The Oscar Project 1942: Mrs. Miniver

Smack dab in the middle of World War II this film tells a tight and focused story of the Minivers, a British family in London struggling to survive the first months of the war.

It might be one of the best films you’ve never heard of.

1942 - Mrs. Miniver - posterThe character of Mrs. Miniver originated in 1937 in a series of columns in The London Times written by Jan Struther. Two years later, right after the start of the war, they were turned into a hugely successful book. It was especially popular in the United States.

The film takes a little bit to get going but once it does it really locks in. Greer Garson stars in the title role. It’s a wonderfully dynamic and layered performance. As the film goes on she really evolves, going beyond beautiful and charming to a strong, captivating presence on screen.

“You’ve such a way of looking at people.” – Lady Beldon to Mrs. Miniver

About halfway the film takes a bold, unexpected turn. During a ten minute stretch I said “Wow” out loud…twice. Before it was over I’d say it again. By the end of the film I was completely mesmerized.

It doesn’t even matter that the story includes a healthy dose of wartime propaganda. Mrs. Miniver is an engaging, well-made, truly wonderful film. It’s a personal view of the war and the London blitz. At times it’s heartwarming. At times it’s heartbreaking.

William Wyler’s direction is top notch. After four previous nominations he finally wins his first, but certainly not last, best director Oscar. He makes brilliant use of the actors, the story and the camera. What more can you ask for? Well, if you’re the president of the United States apparently you can ask for whatever you want.

Mrs. Miniver was released six months after the US entered the war. President Roosevelt urged MGM to get it into theaters across the country as quickly as possible.

But Roosevelt wasn’t the only leader keen on Mrs. Miniver. Winston Churchill supposedly said it had done more for the Allied cause than “five battleships or 50 destroyers.*

It’s #40 on AFI’s list of the “100 Most Inspiring Movies” of all time. It’s kind of a weird list (Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Karate Kid) but this is a moving film nonetheless.

Mrs. Miniver sits right in the middle of the Bette Davis/Greer Garson domination of the best actress category. From 1938 through 1945 Bette Davis and/or Greer Garson were nominated every year. They received a combined 12 nominations, each winning once. There were both nominated this year, one of the four times that would occur (1939, 1941, 1942 and 1944). This time Greer took home the gold.

Walter Pidgeon is back in his second consecutive best picture (How Green Was My Valley), this time receiving a best actor nod. However, his performance as Mrs. Miniver’s husband Clem was really more of a supporting character than the lead actor.

Henry Travers however did receive a supporting nomination for his work as James Ballard, the popular stationmaster. You’ll know Travers best as the angel Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life.

In total Mrs. Miniver would receive 12 nominations including all four acting categories. It was the first film to receive five acting nominations as both Teresa Wright and Dame May Whitty would be up for supporting actress. Wright would take home the prize, one of its six wins of the night.

Mrs. Miniver was Wyler’s record 7th straight year with a film nominated for best picture (Dodsworth, Dead End, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Letter, The Little Foxes) and his first to win. The next closest is Frank Capra with four.

There were 25 films nominated for best documentary. Yes, twenty-five. The vast majority of them were war propaganda films. But what’s even more amazing than 25 nominees is there were four winners! That was the only time anything like that ever happened.

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*As quoted in Bernard Wasserstein’s book, “Barbarism and Civilization”
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