Ed. Note: welcome back, everyone! WRM continues to be updated sporadically while Anne Marie furiously blogs her way through a Year With Kate for The Film Experience, but now please enjoy the smart and snarky contribution from WRM contributor Margaret!
Contemporary films aren’t often described as ‘earnest.’ Even the children’s movies in these cynical times wisecrack and eye-roll enough to make [famously earnest person/character] recoil in horror. Watching How Green Was My Valley, the 1941 Best Picture Oscar Winner and one of John Ford’s most lauded films, takes the viewer through a sort of time warp. