Classic Film Talk: ‘Mrs. Miniver’ (1942)

Teresa Wright Centennial

Today we reminisce about

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Directed by William Wyler

Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Dame May Whitty

 

Prologue

This story of an average English middle-class family begins with the summer of 1939; when the sun shone down on a happy, careless people, who worked and played, reared their children and tended their gardens in that happy, easy-going England that was so soon to be fighting desperately for her way of life and for life itself.

The Miniver Family: Toby, Kay, Judy, Clem & Vin

Synopsis

Belham is a quaint village outside of London* where the inhabitants are generally happy and courteous to one another. The town stationmaster, Mr. James Ballard (Henry Travers) excitedly greets each incoming train into the station which is ornated with his beautiful, home-grown flowers. His most accomplished creation is a stunning rose which he would like to enter into Belham’s annual flower show. The name he has chosen for it is the Miniver Rose, named after a charming woman named Kay Miniver (Greer Garson). Kay is the wife of architect Clem Miniver (Walter Pidgeon) and together they have three children: Vincent “Vin”, Judy and Toby. Vin is 18 years old and attends Oxford University while his younger siblings are still in primary school. The family is introduced one afternoon to Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), the lovely granddaughter of Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty) who is one of the wealthiest people in the area. Despite some initial tensions, Vin and Carol enter into a courtship and Lady Beldon grows a little softer in her attitude with both Beldon women becoming a part of the Miniver family.

All is going well until the abrupt announcement that Great Britain has declared war against Germany. Almost immediately ordinary citizens are turned into servicemen and volunteers, residents must strictly respect blackout orders, and shelter must be regularly sought in the case a bombing takes place. The Minivers experience a huge shift in their lifestyle with the declaration. Notably, Clem offers his services to patrol the waters and Vin joins the Royal Air Force as a Fighter Pilot, just as he and Carol announce plans to marry. Though there is a great likelihood that Vin will perish in the war effort, he and Carol are adamant about enjoying the time they have together in the case anything were to happen. As the reality of a bombing becomes more of a possibility, the family starts taking refuge in a bomb shelter that has been partially placed underground in their garden. It saves their lives though their home is left heavily damaged.

The goings-on of the town are kept up with as much normalcy as possible. Even the garden show is kept on schedule with all of the winners announced and honoured. At the very end of the event, however, sirens wail to announce an incoming attack. People scatter about trying to find shelter as Kay and Carol go to drive Vin to the airfield thereafter heading back to the Miniver homestead. Many of the town’s buildings are damaged or destroyed but moreover, many families are touched by the loss of precious life. In the following days, the townspeople gather in prayer to remember those who were killed and to gather their strength to face the dark times ahead.

* Although Belham is said to be located outside of London, many of the town’s architectural characteristics and surrounding landscapes would suggest that it was located in the southern part of county Kent. Since Clem’s boat is docked in a body of water next to his home, he would have to live near a river or directly near the English Channel. It is a possibility that he lives in the northernmost extreme of Kent giving him access to the Thames River and onto the North Sea, then going southward towards Dunkerque (Dunkirk), France. It is also a possibility that the Minivers live in the south-easternmost part of Kent allowing Clem to have a direct shot at the coast of Northern France. In any case, the three evacuation routes taken were fixed between Dover and Calais/Dunkerque. So it seems that it would be feasible to believe that the Minivers did in fact live in southern Kent as opposed northern Kent and the suburbs of London.

 

Background Info & Commentary

Based on the 1940 book of the same name by British author Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver was conceived for the screen as a morale booster for American audiences. At the time filming started on the picture, the United States had not yet entered the war effort although they fervently sided with the Allies. It was hoped that this film would give a more positive and sympathetic image of Great Britain to American audiences. As time went on, the likelihood of the U.S. going to war was ever-increasing and therefore the script was altered to reflect an even stronger pro-Ally, anti-German sentiment. The film was released in June 1942 approximately 6 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, receiving unparalleled acclaim from American critics and moviegoers alike. It was used as a propaganda tool by President Franklin D. Roosevelt who had it rushed to theatres to serve as a morale booster for the nation. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill also highly praised the film with the “Miniver effect” even reaching the Führer Headquarters in Nazi Germany where Hitler supported the idea of making a similar picture in favour of the German effort.

Mrs. Miniver’s confrontation with a downed German pilot.

It may sound a bit odd that Americans used the example of a British family to soothe their own fears of war and to encourage themselves in the fight. How did the British take to this story considering that they were the ones living through this awful time, not just seeing it re-created in a studio for the big screen? Well, some British critics did not take kindly to the film and heavily panned it citing exaggerated stereotypes about English culture. Essentially, one would assume that these critics were angry that the film had not been made by a British film company in the United Kingdom. General audiences were taken with Mrs. Miniver on the whole, giving them an identity in this seemingly all-consuming war and offering them emotional consolement. The film made a great deal of money for MGM both domestically and internationally, becoming the biggest grossing film of the year.

