The first thing I wrote when taking notes during this film was…
“OK movie… let’s see what you’ve got”
For at least 50 years How Green Was My Valley has been the legendary “HUH?” of best picture winners for one reason and one reason only…the other nominees.
Of the 10 films nominated for best picture of 1941 I had already seen four (Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Suspicion). How Green Was My Valley made five.
I was ready to discover the answer to a burning question…Why was this movie named best picture over Citizen Kane?
How Green Was My Valley tells the story of a turn-of-the-century Welsh coal-mining village where Gwilym and Beth Morgan raise their family.
Roddy McDowall, only 12 at the time of filming, (credited as “Master Roddy McDowall”) plays Huw the youngest of the five Morgan boys.
The first thing that struck me was the way How Green Was My Valley was shot. Cinematographer Arthur Miller won his first of three Oscars in his prolific career for his work on this film. The use of the camera was very purposeful. Some of it looks like a coal mining documentary, very raw and real. But other scenes were obviously shot on sound stages. I’d noticed the same on John Ford’s film the year prior, The Grapes of Wrath.
When I saw The Grapes of Wrath for the first time a few years ago it was with my son at our local Cineplex for their classic film series. This was at the time the oldest film he’d ever seen (1940). He and I were the only two in the theater so we could chat a little during the film without disturbing anyone. Shortly after the movie started I pointed out how there would be no slick film making in that film. It would rise or fall on the story and acting alone. The Grapes of Wrath more than rose to the challenge. As I watched How Green Was My Valley I wondered if it would do the same.
Huw provides narration throughout the film. The story is meant to be from his perspective which is a little odd considering so much of it he wouldn’t have seen or been privy to.
Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood play Gwilym and Beth Morgan. Crisp had a great run during the 30s and 40s appearing in some really big films including Mutiny on the Bounty, The Life of Emile Zola, Wuthering Heights, Jezebel and National Velvet. Both Crisp and Allgood received supporting nominations with Crisp winning his only Oscar.
Maureen O’Hara is Angharad, the Morgan’s only daughter. She was only 19 when she made How Green Was My Valley. It’s the first of five films O’Hara would make with director John Ford, three of them with John Wayne (Rio Grande, The Wings of Eagles and The Quiet Man). Ford recognized the Duke needed a strong woman who could go toe-to-toe with him. The beautiful Maureen O’Hara was just that woman.
The plot of the film is a mix. On one side it’s the tale of a family of coal miners in England dealing with the difficulties of economic change at the turn of the century. On the other is a love story between Angharad and the town’s new preacher played by Walter Pidgeon. Somewhere in the middle is Huw and his place in the world. But throughout all of that are a number of scenes that don’t actually advance any of the plots, the characters or their circumstances. They could be rearranged or omitted without any impact to the story whatsoever.
There are some very sweet moments in this film as well. Sometimes they work and sometimes they’re just too thick with sentimentality, especially in regards to its use of singing. There’s so much singing in this movie it’s practically a musical. I suspect that might be what appealed to audiences and Oscar voters. It uses everything it can to grab the audience firmly by the heartstrings and never let go. Music is a great way to do that. I heard Quincy Jones once refer to movie music as “emotion lotion.” How Green Was My Valley is slathered in it.
Some of the storyline is seriously contrived and at times mawkish or worse just plain asinine. There’s one ridiculous sequence that I can only guess is meant for comic relief. A couple of blokes from the village go into town to have it out with Huw’s abusive teacher, knocking him out in front of the class. I halfway expected a sad trombone to punctuate the slapstick scene (“wah wah”). In the very next scene one of the Morgan sons is killed in the coal mine. Awkward transition.
Unfortunately the writing in the third act is one-dimensional, predictable and lazy. Unoriginal characters and plot devices drive the end of the story. But Walter Pidgeon gives a nice speech so… well, he gives a nice speech.
When, near the very end of the film, the coal mine collapses with Gwilym down below. The preacher and young Huw go down to see if they can find him. In light of everything I’d seen for the last 1 hour and 55 minutes there was no way on God’s green valley that this movie was going to end with them bringing him back alive. Not a chance.
Sure enough he died. (wah-wah).
I wanted to like this movie. I wanted to at least appreciate it as great film making. When Moonlight won best picture this past year it wasn’t my pick. I still think La La Land was a better picture of 2016 but I don’t disagree that Moonlight is an incredibly well-made film worthy of the Oscar. This one however is a mystery to me.
So how did this movie beat out Citizen Kane for best picture?
One theory I have is that the Academy to this point was far more impressed with film adaptations than original material. Of the 10 best picture winners prior to 1941 only two of them were from original screenplays. Compare that to the 10 most recent best picture winners where five of them were from original scripts. And depending on who you ask about Moonlight that number might actually be six*.
The novel “How Green Was My Valley” was incredibly popular at the time. Citizen Kane was an original script. The Academy’s proclivity for adaptations may have elevated the former.
Another theory is the Hearst Effect. Charles Foster Kane was loosely (or not so loosely) based on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was none too happy with the portrayal even if it went by another name. He railed against the film forcing nearly every critic in the country to bash it in their papers or completely bury it. Maybe that’s why the Academy overlooked it.
But they didn’t completely ignore it. How could they? There was so much Citizen Kane did brilliantly it was nominated for 9 Oscars, just 1 fewer than How Green Was My Valley. The fact that it only won a single award (for that original screenplay no less) is mind-boggling.
I understand that all art is subjective. There’s no right or wrong best picture. But how can the movie at (or extremely near) the top of virtually every significant “greatest films of all time” list not even win best picture of its year? And how could it lose to a movie that has been almost completely forgotten?
A film maker friend of mine defends the Academy’s choice for best picture.
“You have to judge a movie when it was made. This film told the plight of the blue collar worker. It was an important film for its time. Citizen Kane probably should have won but it was pretty controversial. People were afraid to go against Hearst. I think the Academy went with the safe choice in John Ford.”
America was on the brink of war. The family in this film was surely symbolic of the nation, facing challenges and hardship as best they could. I don’t doubt it was a meaningful film for audiences and the Academy alike.
But even with all the historical context in the world you’d be hard-pressed to find a serious cinephile today who wouldn’t agree that Citizen Kane should have won the Oscar for best picture of 1941. But what really makes How Green Was My Valley the “HUH?” is it was probably not even the 2nd best picture of the year…or third… or fourth!
The Maltese Falcon, Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion or even Here Comes Mr. Jordan (remade in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty) would have all been superior choices for best picture. And those are just the ones I’ve seen. I haven’t seen Sergeant York but it had the most nominations that year (11). Again, it’s all subjective but…really Academy? Really?
But what’s done is done. You can’t change the past. Citizen Kane didn’t win best picture just like the Falcons didn’t beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. We all have to learn to live with injustice.
John Ford won his third directing Oscar, joining Frank Capra as the only three-time winners in that category. But Ford was the first to win it in back-to-back years after taking home the gold for The Grapes of Wrath.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941 the United States entered World War II. Several of those involved with this film served and when the Oscars were handed out that night at the Biltmore Hotel they went to “Colonel” Darryl Zanuck (producer) and “Commander” John Ford.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not slamming this film. In some ways it’s very, very good. Excellent performances and Ford’s direction is thoughtful as always. But history has not been as favorable to it as to many of the other best picture nominees.
As they say, “Hindsight is 20/20.”
Who knows? Maybe in the year 2090 people will wonder why Hell or High Water didn’t win any Oscars.
*The Academy ruled Moonlight as an adapted screenplay (which it won) while the Writers Guild of America ruled it as an original screenplay (which it also won).