16 August 2004 | bkoganbing
A Family Film In Every Sense Of The Word.
There has been a tendency to downgrade How Green Was My Valley recently because it beat out Citizen Kane for Best Picture of 1941. It turned out to be John Ford's only win in that department. Because Citizen Kane now is lauded as the best film EVER, How Green Was My Valley lost a bit of luster. Yet on its own merits it's a fine film and can be seen again and again without any boredom.
It's like Ford's Liberty Valance in that it shows the progress that the world's first industrial society, 19th century Great Britain as reflected in that Welsh valley, just like the settling of the American West in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It's the reverse here, the valley is a place people leave, or at least a lot of the good ones. Nearly all the Morgan children and Walter Pidgeon who plays the minister.
1941 and 1942 marked the high point in the career of Walter Pidgeon. He never quite made the top rung of actors at his home studio of MGM. Yet in those two years he happened to star in both the films the Academy designated as Best Picture, this one and Mrs. Miniver in 1942. He's an outsider, arriving full of ideals and then forced to leave to stop gossip about him and Maureen O'Hara.
Maureen O'Hara made her John Ford debut in How Green Was My valley as the lovely and fetching Angharad. She and Pidgeon are in love, but Pidgeon does not want to inflict is life of denial on her. They give each other up and later their relationship is the cause of gossip.
Arthur Shields the lesser known brother of Barry Fitzgerald is the head of the deacons at Pidgeon's church. A narrow, bitter man he's one of a string of religious hypocrite characters that Ford has in his films. Offhand I can think of Willis Bouchey in The Last Hurrah and Grant Withers in Fort Apache. Barry's in this too, playing the comical Cynfartha.
The center of the film is the Morgan family headed by Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood. Playing Morgan patriarch Gwyllym Morgan, Crisp gets the Best Supporting Actor for this wonderful portrayal of strength and dignity. Sara Allgood matches him every step of the way.
Besides Pidgeon and O'Hara, the rest of the film revolves around the generational conflicts between the conservative father and his more broadminded sons who want to get a union started. In 1941 America that was a timely theme as our American Labor movement got its first backing from a friendly government in the New Deal. The labor troubles that the Morgans and the other Welsh coalminers in the valley deal with was a very relevant.
One of the great things about this is that Ford never takes sides here. Donald Crisp is never shown as a reactionary fool for his opposition to unionization. Indeed Ford puts him on a pedestal for sticking to his beliefs.
All this is seen through the eyes of young Hugh Morgan, played by Roddy McDowall in his first major part as a juvenile and narrated in flashback by British actor Irving Pichel as the adult Hugh. McDowell has his own troubles here, he and Sara Allgood fall in a freezing river and both have health problems afterward. McDowell is the first of the Morgans to go to school and he's bullied by both pupils and a snobbish teacher. Young McDowell is taught to box by Rhys Williams to take care of the kids and later Rhys Williams as Dai Bando, an ex-pugilist takes matters in his own hands with the teacher in the films most hilarious scene.
As we move into the post industrial age, the labor themes of How Green Was My Valley seem quaint. But the family travails, and heartaches, and triumphs with that 19th Century Welsh Coalmining family are timeless. This is the real genius of John Ford.