I’ve been reading about World War 2 lately, so, as a step toward immersion, I thought it might be edifying to watch a related movie or two. My first selection was Mrs. Miniver, the 1942 hit starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, and Teresa Wright, an Academy Award winner for Outstanding Motion Picture, plus Oscars for both actresses, director William Wyler, screenplay and cinematography.
The movie is set outside of London, and begins in the days just before Great Britain declares itself at war with Nazi Germany. The Minivers are a very comfortable family with a beautiful home on the river Thames and a live-in housemaid and cook. Husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) is a successful architect buying himself a snazzy new car (a Lagonda LG). His wife Kay (Greer Garson), meanwhile, is splurging on a fancy hat. They have three children — a young son and daughter, and an older son, Vin, at university.
Mrs. Miniver is an adaptation of the very popular book by Jan Strurther which began as a series of newspaper columns taking a lighthearted look at everyday life, then growing more serious with the coming of war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill both credited the book with enormous influence over public opinion, and the film version was crafted to support America’s entry into the war. It was rushed to theaters in June of 1942 for its propaganda value.
Even though Greer Garson was a British native, very little feels British in this movie. There are a few accents, plus some set details, but the Minivers mostly have the aura of a very well-off Ward and June Cleaver — despite the fact that the Miniver family’s affluence was toned down for the more egalitarian tastes of the American audience.
For that matter, there’s not much here that gives a strong sense of the war. The family is seen spending a frightening night in their backyard bomb shelter, and they do experience both brushes with mayhem and real tragedy, but their general attitude is one of pleasant denial — not so much the British “stiff upper lip,” but more of a smiling refusal to acknowledge circumstances at all.
One disappointment is Mr. Miniver’s participation in the Dunkirk evacuation. As a motorboat owner, Clem is recruited for the arduous mission and dutifully plays his part. The flotilla of countless assorted vessels is briefly seen clogging the Thames upon departure. But while this astounding rescue was called a “miracle of deliverance” by Churchill, we only see Clem returning some days later in his battered boat, disheveled but unhurt, and desperate for sleep. The events at Dunkirk are barely even mentioned in passing.
The movie’s acting performances are up to the Hollywood standards of their day, which is to say that a glamorous wallpaper covers all true emotion. The beautiful Greer Garson is an perfect icon of gentle, feminine determination. As her son Vin, Richard Ney is slightly grating and his budding romance with Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright) is way too syrupy. Perhaps most annoying of all is Henry Travers (guardian angel Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life) as Mr. Ballard, a stationmaster and rose enthusiast who has named his prized variety after Mrs. Miniver. His cloying admiration for her crosses into creepiness, and the movie wastes too much time on this silly subplot (which was nevertheless recycled 48 years later in the third episode of Downton Abbey.)
All in all, Mrs. Miniver is a serviceable machine. The desired buttons are pressed, the correct example is set.
The movie concludes with what has been described as “one of the most famous sermons in cinema history,” The Wilcoxon Speech. Reportedly, President Roosevelt had the text of this sermon broadcast over the Voice of America in Europe and printed on millions of leaflets dropped over German-occupied territory. It’s a stirring moment, but having the congregation follow it by singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” is over the top.
I did not get any of the impression of England during wartime that I was looking for. I rate Mrs. Miniver two and a half out of four stars.