Monday, May 13, 2013

DUELING MOVIES: Mrs. Miniver vs. Since You Went Away


             “Mrs. Miniver” (1942) and “Since You Went Away” (1944) are the two most celebrated home front war movies produced during WWII.  “Miniver” is set in England during the Fall of France, 1940.  “Since” is set in the USA in 1943.  Both cover “typical” families and depict the war’s impact on them.  There are many similar elements and characters.  Both have romances ending in tragedy, crusty upper class curmudgeons, religious motifs, and a sturdy matron at the center.  Both are propaganda masterpieces aimed squarely at American audiences.
                “Mrs. Miniver” was directed by William Wyler ("The Best Years of Our Lives").  He had been born in Germany and meant for the film to shake the American public out of its isolationist feelings.  By the time the movie came out, Pearl Harbor happened.  The movie still had the effect of boosting the war effort and served as a “why are we supporting England?” explanation.  Churchill supposedly praised it as “propaganda worth a hundred battleships”.  It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Screenplay.  It was a huge box office success.

                “Mrs. Miniver” starts in 1939 before England has declared war.  It is set in a village outside of London.  The Miniver’s are an upper class family who are leading an idyllic life.  Kay (Greer Garson) is the heart of the family.  Clem (Walter Pidgeon) is stout and dependable.  They are comfortably married (with their separate beds).  No dysfunction here.  They have a live-in maid and cook.  Their house has a name.  Not exactly the Rowans in "Hope and Glory".
Mrs. M and some roses
                The local vicar announces the outbreak of war.  He points out they are fighting for freedom and cannot and shall not fail.  The sermon must have had a great effect because Mr. Miniver takes their motorboat to help evacuate Dunkirk and their son Vin (Richard Ney) joins the RAF.  Before Vin goes off, he starts a relationship with the granddaughter of society maven and village snoot Mrs. Beldon (Dame May Whitty).  It’s your typical opposite philosophies attract scenario.  Vin spouts off about class inequalities and Carol (Teresa Wright) humors him.

the Minivers at church
                While Clem is off boating, Kay has to deal with a downed Luftwaffe pilot.  He is arrogant and predicts the terror bombing of cities.  She slaps him.  (This scene was refilmed harsher after Pearl Harbor.)  Being British, she pluckily takes him captive. 
                As though a Nazi with a pistol was not enough, Kay gets a visit from Mrs. Beldon.  She tries to derail the marriage of Vin and Carol.  His blood is not blue enough.  Kay smoothes things over, a little too easily.  There is a great scene with the Miniver family riding out a bombardment in their basement.  They have their upper lips stiff.  The sound and fury are actually superior to “Hope and Glory”.
the air raid
                There is a running story line involving a rose competition.  Every year Mrs. Beldon wins, but this year she has a challenge from the train station master Mr. Bellard (Henry Travers – Clarence the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life”).   For some reason, Mrs. B gets to announce the winner and she suddenly grows a heart and gives the award to Bellard (even though her rose actually won).  Sniff, sniff.

the rose winner
                If you are fighting for freedom, then someone has to die for freedom, right?  The death occurs in a strafing attack.  A great special effect of a bomber crashing is followed immediately by a ridiculously unrealistic random bullet.  The funeral takes place in the bombed out church.  The vicar bookends the film with a stirring sermon focusing on “why we fight”.  It is a war of all the people and must be fought in the cities, farms, factories, and hearts.  “This is the peoples’ war”.  Queue “Onward Christian Soldiers”.  Big finish – a V-shaped flyover by the RAF.  The end.  “Buy War Bonds!”
                “Since You Went Away” was released in 1944 and was David O. Selznick’s attempt to replicate the success of his “Gone With the Wind”.   It did not reach that level, but it was a big hit and garnered numerous Academy Award nominations (winning only for Max Steiner’s score).  It was the longest and most expensive MGM production since GWTW.  Selznick based his screenplay on a novel entitled Since You Went Away:  Letters to a Soldier from His Wife by Margaret Buell Wilder.
two bull dogs and Shirley Temple

                The movie is set in a typical American town in 1943.  It is the story of “the unconquerable fortress – the American home”.  The star in the window and the empty chair clue us that the man of the house is off to war.  We find out later that he joined to protect “home, sweet home” (queue music).  The wife is Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert).  She has a teenage daughter nicknamed Brig (Shirley Temple – lured out of retirement) and a bachelorette named Jane (Jennifer Jones).  Brig is perky and Jane is looking for love.  They take in a boarder, the crusty and irascible Col. Smollett (Monty Woolley).  He eventually bonds with their comic relief bull dog Soda (who has his own theme music!).  The movie starts off unexceptionally until “Uncle Tony” (Joseph Cotton) shows up to liven things up.  Cotton hams it up as the playboy who flirts openly with his best friend’s wife – Anne.  Meanwhile, Jane is mooning all over him.  Some of it is pretty creepy (especially with the numerous close-ups).  This is fodder for a 1970s soap opera (or 1980s porn), except this is 1944.  This means both Tony and Jane have zero chance.
your husband is MIA

