright), a no-nonsense gal who is clearly smarter than he.
And then the war came. The Germans attack, and their suburban idyll is interrupted. Vin goes away to fight in the Air Force, Mr. Miniver pilots a ship into the famous Dunkirk evacuation (which is impressively staged with hundreds of real ships), and the women are left at home by themselves. Since the movie is named after Mrs. Miniver, we’re looking at her the most closely, and the film will ultimately be about her transformation from a shallow socialite into a slightly more stern survivor. These are people who go from high tea to hiding in bunkers. Greer Garson is excellent in her role, often overwhelmed, but just as often resolute. I guess that makes Mrs. Miniver the third Best Picture winner (after Cimarron and Gone With the Wind) about a woman learning to survive in an extreme wartime situation.
The best scene in the film involves Mrs. Miniver, standing on the bank of a river, spying an escaped German soldier lying in the underbrush. She accidentally wakes him, and he takes her hostage in her own home, where he demands food and drink. She eventually contacts the police on the matter. The tension in that scene is palpable and awesome. I’m sure that this one scene is the reason Mrs. Miniver won best picture.
The film ends with a sermon in a bombed church about how England will continue to survive, no matter how bad things get. The final shot of planes soaring overhead feel uncomfortably like propaganda. Sure, propaganda can be exhilarating, but it’s still propaganda.
I liked Mrs. Miniver, but I don’t have the same kind of affection for it as some of the previous Best Picture winners. It’s a good film to be sure, and I recommend it, but both The Magnificent Ambersons and Yankee Doodle Dandy were nominated for Best Picture in 1942, and I would have awarded one of them instead. It has a classical sheen, but it lacks timelessness. It’s more for fans of 1940s cinema than it is for fans of cinema in general.
Next week, I’ll have a bit of a chore on my hands, as I’ll have to try to find something new to say about one of the best-known, best-remembered, and merely the best films of all time.
Join me next week for Casablanca.