RICH IS THEIR HUMOR! DEEP ARE THEIR PASSIONS! RECKLESS ARE THEIR LIVES! MIGHTY IS THEIR STORY!
Hollywood sure appreciated taking lessons from John Ford in all matters social realistic. He received an Academy Award for portraying the effects of the Great Depression on a family of poor sharecroppers in Grapes of Wrath (1940) and he was back at the Oscars the following year to pick up his second consecutive award for another depiction of hard-working laborers, How Green Was My Valley. Over time it has been overshadowed by a masterpiece that better deserved the Best Picture Oscar that year, Citizen Kane, but it is nevertheless classic Hollywood storytelling at its best.
Huw Morgan grew up in a small mining town in the Rhondda Valley in Wales. Now a grown man, Huw recalls his childhood in the late 1800s. His father Gwilym (Donald Crisp) and elder brothers were all coal miners, but Gwilym had special hopes for his youngest, academically gifted boy; perhaps Huw could be the first Morgan to have a proper education. Over the years, tough conditions threatened to break the family up, particularly when Huw’s elder brothers wanted to form a labor union with other miners against Gwilym’s wishes; working in the mine meant putting one’s life in danger every single day, but Gwilym regarded their activities as simple socialism that would ruin them all.
Meantime, his daughter Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) was smitten by Merddyn Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), a young, local preacher with less conservative views than most in the congregation…
Epic family saga
The book’s author, Richard Llewellyn, once claimed that he based it on his personal experiences from an area in Wales, but it turned out not to be true; he gathered his information by talking to coal-mining families. Still, that approach seemed to serve the novel well after all and one might say the same for the movie. Ford originally planned to shoot it on location in Wales, but the war made him scrap those plans… and the little Welsh coal-mining town that was erected at the Fox Ranch in Malibu worked well enough to earn the art-direction team Oscars.
Authenticity does not always automatically guarantee an excellent film… although one has to say that the Welsh accents of the cast (only one actor, Rhys Williams, was actually Welsh), could have been labored over a bit harder. The movie is an epic family saga (Ford allegedly toyed with the idea of a four-hour version), at times episodic in its structure, that interestingly contrasts the steadfast loyalty among not only family members but the village as a whole against the inevitability of society’s progress (in the shape of unions, for example) and the evils of small-town prejudice that threaten individuals like Gruffydd and Angharad. Emotional and warm-hearted, the movie easily sweeps you along; the visuals and Philip Dunne’s dialogue are superbly crafted.
Young Huw is played by Roddy McDowall who was twelve at the time; it’s a strong breakthrough performance. The cast is uniformly fine, and standouts also include Crisp and Sara Allgood who are both touching and amusing as Huw’s parents, two towers of strength.
The movie was a box-office hit. As audiences in 1941 saw the world around them go down in flames it was perhaps easy and comforting to go back in time to a period that may have been difficult in many ways, but at least not threatened by all-engulfing war. The adult Huw’s narrating voice (provided by Irving Pichel) is richly nostalgic. A longing for the impossibly green valley of one’s youth still, and always, resonate with us.
How Green Was My Valley 1941-U.S. 118 min. B/W. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Directed by John Ford. Screenplay: Philip Dunne. Novel: Richard Llewellyn. Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller. Art Direction: Richard Day, Nathan Juran, Thomas Little. Cast: Walter Pidgeon (Merddyn Gruffydd), Maureen O’Hara (Angharad Morgan), Donald Crisp (Gwilym Morgan), Anna Lee, Roddy McDowall, John Loder.
Trivia: William Wyler was allegedly considered for directing duties; Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn and Tyrone Power for parts in the film. The story was also filmed for British television in 1975.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Crisp), Cinematography, Art-Direction-Interior Decoration.
Last word: “It was so authentic, we thought it was Wales. A lot of the actors and crew were Celts, and we liked getting in touch with our roots when the war had cut us off from the real thing. It was inspiring.” (O’Hara on the construction of the coal-mining town, The Telegraph)