How Green Was My Valley (United States, 1941)

April 28, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
How Green Was My Valley Poster

To the extent that How Green Was My Valley is remembered, its reputation is rooted in infamy. At the 1942 Oscars, it overcame the competition to take home the Best Picture trophy. That competition included Citizen Kane, which has become widely accepted as the best film of the 20th century. While it may have seemed perfectly reasonable at the time for a middling melodrama about life in a village in Wales to overmatch Orson Welles' semi-fictionalized lambasting of William Randolph Hearst, the choice has looked progressively worse with each passing year. Now, three-quarters of a century later, it's laughable. But these are the kinds of gaffes the Academy is prone to make.

The director of How Green Was My Valley was John Ford, whose career behind the camera spanned a half-century. He began making movies in the silent era and continued into the mid-1960s. Ford, despite being best known for his Westerns, never won an Oscar for even the best of those genre pieces (which included the likes of Stagecoach and The Searchers). The Academy acknowledged him four times, all for dramas: The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, and The Quiet Man. Of those, only How Green Was My Valley also captured the Best Picture citation. Ironically, one can make the case that the winner was not only the weakest of Ford's productions to receive a nomination, but less impressive than some of his movies that were bypassed altogether.

If not for the inevitable comparisons to Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley might have aged better. There's nothing inherently wrong with the movie - it's a fairly ordinary melodrama that uses nostalgia to evoke bygone days. It weaves together a number of threads, all as filtered through the perceptions of the narrator, who is gazing back through a cloud of years to his youth. In addition to a tale of unconsummated love, How Green Was My Valley offers vignettes related to "hot button" issues of the era: labor strife and emigration. There's a sense that the film was designed to replicate the success of Gone with the Wind, but the production is less sumptuous and (in part because it's in black-and-white) lacks the epic feel. It won the Oscar not so much because the Academy was enamored with it but because Hearst campaigned so vigorously against Citizen Kane that How Green Was My Valley became the "safe" choice.

The film is based on the 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn, which presents the memoirs of the narrator, Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall), looking back to his time (in the late 1800s) as a boy in a South Wales mining town. We learn that in the present day, the mine has become so big and its pollution so extreme that the beauty of the valley has been eclipsed. However, during the years of Huw's youth, it was still a verdant land (hence, the title). Llewellyn wrote three sequels to How Green Was My Valley. Up into the Singing Mountain and Down Where the Moon is Small, published in 1960 and 1966 respectively, detail Huw's emigration and life in Argentina. Green, Green My Valley Now, released in 1975, returned the character to Wales.

Most of the adventures happen around Huw, impacting him tangentially. His brother, Ivor (Patric Knowles), marries the pretty Bronwyn (Anna Lee), upon whom Huw develops a crush. When Ivor is killed in a mining accident and Bronwyn is widowed, Huw does what he can to provide support and encouragement to the young woman. Huw's sister, Angharad (Maureen O'Hara), falls in love with the local minister, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), but she marries another man instead. When work becomes scarce and wages are cut, Huw's mother (Sara Allgood) and father (Donald Crisp) watch in sadness as their surviving sons leave Wales for more fertile pastures.

The best moments of the film occur at the beginning as the narrator's voice evokes a powerful sense of days gone by, of times that have passed and will not come again. There's a universality to this - we all look back at our childhoods through rose-tinted glasses and, even if the places where we spent our formative years still exist, the movement of progress has changed them in ways that are often tangible. The poignancy of this realization, which everyone comes to at some point, overlays the opening sequence of How Green Was My Valley. As we get into the story, however, it becomes generic with its scattershot depiction of various memorable incidents from Huw's youth. As it has been assembled, How Green Was My Valley feels more like a collection of short stories than the grand melodrama it was intended to be. There are times when characters disappear for lengthy stretches while other tales play out. This form of narrative works better in books than movies.

