How Green Was My Valley: A Family Story

For as long as movies have been made, there has been the quest to name the greatest one. A movie that is so heads and tails above all the others that it makes you weep when it’s done and it takes days to recover from the simple fact that it’s over.

I’ve already reviewed some of these films that are deemed to be the greatest films of all time, most notably The Godfather. After its 1972 release, The Godfather still sits atop most lists of being the greatest movie ever made. And it certainly is. It won the Best Picture, too.

But, what was there before The Godfather? What movie survived war, red scares, and television? Why, for 30 years or so, that movie was Orson Welles’ first film (and his best) Citizen Kane. This movie is still at the top of many best movie lists, including the ones of the American Film Institute and the late Roger Ebert. He called it his favorite movie ever made. It’s not hard to see why, either.

With his daring narrative structure, social critiques, and the fact that this was the most innovate movie made to that point, Welles captured the imaginations of millions over the following decades, even though it’s initial reviews were mixed. But Citizen Kane is brilliant because of it’s impact on the rest of the world; or at least the rest of the world around Hollywood. The film depicts Charles Foster Kane, a self-made newspaper magnate from humble beginnings, and his struggles to maintain an iron grip on his news empire and his personal life. Kane, whose life is told through the flashbacks of those who knew him, goes from a genial man who has the world around his finger, to a shriveled, embittered old man who dies only after he realizes what a monster he’s become. He lost his childhood innocence.

The story was loosely based on William Randolph Hearst, who in 1941 was an embittered old man living in his California castle. He still owned (and his family does, as well, even to this day) real media and real influence in the world. And Citizen Kane really pissed him off. So he threatened and conjoled and applied major pressure to RKO to keep the picture from being released. He failed in that regard, but he did keep Citizen Kane from winning the 14th Academy Award for Best Picture in 1941, an honor that went instead to How Green Was My Valley.

Citizen Kane not winning the Oscar is a major story when it comes to How Green Was My Valley, and the two films will be linked for all time because of this. So, I watched them both. I will not review them both, no. If you want a review of Citizen Kane, check out this one from the folks at Crash Course and PBS Digital Studios. No, instead, I’m going to review the actual winner, like I should. But it would be unfair to not compare the two.

The idea of one movie beating another for political reasons is not new in this blog. A few weeks ago, I scorched The Greatest Show on Earth for being a softball movie in a politically fraught time. It was terrible. So, I didn’t have high hopes for How Green Was My Valley. Like other films that I didn’t have high hopes for, this one proved me to be dead wrong. This film is actually really good in its own right. It competes very well on its own because of its lessons to teach us and the dramatic nature of its narrative.

And now, for the rest of the movie.

Plot

How Green Was My Valley takes place in a small coal mining town in the mountains of Wales. The members of the Morgan family come from a long line of coal miners. The story is told through a flashback narrative (much like A Christmas Story) of the family’s youngest son, Huw (Roddy McDowall). The movie details how the proud Morgan family, led by their father Gwilym (Donald Crisp), deal with many pressing issues of the day. These includes workers rights, unionization, and a struggle to keep a grip on their old, comfortable (but poor) way of life in changing times. Some of the Morgan’s eldest sons emigrate to America in search of better work, Huw and his mother suffer horrible injuries that almost kill them, Huw is brutalized in school for being poor, and the only sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara), gets a very scandalous divorce that threatens to pull the family apart.

When it comes right down to it, though, there are too many plot points to be concise, so you’re going to have to trust me on this one. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and its story. It had as many changes and struggles as Gone with the Wind, yet it wasn’t even half the length. Therefore, the story kept switching from point to point at a blazing pace. But it wasn’t bad to follow, either. 1.

Writing/Dialogue

How Green Was My Valley is based on the novel of the same name by the British author Richard Llewellyn. The screenplay was written by Philip Dunne and the effort earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

When it comes to the dialogue, there were two things that stuck out to me: First, the dialogue is incredibly proper, even for poor, uneducated coal miners. This seemed to fit and to be out of place, too. This seemed incredibly Welsh to me and it helped sell it. The dialogue almost had the same feel as Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. That book, which translates the dialogue from Spanish, is very proper and a little hard to read at times.

Second, there are many, many, MANY religious references throughout the film. At first I was unsure of what to make of these. I have no problem with religion but it was odd to see so many references to it. I suppose it was just a fact of life then, or it could have been making a statement that the world needed more religion. After all, 1941 was a dark year in world history. 1.

Sound

Last week, I mentioned that Gone with the Wind is full of nothing but music and it’s shocking when it’s not there. How Green Was My Valley is exactly the opposite. It has very little musical score. The score, like the pair of Eastwood flicks I reviewed recently, is used mostly in transition between scenes. This is not overly effective as I tend to favor more music in a movie.

However, the film was saved by its use of singing. The coal miners sing on their way to work and on their way home from work. It’s a constant theme in the film and it does feature a lot of singing. But this isn’t a musical. Rather director John Ford uses singing to add punctuation and gravity to particular scenes. Regardless of if the scene is light or heavy, the use of hymns and other traditional Welsh songs matches perfectly to the movie’s tone. 1.

