Superbly catching the warmth and feeling of Jan Struther’s characters in her best-selling book of sketches, “Mrs. Miniver,” Metro has created out of it a poignant story of the joys and sorrows, the humor and pathos of middle-class family life in wartime England. Additionally imbued with an unmatchably able cast and the fine, understanding direction of William Wyler, the picture will draw good grosses, particularly among class and femme audiences.
Its one defect, not uncommon with Metro’s prestige product, is its length — two hours and 13 minutes. It gets about three-quarters of the way through and begins floundering, like a vaude act that doesn’t know how to get off the stage. Were this remedied by some shearing, the film would undoubtedly rate close to the pinnacle for the year — if not at the b.o., at least in the accolades of critics and lovers of fine acting, fine writing and fine direction.
In addition, the film, in its quiet yet actionful way, is, probably entirely unintentionally, one of the strongest pieces of propaganda against complacency to come out of the war. Not that it shows anything like the result of lack of planning by governments or individuals, but in that it brings so close to home the effects of total war. The film is so warm, so well done, that Mrs. Miniver’s family is the audience’s family; that what’s in her heart is in the audience’s heart when her husband is summoned from his bed at 2 a.m. to help rescue the legions of Dunkirk, when her son flies out across the Channel each night, when she frightenedly captures a sick and starving German pilot who bears resemblance to her own boy, when her daughter-in-law of a few weeks is killed. Mrs. Miniver truly brings the war into one’s own family.
Withal, it’s a pleasant picture that scripters Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton and Claudine West have contrived. The story is entirely theirs. Miss Struther’s book–a compilation of short pieces that had appeared in various English magazines and newspapers–comprised nothing but sketches of incidents in the suburban life of Mrs. Miniver. There was no continuing story and the film, in fact, also is mostly a series of incidents.
Yarn which Metro writers have evolved picks up the Minivers in their pretty English countryside home just before the start of the war. Their church services are interrupted by the pastor’s announcement of the outbreak of hostilities. It still doesn’t mean too much to them until their son, at the dinner table a few hours later, announces he’s joining the RAF. Then there’s the call to Dunkirk, Mrs. Miniver’s unheroic capture of the flier, the bombing of their home as frightened half to death but resolute to the end they try to keep their two younger children calm in their tiny air-raid shelter. And the village flower show, duly clouded by the war but still important despite it; the son’s marriage, his quick call to action after the honeymoon, his bride’s death and, finally, church services again. The church is almost in ruins, the altar only a rough board improvisation, but the gaping hole in the roof permits the congregation a view of the heavens–and Spitfires going forth to do the battle, as the Minivers and their depleted fellow-villagers continue to pray.
Greer Garson, with her knee-weakening smile, and Walter Pidgeon, almost equally personable, are the Minivers. Scarecely less engaging or capable are young Teresa Wright as their daughter-in-law and Richard Ney in the difficult role of their son. Miss Wright, incidentally, has many of the fine screen characteristics of Miss Garson and will undoubtedly prove b.o. gold to Samuel Goldwyn, to whom she is under contract.
There’s also a supreme list of lesser players, including Dame May Whitty, Reginald Owen, Henry Travers, Henry Wilcoxon and Brenda Forbes. Tiny Christopher Severn, as the youngest of the Miniver brood, suffers from the over-precociousness of most film children, but is frequently good for laughs.
It’s impossible to praise too highly Wyler’s direction, which hits only one or two false notes throughout the lengthy presentation. His is clearly the understanding heart to whom these are not actors but people living genuine joy and sorrow and fear and doubt.
Production is in top Metro tradition with the understandable exception of a few special effects, notably the Dunkirk scenes.
1942: Outstanding Motion Picture (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Actress (Greer Garson), Actress in a Supporting Role (Teresa Wright), Black and White Cinematography (Joseph Ruttenberg), Directing (William Wyler), Writing–Screenplay (Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West)
Nominations: Actor (Walter Pidgeon), Actor in a Supporting Role (Henry Travers), Actress in a Supporting Role (Dame May Whitty), Film Editing (Harold F. Kress), Sound Recording (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio Sound Department, Douglas Shearer, Sound Director), Special Effects (Photographic Effects by A. Arnold Gillespie, Warren Newcombe; Sound Effects by Douglas Shearer)