Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mrs. Miniver

Directed by William Wyler
1942
The United States of America


In my never-ending quest to find forgotten classic films, I am consistently astonished to discover great pieces of cinema that are sitting right in front of our noses. For instance, did you know that there have been eighty-four movies that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture? Think about that for a second. In the history of the Academy Awards, there have been a whopping eighty-four films that Hollywood has distinguished as being the best of the year. That makes eighty-four films that could logically be considered timeless classics. And yet, it is stunning how quickly we forget about them. Of course, everybody remembers certain winners such as Casablanca (1943) and The Godfather (1972). But most of the films that win Hollywood’s highest honor are doomed to be forgotten. How many people have honestly heard of, say, Cavalcade (1933)? The Great Ziegfeld (1936)? How about Gigi (1958)? Not only did that film win Best Picture, it took home an astonishing nine Academy Awards! Or what about Marty (1955), the second and last film to ever win Best Picture and the Palme d’Or? Of course one could make the argument that the Academy Award for Best Picture is not the best measure of a film’s quality. After all, any award that is decided based on popular vote is destined to have a few clunkers. But the fact remains that at some definite point in the past, all of these films that I have mentioned were toasted as the greatest film of the year.

That's 84 of these bad boys.

Therefore, I have decided that it is my duty to help bring the spotlight back to some of these great films. I have already featured one of these films on this sight: The Life of Émile Zola (1937). The film that I wish to focus on today was released five years after Dieterle’s film took home the gold. Upon its release, it won six Academy Awards and boasted on its poster that it was “Voted the Greatest Movie Ever Made.” Nowadays, the general public has seldom heard it. This film is none other than William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver.

Believe me, I wanted nothing more than to make my own screenshots for this review. But the makers of my DVD copy of the film made this impossible by including an encoded file that scrambled all of my own screenshots. Since I am no computer geek or programmer, we'll have to make due with Google Image Search.

The story is based off a fictional English housewife created in 1937 for newspaper columns named Mrs. Kay Miniver. Living a very comfortable life in the outskirts of London with her well-to-do family (you can tell they are well off because their house has a name: “Starlings”), Miniver’s life is thrown into turmoil by the start of the Second World War. Her oldest son, Vin, quickly joins the Royal Air Force and becomes one of the Few; the pilots who held off the German Blitz during the Battle of Britain at horrific personal expense. Her husband Clem is called in the middle of the night to participate in the Dunkirk evacuation, that miraculous operation wherein over 300,000 trapped British and French soldiers were rescued from the shores of France from the rapidly advancing German Army. Later that morning, Miniver is threatened by a downed German pilot who holds her at gunpoint. And finally, Miniver’s entire family huddles in a shelter as they are very nearly killed by Nazi bombs.


It would be one thing if the film focused solely on the character of Mrs. Miniver. But Wyler wisely positioned Mrs. Miniver within a much larger cross-section of British society. We meet characters such as the Miniver’s live-in housemaid Gladys who tearfully sees her husband off to the front lines. There’s Lady Beldon, a local aristocrat, and her daughter Carol who falls in love with Vin and eventually becomes his wife. Lady Beldon is locked in an epic struggle with kindly stationmaster Mr. Ballard whose only offense was to dare to enter a rose (which he named the “Mrs. Miniver”) into a local flower competition which she has perennially won for the last several years. And finally there is the local vicar (played by Henry Wilcoxon) who unites the entire community in the final scene with a heart-breakingly powerful sermon in the ruins of his bombed-out church.

The film is indeed a piece of wartime propaganda. Upon its completion President Roosevelt ordered it to be rushed to theaters so that it would inspire Americans to support the war effort. The film, released in 1942, actually began production two years earlier before the United States entered the war. As a result, the film was continually reworked as the US’s involvement became more and more inevitable. This most obviously manifested itself in the scene where Miniver is cornered by the German pilot. As the film was revised, the German was made more stereotypically evil and unrepentant. The encounter became more stand-offish. Finally, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the scene was changed again to include a shot where Miniver slapped him.

And yet, to dismiss the film merely due to its status as propaganda would be foolish. Mrs. Miniver is a genuinely moving piece of filmmaking. Take, for instance, the scene where the Miniver family is being bombed. As they try and sleep in a minuscule shelter, the sounds of bombs gets louder and louder. Suddenly, the entire shelter shakes. The kids awaken, the family cat dashes, the door flies open. Their young son Toby speaks with the clarity that only children can muster: “They almost killed us that time, Mommy.” It is a devastating scene. And yet, it speaks to the film’s overall message: that the strength and unity of Britain, in both its families and communities, is what will help it prevail in the end against evil.


Mrs. Miniver is just one of the numerous Best Picture winners to be largely forgotten. But it remains a triumphant work of art for those who are willing to look for it. For although it was made explicitly for World War Two audiences, its heart, its soul, its message is one that will resound for ages.

25 comments:

  1. It was interesting to see Downton Abbey give a nod to Miniver semi-recently by running the complete flower show story inside of one of their episodes. I wonder how many failed to recognize the story, certainly not many classic film fans as it was replicated almost exactly! Of course that episode suffered by not being able to resurrect Henry Travers for the part :)

    I love Mrs. Miniver, very nice choice to call attention to the scene in the shelter, very moving! I've yet to watch the sequel, though TCM showed it some time back so I do have a copy I will get to eventually!

