Thursday, June 4, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Mrs. Miniver" (1942)

Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Mrs. Miniver
Release Date: June 4, 1942
Director: William Wyler
Written By: Arthur Wimperis & George Froeschel & James Hilton & Claudine West (Screenplay), Jan Struther (book), Paul Osborn (contributing writer - uncredited), R.C. Sheriff (contributing writer - uncredited), Henry Wilcoxon (closing speech - uncredited)
Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright
Genre: Drama, War
Running Time: 134 minutes

Oscar Wins: 6
-Best Picture
-Best Actress (Greer Garson)
-Best Supporting Actress (Teresa Wright)
-Best Director (William Wyler)
-Best Screenplay
-Best Cinematography (Black and White)

Oscar Nominations: 6
-Best Actor (Walter Pidgeon)
-Best Supporting Actor (Henry Travers)
-Best Supporting Actress (Dame May Whitty)
-Best Sound, Recording
-Best Film Editing
-Best Special Effects

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Invaders
-Kings Row
-The Magnificent Ambersons
-The Pied Piper
-The Pride of the Yankees
-Random Harvest
-The Talk of the Town
-Wake Island
-Yankee Doodle Dandy

And the winner is...

In a major sense, cinema was born into an era obsessed with capturing war on film. With 1915's Birth of a Nation largely considered the first film released, its take on Civil War and history showed what the standards would be in the decades to come. With the Oscars, this trend would also hold with the first winner being aerial combat film Wings with All Quiet on the Western Front and Cavalcade not being too far behind. However, it is fascinating to view what happened when capturing war on film happened directly parallel to the actual war itself. No period was more prominent with this trend than World War II and no filmmaker was more staunch an influence than that of William Wyler, whose film Mrs. Miniver had its own coexisting history with the actual status of America's involvement with the war.

To understand the impact of Mrs. Miniver is to understand the shifting views of the country. The production began in 1940 in a period when America was neutral. This was a notion that Wyler would despise, as he felt the isolationism would prove damaging. This also came from the director's German heritage and the consistent presence of war. As things elevated, the script became more confrontational, shifting into a pro-British and anti-Nazi status that allowed scenes involving physical abuse to be more accepted. It wasn't until 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor that the film was allowed to shift entirely into the propaganda film that Wyler inevitably wanted. The film even ends with a title card asking viewers to support the war by buying bonds.

Among the many rewrites to occur is the one scene that transcended film. With the help of Henry Wilcoxon, Wyler painstakingly did his best to rewrite the sermon that ended the film. The final version was so impressive that President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanded that it be broadcasted on The Voice of America. Pamphlets printed in various languages were also printed and dropped into ally countries with the monologue printed on it for support. With the President's backing, this inevitably lead to the film's immediate release upon its completion. The film's success was unprecedented, as it played 10 weeks at Radio City Musical Hall, only one shorter than actor Greer Garson's other film from 1942 called Random Harvest. Garson would also marry her co-star Richard Ney, who played her son in the film.

While the film would become a strong, successful piece of propaganda, Wyler wouldn't be around long to support it. Upon completing the film, he enlisted in the war and was overseas at the time that he would win Best Director. He helped to film the war on the front line. Along with Roosevelt's glowing support of the film, it also received acclaim from various other sources. Winston Churchill once said that "this film had done more for the war effort than a flotilla of destroyers." With scenes of The Nazis destroying urban English towns, it was odd to see even them give their personal criticism. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wrote that the film "shows the destiny of a family during the current war, and its refined powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of. There is not a single angry word spoken against Germany; nevertheless the anti-German tendency is perfectly accomplished." Of course, the film itself was a hit back home with critics, but it wasn't common for politicians to be so outwardly supportive of films.

The film also broke personal records at the Oscars that year. Along with Wyler being absent, Garson infamously gave an acceptance speech that ran five and a half minutes, thus making it the longest in The Academy's history. This would inspire the eventual time limit of 45 seconds on speeches. Mrs. Miniver became the first film to receive five acting nominations. It was also the first Best Picture winner to be nominated in all four acting categories (the other being From Here to Eternity). It was considered a big achievement in film upon its release and along with Wyler's other World War II film, The Best Years of Our Lives, captured a certain side of the war that impacted the people back home. To see the scenes of bombed out homes and the famous final speech is to see American propaganda function at its peak from a filmmaker who would inevitably feel upon return that he went too soft on his war depiction.

The film's legacy has been largely predictable. Because of its initial impact, it remains just as integral after the war. There was a sequel called The Miniver Story, released in 1950 that teamed up Garson and Walter Pidgeon in their same roles. It didn't have nearly the same impact, likely with the absence of Wyler as director. The events of bombing Dunkirk would become iconic. The American Film Institute (A.F.I.) would list it at #40 on its all time best films list. There would be many remakes and references, but none captured the immediate success of the original, likely thanks to the impact it had on the actual war. It rallied up hope and support for the cause in a time when it was crucial. Most of all, it humanized the war in ways that films about the battlefront couldn't. That alone may be its biggest achievement on top of striking visuals and the history making final speech.

While some could debate the merits of having a war film win Best Picture nowadays, it is interesting to note how ideals have shifted since 1942. While there have been controversial films depicting war, specifically The Hurt Locker or American Sniper, they in a sense pale in comparison largely because they don't hold the impact that Mrs. Miniver held. There hasn't been a film that has unified support rallied for the troops or has received the president's full support in quite the same fashion. It could just be a sign of the times. However, it does hold testament to the fact that when a film has the power to move a viewer and come from a passionate place, it has the power to make a difference. It may not be often regarded by the general populous as the best war film, but to deny a film that had support of Roosevelt and Churchill, the latter calling it more effective than actual war efforts, that is as high of a compliment as a film could receive. For that alone, Mrs. Miniver and its propaganda nature continues to echo through history as being one of the most influential war movies. And it doesn't even focus around soldiers that much.

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