The film starts out in a very light-hearted fashion, following Kay Miniver as she shops on London’s High Street. She has indulged herself by buying a very expensive fancy hat and though pleased with the purchase, she also feels slightly guilty at being so extravagant. Unbeknownst to her, her husband has also purchased a car that very day and wonders if he, too, has been too imprudent. Watching the first part of the film gives you a rather good impression of how ordinary life must have been before the war mentality became the norm. The people of Belham worried and quarrelled about trivial matters, getting on with their lives and continuing traditions like getting married and having families. With the focus of the story primarily being on the Miniver family, one does not exactly get an entirely realistic view of “everyday Britain”. In regard to social status, the Minivers were strictly middle class though in those days it meant that they could still afford in-home servants who catered to them and to their children. (Apparently, the novel had it so that they were even wealthier than it appears in the movie but the film writers wanted to tone it down to make the family more approachable.) The obvious lack of exploring characters that had less means or more complicated family situations is a shame because there was certainly a more prominent lower-class population than the well-off middle- and upper-class ones that could have benefited from representation. There are attempts to close the class gap by having Lady Beldon approve of Carol’s union with Vin but that stands out as a mere detail.

The nightly routine of taking refuge in the shelter.

Most of the active war period shown occurs at the beginning and the end of The Blitz which took place from 7 September 1940 to 11 May 1941. When war was first declared, many townspeople immediately started undertaking dual roles, moving from being solely private citizens to also becoming public servants. This shift in responsibility abruptly changed everyone’s way of life. Some folks, especially soldiers, were sent off almost immediately and barely had a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones. Other changes were gradual such as having less access to food, having fewer services, and being restricted in one’s movements. These aspects are well covered by the film though due to time limitations, the story is obligated to fast forward from the first weeks of the Blitz to the very last days of bombardment. Because of this, there is a rather sharp contrast in ambiances but perhaps this works to the benefit of shocking audiences by showing buildings partially and completely destroyed by the constant bombing.

My person opinion of Mrs. Miniver has evolved since the first few times that I first saw it over 15 years ago. I really loved it then and was incredibly moved by the story. When I watch it now, I still have affection for the film and its extraordinary cast though I find that there are quite a few more powerful pictures that better grasp some of the overall feelings of war. For example, David Lean’s In Which We Serve was released three months after Mrs. Miniver and shows astoundingly detailed battle scenes all the while heavily acknowledging the home life of a war wife and children who were left behind while their husband/father fought. Ironically, much of Lean’s film takes place during the Blitz including the Dunkerque evacuation, also known as “Operation Dynamo”. In Which We Serve was also filmed in Britain from a British perspective which no doubt helped propel its popularity amongst British moviegoers. The film did really well overseas and made a very respectable domestic profit despite people having less means to visit the cinema. Mrs. Miniver is still held in high regard and is indeed an important film in the history of American cinema considering its cultural impact.

 

Teresa Wright

It is rather hard to believe that this performance marks Teresa’s second major motion picture appearance. She was completely natural on-screen as if she had been in front of a camera for years. Her acting was terrific and there was never a moment that you had any suspicion of her being uneasy her role or with being surrounded by brilliant talent. Perhaps it helped her to know that Greer Garson and Dame May Whitty had both gotten their cinematic starts later in life and at the time Mrs. Miniver was being filmed, the two women had not yet reached the apexes of their careers.

Carol Beldon is a lovely young woman who was raised to be well-spoken and mannered. She grew up in a very wealthy family, never wanting for any material possession but this did not prevent her from having compassion for others less fortunate than her. In a stern discussion with Vin, she talks about volunteering her time to help others in a bid to give back rather than to just “talk” as he does about class warfare. It seems as though her grandmother is the only family she has as there is never any mention of her parents. Consequently, the bond the two women share is very strong and heartfelt. Of all the characters in the film, Carol seems to be one of the truest and kindest without being overbearingly sweet. It is a truly a joy to see Teresa play this role with such tenderness.

 

Trivia

  • Henry Travers and Teresa Wright would both later appear in Alfred Hitchock’s Shadow of a Doubt playing father and daughter.
  • Norma Shearer claimed that Louis B. Mayer had offered her the role of Kay Miniver though good friend Greer Garson would shoot down those rumours, proclaiming that she was the only one that Mayer ever had in mind for the role.
  • Richard Ney fell in love with Greer Garson during filming and the two started a secret relationship after having been told to stay away from each other by boss Louis B. Mayer. They would eventually marry though they received much criticism due to their 12 year age disparity, she being 38 at the time and he being 26. It was the second marriage for both and lasted for four years.

Greer Garson and Teresa Wright waiting in between shooting scenes.

Greer and Teresa winning Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for their roles in ‘Mrs. Miniver”, joined by Best Supporting Actor winner Van Heflin for ‘Johnny Eager’ & Best Actor winner James Cagney for ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’.