Based on Jan Struther’s novel of wartime resilience, William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (1942) remains potently poetic: arguably, the definitive example of pro-ally propaganda as melodrama. Its peerless craftsmanship on both sides of the camera evokes an enduring kinship between two indomitable nations (Britain and America). Indeed, at the time of its release Winston Churchill declared Mrs. Miniver more effective in bolstering U.S. involvement in the war than a flotilla of destroyers.
In retrospect, America’s initial isolationism toward the second European conflict was not only understandable, but forgivable. With their own not so distance memories of the First World War, its crippling casualties, and the even more recent calamities at home (the Great Depression and the dust bowl) America was a nation interested in moving forward rather than looking back; the resurrection of their involvement in another global conflict a continent away at first incomprehensible. The nation’s people’s didn’t want any part of WWII – a reluctance mirrored in President Franklin Roosevelt’s early nation-building policies that chose to all but ignore the Nazi threat brewing abroad.
In those years Hollywood championed lavish escapism. A decade’s worth of super-frothy musicals and giddy screwball comedies evoked countless glossy images of either extreme romantic naiveté or the deliciously devious rich behaving idiotically. Hollywood’s sprawling westerns too had succeeded in rewriting a more rugged history, exploiting uber-glamor to ensnare the general public’s view of its own nation-building as a virtuous act to civilize rather than eradicate the first peoples from their land. By 1939 these collective impressions of American society had become a badly needed and most desirable elixir for the ailing nation; two thirds of whom lived in poverty.
But Hollywood was also quite unapologetically fond of extolling idealized intercontinental portraits of the European landscape; perhaps partly to satisfy the public’s insatiable fascination for cultures that most had never seen with their own eyes. These were reconstituted as magical fairy-lands steeped in centuries of undiluted ultra-sophistication. Given Hollywood’s penchant for such extreme fantasy, Mrs. Miniver occupies a rather curious crossroads – its MGM back lot recreations of merry ol’ England straddling the chasm between old dream-like fantasies and harsher realities facing a world under siege.
MGM’s production designer Cedric Gibbons and his art department have herein crafted a lyrical snapshot of Britain as it might have been; the courtly sparkle and polish of those cozy streets and byways, the erudite and mostly gentile quality of its people precariously situated at the cusp of a looming chaos threatening to dismantle all that is pure and good. These settings are familiar to anyone who has seen more than, say five MGM movies from the 40s, the backdrops obvious and not fooling anyone. And yet, they work – magnificently so to faintly eulogize a way of life that tragically would never return, if arguably, it ever existed at all.
So too is the film immeasurably aided in its casting of Greer Garson as Kay Miniver; in every way the quintessence of that blithe cinematic impression of Mother England. Garson’s matriarch is attuned to the more superficial luxuries that her architect husband, Clem (Walter Pigeon) can afford, until a nation’s fate becomes intertwined with her own destiny and this elegant bauble becomes an intrepid and decidedly more proactive figure of perseverance on the home front. Cinematic depictions of WWII – particularly from this vintage – were usually parables about the testing of masculine heroism. But Mrs. Miniver is uniquely a story of feminine valor; perhaps never more perfectly realized than in Garson’s infectiously understated Irish lilt.
Greer Garson and co-star Walter Pigeon had already appeared together in MGM’s Blossoms in the Dust (1941) a rather plodding weepy. Their pairing in Mrs. Miniver forever solidified them in the eyes of the public as the idyllic marrieds – or soon to be – who found bittersweet domestic resplendency beyond their wedding vows. Indeed, the onscreen chemistry between Garson and Pigeon in Mrs. Miniver is so palpable, so genuinely tender and affecting that it seems impossible to fathom the two never having been husband and wife, or at the very least, lovers.
However, in real life Pigeon was devoted to his second wife, Ruth Walker (his first, Edna Pickles dying in childbirth); a vow that would endure until his death in 1984, while Garson was then pursuing a passionate relationship with Richard Ney – the man who played her adult son, Vin in the film. In their heyday Garson and Pigeon were regarded with equal affection by audiences as Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy or Myrna Loy and William Powell. But unlike these contemporaries, Garson and Pigeon gave the public a portrait of selfless devotion, void of any comedic underpinnings or sassy repartee and grounded in a mutual appreciation that went far beyond mere understanding. Theirs was a duet of equals, her incomparable patience married to his unerring gentleness.
The Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West screenplay for Mrs. Miniver opens on a street scene in London England, its populace oblivious to the impending European conflict. We find Kay Miniver (Garson) sprinting through the congested foot traffic on route to a local millinery to make an impromptu purchase. The hat is a rather wicked indulgence and one Kay is determined to ease her husband, Clem (Pigeon) to accept over polite conversation after dinner. Unbeknownst to Kay, Clem has been indulging in an extravagance of his own – the purchase of a new and very sleek convertible automobile, with plans to spring his new toy on Kay after dinner as well.
Taking the train back to Beldon depot, Kay is encouraged by its kindly station master, Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers) to pause a moment inside his private office where he shows her the most beautiful rose she has ever seen. The result of some clever cross pollination, Mr. Ballard informs Kay that he has decided – with her permission, of course – to name it ‘the Mrs. Miniver’ and also to enter the rose in the local flower competition for its top prize, traditionally won by the rather haughty Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty).
In these opening scenes director William Wyler takes delicate pains to establish two fundamentals of the story: first and foremost, the devoted closeness of the Miniver clan; Kay, Clem, their two children still living at home; Toby (Christopher Severn) and Judy (Clare Sandars) and the housemaid, Gladys (Brenda Forbes) who is engaged to a local handyman, Horace (Rhys Williams). Wyler’s other ambition in these early scenes is to construct and then gradually dismantle the hierarchy of England’s time-honored classicism; a foreshadowing of the real life trajectory of that nation’s future – best illustrated in the liquidity of affections between the Miniver’s eldest son, Vin (Richard Ney) and Lady Beldon’s niece, Carol (Teresa Wright), and by Lady Beldon’s eventual, but very reluctant acquiescence to the marriage after being worn down by Kay’s congenial acceptance of it.
After putting her children to bed and revealing their extravagances to one another Kay and Clem retire for the night; serenely contented and supremely happy. The next afternoon they collect Vin from the depot. Newly graduated from the university, Vin’s head has been filled with a vast assortment of liberal-ease ideals bordering on some quaintly comedic socialism. The family politely indulges Vin’s newfound progressiveness. Carol, however, challenges Vin to back up his talk with action, after being pressed by him about her grandmother’s smug superiority. Despite this rather inauspicious introduction, Vin and Carol quietly become friends and later, romantically involved; their relationship a minor consternation for Lady Beldon who still clings to the classist view of English aristocracy to which Vin Miniver decidedly does not belong. Kay, however, encourages the romance and sets about easing Lady Beldon’s mind from these social biases. There is, however, little time to rejoice in the pleasures of domestic life. The nation has been plunged into war and Clem and Vin join the local effort; the latter becoming an RAF pilot.
Clem and an armada made up of the local yachtsmen sail their vessels to Dunkirk, leaving Kay to endure the bombing raids alone. She is periodically comforted by Carol and also by Mr. Ballard, who informs her one pleasant morning, that there are rumors of a downed Nazi pilot having survived a nearby crash. Kay quickly discovers the German flyer (Helmut Dantine) wounded and lurking about her azaleas. Attempting to retreat into her home, she is forced at gunpoint to allow the pilot into her kitchen where he demands, and is given, bread and milk. But Kay’s attempts to reason with him are met by a blood-curdling declaration of how the German high command and their blitzkrieg intend to annihilate the free peoples of Europe and take over the world. In response, Kay strikes the Nazi. He recoils and then collapses from his wounds sustained in the crash, allowing Kay just enough time to get help.
