MGM marked its 20th anniversary in 1944 with Clarence Brown's elegant production of The White Cliffs of Dover; a sprawling generational family saga extolling the fortitude of human sacrifice in war. Based on Alice Duer Miller's popular poem, the screenplay by Claudine West, Jan Lustig and George Froeschel (with additional poetic passages inserted by Robert Nathan), manages to retain Miller's melodic and timely intercontinental charm while adding grand production values for which MGM in its heyday was justly famous.
Going outside its own gated community of stars, director Brown casts Irene Dunne as the film's winsome heroine, Susan Dunn. We first glimpse an aged Susan working as a Red Cross relief nurse in the emergency ward of a London hospital. Tired and careworn, Susan gazes lovingly at a portrait of her son and the story regresses in flashback to a happier, simpler time just before WWI.
Susan and her publisher father, Hirum Porter Dunn (Frank Morgan) have newly arrived in England on business. Staying at Mrs. Bland's (Norma Varden) boarding house, Susan and Hirum are introduced to retired Col. Walter Forsythe (C. Aubrey Smith) who invites Hirum to his room for a game of chess. The match, however, turns ugly when Hirum learns that they are playing on a vintage chess board stolen from The White House by the British during Madison's presidency.
Nevertheless, Forsythe invites Susan to a grand ball at the Duchess of Waverly's estate where she meets elegant playboy, Sir John Ashwood (Alan Marshal). Taken by her beauty, Ashwood courts Susan with slick panache. Susan informs John that she must return to America with her father in a few days. But Ashwood has other plans and his smooth charm and impeccable timing reluctantly convince Hirum to leave his daughter behind in England while he sails on the next boat.
John takes Susan to his ancestral estate presided over by his mother, Lady Jean Ashwood (Gladys Cooper). There, Susan also meets John's brother, Reginald (John Warburton), Lady Jean's sister, Mrs. Bancroft (Isobel Elsom) and Nannie (Dame May Whitty); the doting - and dotty - housemaid who raised Lady Jean's children. And although cordiality is the order of the day, the family's brittle comments about Susan behaving not at all like an American, coupled with Susan's own homesickness, eventually get the better of her.
Determined to sail on the next available boat, Susan's plans are once again thwarted by John who proposes marriage this time. Unable to deny her heart any longer, Susan sends a telegram to Hirum who sails on the next available voyage for their wedding. Hurt feelings reconciled, Susan and Lady Jean become great friends, but the blissful happiness of their wedding is blunted when war is declared.
John leaves to join his regiment, leaving Susan and Lady Jean with their careworn thoughts. After Reginald is killed, John is granted a furlough in Dieppe where he and Susan spend a glorious week in a quaint French villa overlooking the sea. At the end of their stay, Susan learns that America has decided to enter the war. She returns to England, carrying John's child.
Giving birth to John Ashwood II (Bunny Gordon), Susan proudly hails her son as 'part Yankee' to the Ashwoods and revels in America's involvement in the war. Regrettably, on the eve that Armistice is declared, we learn from Col. Forsythe that John has been killed in action.
From here the story fast tracks to the mid-1930s. John Jr. (now played by Roddy McDowell) is a respectful, introspective and intelligent youth whose compassion for the men and women working his father's land is both heartfelt and sincere. John Jr.'s attentions are mostly focused on the Kenney family whose daughter, Betsy (Elizabeth Taylor) is smitten with him.
Shades of a looming war once again creep onto this idyllic country estate after John invites two German brothers, Dietrich (Norbert Muller) and Gerhardt von Biesterberg (Steven Muller) to lunch. Seated at table with Hirum, Susan and Lady Jean, the brothers gradually begin to reveal their distaste for England and its people. Hirum bates the boys by telling them that he has recently been to Germany and witnessed their meteoric industrialization since the last war. Gerhardt hints that the factories are making implements for another conflict and Dietrich challenges Hirum with an ominous diatribe about what Germany will do 'next time' to ensure they do not remain, as Hirum has suggested, a defeated people.
Lady Jean, who has been in ill health for quite some time, quietly dies in her bed. Later, Hirum wisely suggests to Susan that she save her son from following in his father's footsteps by whisking the boy off to relative safety in America. However, after closing up the estate and giving Nannie her leave, on a train bound for their sailing ship, John informs his mother that his duty is first and foremost to England in her hour of need. Realizing that she cannot dissuade John from his destiny, Susan reluctantly agrees that they shall return to John's ancestral home and face whatever the future holds in store.
The narrative jumps forward once more with John (now played by Peter Lawford) saying his farewells to Betsy (now played by June Lockhart) in a taxi just before he is shipped off to battle. We find Susan, as in the beginning of the film, a nurse with the Red Cross, receiving a litany of wounded soldiers brought in on stretchers from the latest conflict. One of the them is John. As he is carried to his ward, John recalls in flashback the sad destruction of Dieppe for Susan. Fatally stricken, John's final hours are spent with his mother at his side as just outside his hospital window American troops march once more down the avenues of England with Susan hopeful that her fallen son's sacrifice has not been in vain.
The White Cliffs of Dover is a poignant and poetic masterpiece. Dunne, a sadly underrated actress today - but one of the most revered of her time - delivers a superb performance that ranks amongst her finest. She is precocious and inviting as a young woman and convincingly careworn as a matriarch. The usually befuddled Frank Morgan proves tenderly nuanced in his portrayal of a doting father as is Gladys Cooper as Lady Jean. In fact, even Alan Marshal (never considered more than a second string contract player) proves inspired and equal to the task of carrying the first half of the film as Susan's lover/husband.
Cedric Gibbon's impeccable art direction resurrects the elegant refinement of 'merry ol' England' from pre-WWI and then extols its sad decline during two wars with meticulous attention to ever last detail. George J. Folsey's glossy cinematography and Herbert Stothart's original score lend immeasurable support. This is one humdinger of a good show - a film that deserved renewed respect and viewing.
The White Cliffs of Dover is a Warner Archive burn-on-demand release. Like others in this cannon, this transfer has its faults. The gray scale is often nicely balanced, although certain scenes appear to have had contrast levels slightly boosted. Also, certain scenes appear softly focused. Occasionally, the image wobbles, drawing attention to the hanging matte work employed in long shots. There is also a considerable amount of grain in the early scenes, but thankfully minimal edge enhancement and NO chroma bleeding (a flaw in many other Archive releases). As such, the image's only real pitfall is a considerable amount of age related artefacts that have not been cleaned up.
It should be noted that there is a curious absence of picture for a brief few seconds during the transitional sequence where baby John becomes young John riding on horseback through the countryside. The audio - a voice over supplied by Irene Dunne - continues but the image suddenly blacks out - presumably missing a few frames. The audio is fairly well represented. This being an Archive title, there are NO extra features, save a brief theatrical trailer.
Again, while this reviewer applauds Warner Home Video's attempts to make titles such as this one available to consumers, I would equally encourage the studio to take a more proactive stance at doing modest restoration work on these films before releasing them to the Archive. The White Cliffs of Dover is a title in their current canon that most definitely deserves better than it has received!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)