How Green Was My Valley is about as unhappy a story as one can imagine, although presenting it through the viewpoint of a child dulls the tragic edges somewhat. Still, it's about death, loss, and a lack of fulfillment. The first fragmentation happens early when Mr. Morgan breaks with his adult sons regarding labor relations - he supports the mine's ownership; they want to strike. This foreshadows the manner in which the children are scattered across the world - from the grave to North America to Australia - by the end of the movie. The key word in the title is "was." This town has seen its best days.

The relationship between Angharad and Mr. Gruffydd consumes a fair amount of screen time, and is the film's saddest element. This is a classic tale of unfulfilled love - these two have deep, strong feelings for each other, but circumstances conspire to keep them apart. Angharad marries the son of the mine owner because it is a financially advantageous match, and Mr. Gruffydd supports it because he believes his sacrifice will result in a more comfortable life for her. When the marriage disintegrates and she returns to the village, rumors of a liaison between her and the preacher fuel the scandal-mongers' gossip, although neither Angharad nor Mr. Gruffydd has acted improperly. Disheartened, he departs.

Originally, 20th Century Fox planned to film How Green Was My Valley on location in Wales but, with the coming of World War II, that option proved unfeasible. When the decision was made to re-locate the production to California, the original director, William Wyler, departed and Ford was brought on board. In terms of his career and his reputation, it was a fortuitous move. How Green Was My Valley was showed with plaudits by the Academy. It was nominated for ten Oscars and took home five (Picture, Director, Supporting Actor - Donald Crisp, B&W Cinematography, B&W Art Direction). For the record, Citizen Kane was nominated nine times, but won only once (Original Screenplay).

Compared to many of the Oscar-winners from the 1930s and 1940s, the cast was devoid of star power. Walter Pigeon, a classic leading man, has top billing. Although Pigeon never broke through to become a major box office draw, he had a long and productive career spanning nearly 50 years (1926 through 1976). During that time, he was twice nominated for Best Actor Oscars (for Mrs. Miniver and Madame Curie). He is perhaps best remembered, however, for his role in Forbidden Planet, where he worked alongside Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis.

How Green Was My Valley was the first of five collaborations between Ford and Maureen O'Hara, who would memorably be reunited with the director for 1952's The Quiet Man. Despite having second billing in the cast, O'Hara plays a supporting role; this was by far her least consequential outing for the director, and only one of two appearances in his films in which she was not matched with Ford's frequent leading man, John Wayne.

The rest of the cast represents an assemblage of respected character actors. Veteran Donald Crisp, who plays the crusty patriarch of the Morgan family, won his only Oscar for this part. During a career that stretched from the silent era into the 1960s, Crisp made more than 150 pictures. Anna Lee, who appeared in a number of Ford's movies, would become best known for the final role of her life: she portrayed Lila Quartermaine on the soap opera General Hospital from 1978 until her death in 2004. Finally, there's Roddy McDowall, the film's child actor. McDowall was already well-versed in the ways of Hollywood by the time he appeared in How Green Was My Valley, which enhanced his reputation and catapulted him to a long and successful career in TV and motion pictures. His work in this movie is not demanding but his performance is effective because he does not inject himself into scenes where his function is primarily as an observer. He avoids most of the pitfalls common of child actors - being overly precious or whiny and unable to portray emotions convincingly.

Had there been no Citizen Kane in 1941, How Green Was My Valley's Oscar win might have been regarded more sympathetically by history. After all, it's certainly not the worst winner of an early Best Picture statuette. Although there's nothing special or memorable about this well-constructed production, it's the kind of movie that often finds favor with the Academy. It's serious, aspires to be epic, embraces a pro-union political position, and comes from a well-liked director. Seen today, How Green Was My Valley is dated and quaint, but many of its smaller details - such as the poignancy of looking back to something that no longer exists - nevertheless strike a resonant chord.

How Green Was My Valley (United States, 1941)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1