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    1. Woah, woah, woah...two things.

      1) They mentioned this film on Downton Abbey? Was it just a replication of the flower show scene or was it an overt homage that literally included a character called "Mrs. Miniver?"

      2) There's a sequel? I'm kinda scared to know more...

      Thanks for commenting, Cliff! Good to hear from you again!

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    2. The Downton Abbey episode was this one: Episode 1.5 from Season 1. The Maggie Smith character wins the annual flower show every single year, but the prize is awarded for her social standing rather than merit. There's an old gardener from another estate w/a new and beautiful breed and everything pretty much follows the Dame May Whitty/Henry Travers story from Miniver from there. No specific reference, an homage that I fear wasn't universally recognized though given that the show is British I'm sure it rang many more bells over there than it did here in the US.

      As for #2, here's The Miniver Story (1950) on the IMDb.

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    3. Well, it looks like I have yet ANOTHER reason to watch Downton Abbey....

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  2. Good idea to choose a movie that won Best Picture but that not many people today know about, especially right after the Oscars. I have actually heard of Mrs. Miniver before since it won and was nominated for a bunch of Oscars. Nice review, I'll have to give this film a watch someday. It's always interesting to see WWII films made during the war, like say Casablanca!

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    1. This was actually the film that won Best Picture the year before "Casablanca" did. I think they would make an interesting double feature...

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  3. Nate,
    A beautifully written review. I'm glad you're featuring Oscar winners. I'll be returning to see whats next up.

    Cliff, I remember the flower show scene quite well from DA and as I watched it I thought the story sounded so familiar. Look at you making me feel I need to pay closer attention while watching DA. I love the show. I'm halfway through season two now.

    Nate I'm very fond of Greer, I can't name any of her performances that I don't like. You've highlighted just a few of the amazing scenes, story-lines from Mrs. Miniver.
    Page

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    1. Many thanks, Page! Wow, am I really the only one out there who hasn't watched DA? Wow...

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  4. You better get on that! : ) It really is a beautifully written show with superb acting and the sets, they haven't left out any detail of the time period.
    Page

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    1. I guess I have no choice then. It's just that I usually can't stand British period dramas. They bore me to the point of tears. But I'll give it a shot.

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  5. While I've seen almost every film ever nominated for Best Picture, I am not one who has forgotten the classics. Still, most people today don't like older films (especially B&W ones) and have no idea about films like Mrs. Miniver. It is a classic in every sense, with wonderful performances and an inspirational story. Nice profile of a timeless classic.

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    1. Thank you very much! I agree with you that "Mrs. Miniver" is a classic. And you have really seen almost every film nominated for Best Picture? Color me impressed...and jealous...

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  6. Nate - I always loved Greer Garson. she epitomizes classic Hollywood grace and beauty ... I think I read somewhere that she had a fling with her costar Richard Ney who played her son in the film ...

    Oh and Cliff, I caught the Downton Abbey/Mrs. Miniver link. I thought I was the only one to notice. LOL ...

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    1. I may have to do a short retrospective of Greer Garson's work. She's one of those great Hollywood women that just sorta...disappeared. Everybody remembers dames like Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall...but the average joe-on-the-street has never heard of this tremendous actress!

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  7. Nate - If you haven't already seen it, try "Random Harvest" (1942) starring Greer Garson and Ronald Coleman. Excellent film, if you liked "Mrs. Miniver" I think you'll enjoy it ...

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    1. Awesome! I already have my next Forgotten Classic picked out, but I'll try and keep this one in mind for the future!

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  8. Sorry to barge into your in-depth review (I'll have to make time for this film) with irrelevant news, but I wanted to drop you a line to let you know I nominated you for a blogging award. Should you choose to accept, details are on my blog:

    http://thegirlwiththewhiteparasol.blogspot.com/2012/03/7x7-link-award.html

    Anyway, thanks for all the great blogging over the years!

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    1. Why thank you very much! Sorry that it took so long to respond! I've been very busy with personal matters.

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  9. I too just saw the Downton Abbey/Mrs. Miniver episode. Was sooo surprised - the actor actually resembled Henry Travers! I then did a bit of research and it seems that the writer of DA says it is a mere coincidence - that he might have seen MM but doesn't remember... Hmmmmm:-((

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  10. I'm doing a personal review on as many films of Greer Garson as I can find. I've seen Mrs. miniver several times as well as the sequel, The Miniver Story. While that one (1950) for poor reviews from the NYT, I am amongst many of Garson's fans who really like it. As for Garson's 'fling' with Richard Ney - despite their age difference, (13 years)' they married in 1943. Ney went off to war in the Pacific theatre..in his return many problems emerged and they divorced in 1947. His part in the original film (Vin Miniver) goes unmentioned in the sequel. I hope, by now, you have seen several more of her films since you posted his commentary

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    1. I'm still trying to find as many of her films as possible! Thanks!

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  11. Typos, additions and corrections: Garson was 12 years Ney's senior. While the original film received glowing reviews from the NYT, Bosley Crowther was quite unkind in his assessment of the sequel. Since your posting last year, perhaps you have watched more of her films...most of which were shown in April 2013 on TMC. Yes, I noted the Downton Abbey homage to the flower show scene in Mrs. miniver as soon as I saw it. Hard to believe that writer and creator of the show, Julian Fellowes, was unfamiliar with the original Miniver movie.

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