                When Tony returns to the Navy (and the movie goes flat again), Jane gets a job as a nurse in a rehabilitation hospital.  (See that, ladies in the audience?)  The war comes home when Anne receives a telegram telling her that her husband is MIA.  She faints.  That Sunday (in the non-bombed out church) hymns are followed by a sermon that quotes from the last stanza of the “Star Spangled Banner”.  “And conquer we must, when our cause is just /  and this be our motto – in God is our trust.”  Kudos!
the Walkers acting like they are in love

                Jane falls in love with the sad sack grandson of the Colonel.  They are estranged because Bill (Robert Walker – Jones’ real life soon to not be husband) washed out of West Point.  He has enlisted in the Army because redemption is a powerful Hollywood force.  At one point, they take romantic refuge in a barn during a rain storm.  How original!  They are to be married when (oops, if) he returns from the war.  Their parting at the train station is iconic (and parodied in “Airplane!”)  The running alongside the train is preceded by a montage of conversations intended to typify the home front. “Now go honey,  and don’t look back”.  “Suits me if they tax me 100%.”  Guess who dies at Salerno.
                Jane works with a wounded, embittered vet.  Could he end up filling the hole in her heart?  The kindly psychiatrist tells Jane (and the audience) that they “must not live in the past.  There is a whole wide broken world to be mended.”  All these noble characters need balance, right?  Serving this role is Anne’s friend Emily Hawkins (Agnes Moorehead).  She represents the members of the public who want to ignore the harsh realities of the war and avoid sacrifices.  Anne gets to have a cathartic “get out of my house” moment which is crowd-pleasing. 
the wolf and his prey

                Anne gets a job as a welder, naturally.  This is necessary so she can meet a Polish woman who proceeds to give us her back-story of coming to the “fairy land across the sea”.  She ups the treacle by quoting from the poem on the Statue of Liberty.  Gag!  This movie gets the Star Spangled Banner and the Statue of Liberty into the script.  Can you say propagandistic patriotism?  The film closes with one of the great tear-jerking conclusions.  They are
tears of joy.  In a sense, Bill died so Tim could live.  I did mention he was declared MIA, not KIA, right?

                “Mrs. Miniver” is the superior movie.  It was surprisingly good.  It is not overly patriotic or propagandistic.  The dialogue is crisp.  The acting is very good.  Noone embarrasses themselves.  The family dynamic is realistic, if prosaic.  The death twist is a nice touch considering someone had to die.  The plot is very old school.  The subplot of the rose competition is positively quaint.  The themes are simplistic:  the effects of the war on families and civilians are in it, too.  It does its job admirably.  It is no wonder the anti-isolationist Franklin Roosevelt ordered it rushed into the theaters.
                “Since You Went Away” tries too hard.  It is an average home front movie which for God knows what reason got way more respect than it deserved.  Some of its accolades are head-scratching.  Max Steiner certainly did not deserve an Oscar for his trite, string-pulling music.  In fact, the movie opens with sappy music and never goes beyond that.  Even more perplexing was the Academy Award nomination for Jennifer Jones.  Her performance is nothing short of laughable.  Some of the other performances are strong (Woolley, Cotton, Moorehead, the bull dog), but overall this is not a well-acted film.  The movie spends a lot of effort bludgeoning the audience with messages and they are not subliminal.  Here are a few:  don’t give up hope  /  women can help in the war effort  /  someone needs to help with rehabilitation  /  women should remain loyal to their soldier men  /  we all have to make sacrifices.  These probably struck a chord during the war, but they seem simplistic today.  The movie is also highly predictable and clicheish.  For instance, when Smollett misses Bill’s send-off, Bill is dead meat.  Smollett coming to terms with Soda is also high on the cliché meter.

        Mrs. Miniver =  B+
     Since You Went Away =  C


  1. I liked Since You Went Away but haven't seen Mrs Miniver yet. The book should be quite good though, it's by a British author and much less sentimental than the movie as far as I've read. Since you liked it better than Since You Went Away I might like it a great deal.
    Of course they are propagandist but they also depict a reality.

  2. I did not know there was a book. I will have to check that out. Maybe you should put it on next years readalong. Considering when they were made, they could have been more propagandistic. They are good period pieces because not only do they give a fairly realistic view of the home front, but they also show how Hollywood portrayed the home front.


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