Set Design

Like most other movies in the studio era of Hollywood, this one was shot almost exclusively in the mountains of Southern California and the sound stage at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles.

When it comes to the set, it’s very basic and simple. This film has the simplest sets I’ve seen on a film to date in this blog. The living rooms, churches, and homes are very simple and humble, filled with simple and humble furniture. But, I was okay with this. After all, the film is about a poor mining family and their struggles. The Academy agreed, giving the film an Oscar for Best Art Direction. 1.

Cinematography

Arthur Miller was the cinematographer for How Green Was My Valley and he won one of the film’s five Oscars for his work behind the camera.

In general, the cinematography is very basic, composed of mostly medium long shots or shots from the mid-stomach and up. The film did have its moments, though. When Huw is recovering from an injury that almost paralyzes him, the preacher, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) takes young Huw to the top of the mountain to let him walk around for the first time in months. It’s a beautiful scene, too, with the setting sun hidden behind trees and the mountains way off in the background.

But this is one award in which I have to disagree with the Academy. Citizen Kane was up for the same award. In my opinion, the cinematography in Citizen Kane was far superior to that of How Green Was My Valley. That does not mean, however, that the cinematography for How Green Was My Valley was bad. 1.

Acting

This is one of the trickier categories to write about this week. This film featured so many great performances by so many actors that it’s hard to pick one. But, I figured that the movie is told through the eyes of young Huw, that Roddy McDowall’s portrayal of our young hero deserves praise.

It hasn’t been since Kramer vs. Kramer that I’ve had the opportunity to give gratitude to a child actor’s performance. But, McDowall’s performance was every bit as good as Justin Henry’s was in Kramer vs. Kramer. He did not receive an Oscar nomination at the time, but he deserved one.

We hear the story being told my old Huw, but it is through young Huw that we learn how hard and brutal his life is at a young age. He’s almost killed, loses a brother in the mine, his brothers move to America, he’s picked on, and his sister is engaged in a bitter and scandalous divorce. Huw is forced to make very adult decisions before he is rightfully ready and he must deal with terrible consequences of other’s choices. When he’s bullied at school, he loses his cool and resorts to fighting to stand up for himself.

Throughout all of this Huw remains bright-eyed, idealistic, and optimistic. He witnesses his very strong Morgan family bicker, break down, and slowly disintegrate. Huw’s innocence is gobbled up by a hungry coal mining monster that only wants more profits and lower wages. He chooses to forgo school and go to work in the mines, much to his father’s disapproval. He makes mistakes and must live with them. Huw embodies each and every one of us, and he also represents the innocence that we’ve lost over time.

One more quick note: Donald Crisp did win Best Supporting Actor for his role as Gwilym while Sara Allgood received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as the mother, Beth Morgan. 1.

Directing

By the time John Ford directed How Green Was My Valley in 1941, he was already a Hollywood titan. He won two Best Director Oscars by this point (The Informer, 1935 and The Grapes of Wrath, 1940) and this film gave him his third. He would go on to win another in 1952 and his four Oscars is still a record for directors.

How Green Was My Valley has some social critiques but not enough to count. It didn’t need any flashy special effects, color, or big-name stars to tell its story. Instead, it relies on good storytelling, compelling performances, and a commitment to getting the most out of the story out of the shortest running time.

The plight of the Morgans is a tragic one, for sure, but it takes a tragedy to teach a valuable lesson: in the end, all you have is family to rely on. They’re your biggest cheerleaders. I know that some people don’t have families, but I suppose your family can be whatever you need it to be. When it comes down to it, it’s not the coal mine, or the money, or the bosses that define you, it’s those you have around you.

Additionally, this movie changes the traditional view of nostalgia being a good thing. The film starts out with the older Huw reminiscing about his childhood days in almost a romantic tone. But as the movie goes on, that romantic sense of nostalgia is brutally replaced by hardships faced by a whole family. It shows that the past is not all sunshine and rainbows like we want or imagine it to be. Instead, it’s a tough world out there and only by coming together as families can we conquer it. 1.

Bonus Points

None.

Final Score: 7/10

Oscar Facts

How Green Was My Valley won the 14th Academy Award for Best Picture on February 26, 1942 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. The movie beat out Blossoms in the Dust, Citizen Kane, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Hold Back the Dawn, The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, One Foot in Heaven, Sergeant York, and Suspicion for Best Picture. The award was accepted by Darryl F. Zanuck, producer, on behalf of 20th Century Fox. In total, How Green Was My Valley was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, Best Sound Recording, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing) having won five (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, and Best Art Direction).

Other winners that night included Gary Cooper winning Best Actor for Sergeant York, Joan Fontaine winning Best Actress for Suspicion, and Mary Astor winning Best Supporting Actress for The Great Lie. The ceremony was hosted by Bob Hope.

Next Week

I’ve got some life stuff to deal with for the next few weeks. I’ll be back June 25 with my review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

3 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading your review Keltin. I haven’t seen this movie but think I would like it after reading your review. I wonder if the book is good, probably!

    Liked by 1 person

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