After Dunkirk, Clem and Kay are reunited. Vin marries Carol and the family looks forward to attending the annual flower competition where Mr. Ballard’s Miniver rose is pitted against Lady Beldon’s traditional entry. A judge’s tie ensues and Lady Beldon struggles with the decision to break it, awarding Ballard the top prize for his entry instead, and to thunderous applause. As bombing sirens herald yet another attack on their village, the locals retreat to the basement of the Beldon estate. Vin dashes off to his airfield to meet the foe and Carol accompanies Kay in Clem’s automobile en route back to the Miniver homestead. Tragically, their night journey is interrupted by an overhead battle and exchange of gunfire. One of the planes is shot down and dissolves into a fiery crash nearby, igniting Kay’s fear that perhaps Vin has died. All too quickly Kay realizes that some of the wayward gunfire has penetrated the soft top of Clem’s convertible, mortally wounding Carol.
Hurrying home, Kay carries Carol inside and lays her onto the carpet, rushing to telephone for an ambulance. The girl dies however, and Kay is forced to relay this bitter news first to Clem and then Vin, who returns from the aerial dogfight a mature man to assume responsibilities for Carol’s burial and to properly mourn his wife. The family attends services that Sunday in the bombed out shell of their local church. Unable to maintain her austere façade, Lady Beldon breaks down and Vin comes to her aid in her private box, as the Vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) delivers the penultimate prophecy of the war.
“We in this quiet corner of England have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us, some close to this church…and why? Surely you must have asked yourselves this question…I shall tell you why - because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom. Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves, and those who come after us, from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down. This is the People's War. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it then. Fight it with all that is in us. And may God defend the right.”
In practically every way Mrs. Miniver is sublime cinematic perfection. Its propagandist goodwill is rarely preachy and its timely narrative seems, at least in retrospect, more timelessly appealing and apropos, particularly in a world that, in more recent years, has frequently teetered on the brink of some new self-destruction. The great satisfaction of this movie then as now, and like most any that William Wyler made during his illustrious career, remains its focus - not on the war but on the human element forced to endure its terrible fallout. This attention to people rather than the thought-numbing spectacle surrounding them eventually came to be branded ‘the Wyler touch’. Arguably, it remains primarily responsible for Mrs. Miniver’s enduring appeal these many years.
Garson and Pigeon are the personification of England; a country and a people whose evolution, however forced by extenuating circumstances, is nevertheless richly rewarding to behold. Honorable mention must also go to Teresa Wright’s understated performance as the unstuffy daughter to the manor born. Wright’s Carol is a woman of both conviction and compassion – the soul as well as decaying bridge between England’s past and future. Her death becomes the symbolic gesture that irreversibly fractures and forever divides these two polar opposite interpretations of Britain; the halcyon days of England as empire receding into the sunset while foreshadowing the postwar generation yet to come with remarkable clairvoyance. Indeed, Mrs. Miniver was and is one of MGM’s crown jewels – a superb melodrama that sustains an air of pride amongst the thoroughly decimated, though never entirely defeated. Why can’t Hollywood make more of these? Why indeed?
Warner Home Video debuts Mrs. Miniver on Blu-ray in a transfer that offers a modest improvement on their previously issued DVD from some years back. The indictment is slight – because Mrs. Miniver has never looked anything but utterly spectacular on either format. The film elements have been the subject of considerable restoration and preservation over the years. As such, this newly minted 1080p blu-ray improves in all the expected areas. The image tightens up, with fine details coming into focus. Film grain is more naturally reproduced. We get crispness without any undue manipulation. No edge enhancement or shimmering of fine details. The gray scale has been solidly reproduced. But side by side comparisons between the DVD and Blu-ray reveal that contrast has been ever so slightly bumped. So, which version best represents how the film originally looked in theaters. Difficult to say. The increased contrast is modestly negligible at best. Which version do I prefer? Either or – but the Blu-ray wins hands down for improved grain reproduction and overall sharpness.
The audio remains mono as originally recorded; excellent reproduction of a vintage soundtrack with crisp dialogue. Herbert Stothart’s score, particularly the main title, sound very impressive. Extras are all imports from the DVD, including several short subjects and a trailer. I would have appreciated Warner giving us an audio commentary or featurette on the making of the film. Certainly, Mrs. Miniver deserves one. But the overall improvements to the presentation of the film itself are enough for me to recommend this disc to you. Hands down – a no-brainer, yes!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)