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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Mrs. Miniver



MRS. MINIVER (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.:William Wyler, 1942 (Warner Home Video)

Winston Churchill once said that no Hollywood movie (or British movie, for that matter) did more ot raise the spirits of the beleaguered World War II home front Britishers than  Mrs. Miniver — which won six 1942 Academy Awards and was also that year’s highest-grossing American picture. Churhill, a bit of a movie fan,  may have been right. This glossy but intelligent wartime film drama, a portrait  of quiet heroism in the British homeland during the early years of World War II  is a picture that idealizes and heroizes the ordinary British citizenry like no other film of that period, or since. (An interesting, more modern take on the era is John Boorman‘s semi-autobiographical 1987 Hope and Glory.)

In Mrs. Miniver, we see, through the impeccably crafted images and consummate storytelling skill that director William Wyler became famous for, the gasllant Mrs. Kay Miniver (Greer Garson), who braves everything from air attacks, to a secret mission on local boats by her stalwart husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) and others,   to the bitterly contested local flower show. to the her son Vin’s (Richard Ney) lightning romance with Carol (Teresa Wright), as the angelic daughter of the inperiously snobbish  Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty).

Audiences loved it. But, by the same measure ,  Mrs. Miniver will probably never again look as good, or as 11inspiring, as it did in 1942, when it helped solidify the Angle-American wartime bond . Based on a novel by Jan Struther, written for the screen by novelist James Heilton and three others (Arthur Wimperis, Claudine West and George Froeschel), it’s a typically polished Wyler production, with pristine-looking black-and white  cinematography by ace Joseph Ruttenberg. And  it’s about an almost improbably good and decent British community, where Mrs. Miniver is simply the bravest and finest of a village full of brave, fine people, whom the prologue, with what may be typical British unerstatement (or may be a form of bragging)  calls “ordinary.” . Hitler beware.

Garson had become a star in 1939 with her unforgettable part as Chips’ great love in the MGM movie of James Hilton’s  Goodbye Mr. Chips, co-scripted by West, and Mrs. Miniver marked the peak of her stardom, which carried Miss Garson  through another decade of heroic roles as brave, fine ladies — often opposite the actor who here plays Mr. Miniver, Walter Pidgeon. All that braveness and fineness inspired Judy Garland and writer Kay Thompson to the irreverent send-up in their classic  number The Interview in Ziegfeld Follies.

But in 1942, Garson, with this role,  became kind of  impregnable: the queen of the Hollywood British community and of the MGM stock company as well. Nothing, it seems, could damage her stature, including her notorious Oscar acceptance speech for Miniver, which some say lasted hours — or what seems a dubious post-film marriage to Richard Ney, the much younger actor who played her son Vin in the movie. (It seems to have hurt him more than it did her, and he eventualy divorced Garson and gave up movie acting.)

Be that as it may, prestge and technical perfection ooze out of  the movie Mrs Miniver, which is one of those Hollywood films that sometimes get attacked for being too ambitious, too heavily prized. It’s a film that looks as if it may have been one of those Wyler pictures where the director, a famous perfectionist, went to 50 or 60 takes on a scene to get what he wanted.

But it’s still quite watchable, despite all its honors and prestige. Mrs. Miniver was one of the few films that scored Oscar nominations im all four major acting catefories: Garson (for Best Actress, which she won) Pidgeon (Best Actor) , Henry Travers (for Best Supporting Actor as Mr. Ballard, the little railroad man with the rose), and Whitty and , Wright (both for best Sipporting Actress, which Wright won). And it won four other Academy Awards as well, for Best Picture, Best Director (Weyler), Best Cinematography (Ruttenberg) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Hilton and his colleagues).

My favorite scene in the movie is the flower show sequence in which Travers’ rose, which he clleed the “Mrs. Miniver,” to the lady’s great delight, is competing against the rose of reigning champion Dame May, who always wins.   I also like the scene where Mr. Ballard (who acts like a character out of an Ozu film)  tells Mrs. Miniver about his flower and his wish to have it named after her– the little man expressing his most powerful love and affection, in the only way he can. It’s one of those scenes that you can probably only get away with in a movie, one of those scenes that the movies were made to bring to us.

If Wyler and the writers made in Mrs. Miniver the quintessential WW2 British WW2 home front movie (Don’t take it from me; take it from Churchill), he later came back from his own war service in 1942-5 to make the quintessential film about returning World War II American veterans, The Best Years of Our Lives — which was the most popular American movie of the entire decade of the ‘40s. Since Wyler ws a German-Jewish immigrant to America born in the Alsace region, he must have felt gratified that he could read the temperaments of  America and England so well , and celebrate the bravery and fineness of his adopted country and its brotherland, and of Mrs. Miniver and her family, so memorably — even if it did take him 60 takes to get it right.

Extras: 1942 Academy Awards Newsreel; Cartoon Blitz Wolf; WW2-era  shorts Mr. Blabbermouth and For the Common Defense; Trailer.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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~ David Simon