How Green Was My Valley is now, and will continue to be, best remembered as the film that “stole” the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars from Citizen Kane. If I have to come down on one side or the other (and I really don’t have to), Kane should have won, not only for its formal excellence, but for its groundbreaking elements (sound, acting, cinematography, screenplay) that pushed sound film into a new era. But then, in the theater world, West Side Story, as groundbreaking in its own way as Kane, lost the Tony for 1957’s Best Musical to The Music Man, a great musical that was more of a summation of yesteryear’s strengths than anything approaching the originality and daring of West Side Story.
But with both films and musicals, we don’t have to choose. But Kane, The Music Man, and West Side Story are all still regularly enjoyed, yet How Green Was My Valley seems almost lost to everyone but film historians. That’s a loss, as it is a trip back in cinematic time as well as a journey to a time and place that is worth revisiting, even if the memories are hazy and soft. That’s deliberate, of course, as this film walks the fine line between lyricism and sentimentality, only occasionally falling to one extreme or the other. To say they don’t make them like they used to is true, but even in 1941, they weren’t making them like that.
The film involves a family, a town, and a preacher in Wales in the late 1800s. It’s about family more than anything else, but also about towns, work, strikes, greed, unfairness, gossip’s destruction, hypocrisy, the occasional horrors of school and schoolchildren, and real and impossible love. It’s filled with genuine emotion and feeling, and full of tableau-like imagery that would be too self-conscious if it weren’t so striking and meaningful.
Director John Ford had quite a run in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s (though he created great films after that time until well into the 1960s). After winning the Best Director Oscar for 1935’s The Informer, he had an amazing three-year period from 1939 to 1941: Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath (Oscar for Best Director), Tobacco Road, and How Green Was My Valley (Oscar for Best Director). He’d win his last and record-setting fourth Oscar for 1952’s The Quiet Man. Ford was known as a brusque, grumpy, no-nonsense director, and yet this is a film of warmth and tender sensitivity—in some ways so very different from the documentary-like Grapes of Wrath, and miles away from the great classic western Stagecoach, which could be deeply cynical while still being rough-and-tumble. His range was astounding, and unfortunately, he was deeply impatient with questions about his thinking, his feelings, or his process. We just have to see the work and be amazed.
Aside from winning the two top awards, the film won three others, including Best Cinematography. It’s stunning work, and often breathtaking in its beauty. I can’t justify it beating Gregg Toland’s work in Kane. (At least Toland won for 1939’s Wuthering Heights.) But Toland has gone down in film history as an unquestioned legend, where few film historians could easily come up with the name of the three-time Oscar-winner who shot How Green. (He was Arthur C. Miller.) This is most definitely a film that needs to be seen in its restored version, and on the largest screen possible.
The film also won Best Art Direction—Interior Decoration, Black-and-White. That’s no surprise, as the set evokes a time and place that existed in imagination and memory only, but convinces us of its solidity and reality. The other award, perhaps more noteworthy historically, was the Best Supporting Actor award to legend Donald Crisp, whose career began in 1913 and ended with 1963’s Spencer’s Mountain. Crisp was rarely a lead, but his list of films was noteworthy: D.W. Griffith classics such as The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912, and Crisp’s 33rd film), The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and a devastating performance in Broken Blossoms. There was also Red Dust, 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty, The Life of Emile Zola, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, National Velvet, and Pollyanna, among many, many others. His performance in How Green is tough, stubborn, gentle, authoritative, and kind-hearted–that once-in-a lifetime part that brings out the full range of an actor’s capabilities. The film is worth watching for him alone.
But there are others. After a few years of small parts, Roddy McDowall had his first major role here as the child around which the film revolves. The film puts him through his paces, both physically and emotionally, and over the two-month shooting schedule of the film, McDowall does a good job fooling us into thinking he’s grown physically and emotionally. Stalwart Walter Pidgeon looks tall and strong, sounds magnificent, and acts well enough. More interesting is Maureen O’Hara, a Ford favorite who became a name if not a star in 1939’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. A mere 20 or so at the time, she is a strong presence even if not a great actress, and she has a few lovely moments in the film. She and the actress playing her sister-in-law are reminders that this is studio-era Hollywood at work, with full make-up (including lipstick which would never have been worn), beautifully coiffed heads, and lovingly lit faces; after all, the stars—and especially the women—always needed to look great. It’s her work that makes the 21-year difference between her and Pidgeon believable and non-creepy.
The film is usually remembered as gauzy, deeply touching, and primarily about family in an age we’ve all forgotten. But good people are laid off and have to leave town to survive, the coal mine produces as much death as income, people who love each other can’t get together, families are pulled apart because of ideology, and young children can be physically abused. If Ford had treated the story as he did The Grapes of Wrath just a year earlier, this would have been a completely different film—sharper, harsher, and with much less hope. Instead, we have a film worthy of being seen and remembered, that demonstrates the incredible range of its director, and is worthy of film history’s attention. After all, it’s not its fault the Academy voted the way it did.