Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler)
Chronologically, this was the first of the Best Picture winners new to me that genuinely surprised me — especially because it’s typically regarded as a WWII propagandic puff piece — but really I shouldn’t have been, given that it’s the work of one of the most artistically accomplished Hollywood directors. Two particular masterpieces of William Wyler’s are Dodsworth, starring Walter Huston, and the almost unbearably moving The Best Years of Our Lives, which we’ll come around to in a few weeks. Like those two films, beneath its brilliantly conveyed and unexpectedly timeless message about the importance of community and the expression of freedom in the face of a far-ranging crisis, Mrs. Miniver displays Wyler’s unerringly keen eye for human relationships. His films are full of them, and never once feel strained or unbalanced like so many Hollywood portraits of friendship, family and romance — as in Dodsworth, despite the Hays-imposed twin beds, when we see the central couple (Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, both splendid) in this film interacting, we have the feeling of witnessing something like real life unfold. A lesser director could well have put forward the well-to-do comings and goings of this privileged but perpetually spread-thin family up for a class-conscious mocking, but even if Wyler recognizes the Minivers’ occasional frivolity and hypocrisy, he never once stops taking them or their emotions seriously.
Indeed, that’s a specific theme of Mrs. Miniver, which captures the heart today as well as it did when its sociopolitical subtext was directly relevant: whereas an average wartime film might seek to posit that our own indulgences and perks deserve sidelining in such a fraught and perilous time, this one argues passionately that whatever the relative size of our triumphs or agonies, they are part of the central mark of individuality and communal expression of freedom for which the war was fought to begin with. Capra might have argued passionately for the “little people”; Wyler doesn’t seem to believe there’s such a thing as “little people.” The inconsequential, ceremonial nonsense of a local flower contest in the Minivers’ neighborhood is treated as the source of great, earth-shaking conflict and then plays, because the show must go on despite the bombs and the imminent dangers, as a climax that attains a sense of profound importance and heartbreak in retrospect, its importance in multiple lives secured. It’s not merely a skillful piece of storytelling, it’s a cunning read of the way things happen in real life, the way that the smallest things come to matter, as domino topplers and unto themselves.
In addition to its sweet-natured but refreshingly honest message, Mrs. Miniver stands apart from a host of WWII propaganda pieces — along with Casablanca, arguably the only other example of this type of movie to win the Oscar — by its simple artistic strength. One need only recall Wyler’s more famous projects like Best Years and Roman Holiday to realize that his greatest genius was as an expert blocker of the finely tuned emotional crescendo, always shooting his key scenes in a manner that would maximize our exposure to the “negative acting” (Alfred Hitchcock’s phrase) that would give his performers such a sense of restrained but heartrending feeling. It’s just, to state things a little baldly, such a difference from Cavalcade or whatnot. Garson’s reactive expressions during the episode involving a wounded German soldier she discovers in a garden are alarmingly controlled and powerful; Pidgeon plays the horror just right when he returns from a dangerous mission, as something he attempts to pin down and bury; and maybe best of all is that moment when the wonderful Dame May Whitty (you know her from The Lady Vanishes) suddenly decides that the award she’s so passionately sought for the finest locally grown rose ought to belong to Henry Travers’ kindly bus station worker Mr. Ballard. It’s a subtle tearjerk-driven moment but she underplays it magnificently, the power of that little surrender completely undeniable.
Mrs. Miniver enjoys as well a narrative balance between the levity with a war always looming just beyond the horizon, and a total, bleak but not hopeless darkness that swallows the characters whole in the manner of Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, a stark warning against the kind of future that was now, in 1942, being ignited and fanned. The wartime horrors aren’t toned down; a particular sequence inside the Miniver family’s bomb shelter, as well as the harrowingly nonchalant first look at their home after the planes have finally left, is a phenomenal piece of haunting cinema. The children scream unbridled, the adults look at each other worriedly and pretend that nothing is happening, attempting a nostalgic conversation, before the shadow overtakes. Britain’s well-expressed dignity seems to be sucked into a black hole in a matter of moments, and the fear is genuine, all the more so for how much we’ve come to care for these people.
With this in mind — the film’s uncompromising awareness of the reality of war, its respect for the people inside and outside of involvement in it, and its carefully escalating sense of the corrosion of day-to-day life by its approach — one fully expects one or other of the “boys” not to make it home. The Minivers’ son Vin opens the film on leave from Cambridge as an idealistic and politically conscious youth challenging all around him; the movie, like his family, is patient with him. He’s distracted ultimately by a great love, that of the granddaughter of family rival and rose competitor Lady Beldon (Whitty). Her name is Carol and she’s presented to us by Teresa Wright, one of the most brilliant actresses of the ’40s, so unforgettable in Wyler’s own Best Years of Our Lives and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, a kind independent face and voice, a supremely well-controlled performer, and a gently romantic and sensual figure. We know where it’s going, we think. Vin and Carol marry in a whirlwind, and Carol herself expresses consciousness to her new mother in law in one stunning scene that she’s well aware she could soon be a widow, and simply wants the happiness available to her now. It’s so clear. He will die. He must die, the movie is heading there.
But that isn’t what happens. What happens is crushing and devastating, and alters the entire memory of the film, along with several events that occur offscreen in the last few minutes. We’re not spared such pain in this particular case; we’re not permitted to look away or to rationalize what we’re seeing. Wyler’s made us care, he expects us to care about the people he’s created for us with his source material (Jan Struther’s novel) and screenwriters, and he wishes for us to be derailed by this finale and by his underlying point, that the tragedy of the war in progress did not stop with its most obvious casualties. He contends with the dichotomy of the trivial and the events of greatest magnitude by dismissing with it, denying it. It’s not by accident that many of the film’s most important events — the wedding of Vin and Carol, for instance, the blockade run by Mr. Miniver, Vin’s moments in battle — occur off-camera. To some degree, that’s the result of our identification with Greer Garson’s home-front engagement, but Wyler can’t help but give us intense love and respect for all of his characters.
Mrs. Miniver was shot beautifully by Joseph Ruttenberg, and this seems by far to be his most distinctive effort (he’s most famous for his work on the far more visually rote The Philadelphia Story). Wyler’s direction is absolutely flawless; like Michael Curtiz, he’s a master of camera placement and emotional composition who’s become woefully underrated thanks to his placement deep inside the studio system. If the combination of this and Best Years doesn’t seal him as an auteur, I don’t see the point of such theories any longer. And is it a coincidence that his films seem invariably, an errant Gregory Peck aside, to be as perfectly cast as any classic American sound films ever were? Wright, Garson, Whitty and Pidgeon give superlative, deeply affecting performances; Travers and Ney are nearly as strong. Up to and including all its grandness in the final moments, Mrs. Miniver is a direct message from person to person that positively soars; the story is what it is, though. The effect is all in the faces — and in Wyler’s unblinking eye.