Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "How Green Was My Valley" (1941)

Scene from How Green Was My Valley 
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

How Green Was My Valley
Release Date: October 28, 1941
Director: John Ford
Written By: Philip Dunne (Screenplay), Richard Llewellyn (Book) 
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O'Hara, Anna Lee
Genre: Drama, Family
Running Time: 118 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actor (Donald Crisp)
-Best Cinematography (Black and White)
-Best Art Direction-Interior Direction (Black and White)

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Supporting Actress (Sara Allgood)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Sound
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-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 the winner is...

Among the older Best Picture winners, there are few that have an undeserved bad reputation as that of director John Ford's How Green Was My Valley. While it's true that it's not considered many people's favorite of Ford's lengthy career, it's actually received a bad reputation because it beat Citizen Kane; a film now regarded as the greatest film of all time. To get hung up on that is to ignore the politics and controversy surrounding that film and to take away from the impact that Ford's work had at the time. In this film, Ford tells the story of a small Welsh community that undergoes trouble after a mining accident. It's a unique and powerful tale the likes of which the director rarely covered. For that, and many other reasons, it's become one of the more underrated winners in history and deserves more credit than it now receives.

Daryl F. Zanuck bought the rights from Richard Llewellyn for $300,000. The film was scheduled to be filmed by William Wyler in Wales. However, neither thing came to pass. Wyler was fired because he was considered too much of a perfectionist for the project. With him went the original cast of Laurence Olivier, Katherine Hepburn, and Tyrone Power. Before he left, he directed Roddy McDowal's screen test, which earned the actor a contract with Fox. Wyler ended up being perfectly fine, as he directed Best Picture nominee The Little Foxes instead. Even then, the film wasn't shot in Wales due to World War II and Britain being consistently bombed by Nazis. The film would be shot in Southern California, which had geography that looked similar enough to Wales. It was also intentionally shot in black and white due to the flowers not quite matching the color of those in Wales.

Zanuck imagined the film being a four hour epic. He claimed that he wanted it to rival Gone with the Wind. The film's final running time would clock in at a little under two hours. Ford also had issues with the cast and crew. In one case, Sara Allgood notoriously was always at odds with the director - a fact that seemed striking due to the director's need for control. While not quite a perfectionist like Wyler, Ford was known for only filming within frame, meaning that there wasn't much to edit in post. He was confident that his actors would give the best performances that they could, often only relying on 2-3 takes per scene.

Then there was 19-year-old Maureen O'Hara, who was only a few years into her career. During the filming of a scene that featured hand baskets, O'Hara complained that hers was not appropriate to its era. Ford did his best to appease this problem, but segregated O'Hara from the rest of the cast and crew until the problem was solved. Unlike Allgood, this wasn't the final time that O'Hara would work with Ford. In fact, he would become one of her most frequent collaborators in subsequent years, often seen alongside Ford's other stable actor John Wayne. Some would later suggest that Ford and Wayne would lead to O'Hara's hiatus from acting due to her lack of ability to be a good housewife. Still, the hand basket didn't sabotage their chemistry and instead made for a funny story of yet more clashing egos.

The film became the most successful film of 1941 and was praised for its authenticity. Despite this, Alfred Newman's overwhelming score wasn't entirely based off of Welsh music. The main theme was based off of an Irish folk song called "The Sixpence." In some scenes, Ford painted the hillside black to emphasize the coal miner's plight. In a moment that most would consider pure luck, O'Hara's veil blows in the wind. However, Ford would claim that they had wind machines ready to use. The title of the film appears in Llewellyn's book under chapter XXX in which a principal character has a sexual experience right before commenting on how beautiful his valley looked. As one can guess, this was taken out of the film. It still appears later in the book to emphasize the darkness that was spreading across the valley after tragedy struck.

The one conflict that most people will bring up is that it beat Citizen Kane at the Oscars. While history has shown which film is more revered, one must notice the time and context. Citizen Kane was considered to be an attack of influential newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Because of his influence, he banned the movie in various theaters and caused it to feel controversial. It was, and it likely influenced voters as well, who were too scared to challenge Hearst. What's important to remember in 1941 is that Citizen Kane was the 30th highest grossing film of the year. How Green Was My Valley was far and away more popular. While it seems contradictory to contemporary Oscar winners, it makes more sense that a wildly popular film would be more awarded than a controversial film from up-and-coming Orson Welles.

The film received 10 Oscar nominations that year. While the film failed to be the Gone with the Wind of Welsh mining towns, it still managed to pack a punch. The conflict between Allgood and Ford paid off, as she received a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Ford would also receive his third Best Director statue (the others being The Informer and The Grapes of Wrath), tying with Frank Capra for most wins in the category. He would go on to win a fourth time for The Quiet Man - a film that also starred O'Hara - in 1952. Despite all of this, the film's legacy has been summarized as "The film that beat Citizen Kane." This is an unfair assessment, especially as it has unfairly turned off most from ever seeing it.  

The film managed to have a surprising legacy beyond this. Llewellyn would write two sequels to the story, though neither were considered as memorable or successful. In 1966, it was adapted into a musical called A Time for Singing, featuring music by Mel Brooks collaborator John Morris (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein). The show only lasted 41 performances. However, two songs have survived thanks to Bing Crosby recording them for Reprise Records. On October 24, 2015, O'Hara passed away at the age of 95. She was the last surviving member of the film, meaning that there's nobody currently living that made this film.

While How Green Was My Valley has had a strange reputation by modern audiences, it's hard to not respect its humble story of a Welsh family overcoming struggle. Despite the disputes on set, the final film is full of great performances and beautiful cinematography that overcome the absence of using the actual locations. It's a bittersweet and beautiful film that reflects a simpler way of thinking, condensed into a drama that captures every emotion. Even if it's not one that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of Ford, it is definitely one worth remembering. It's a powerful tale that inspired other small town stories in the generations to come. It was also evidence of Ford's lasting impact and his ability to tell great stories no matter what genre they were in.

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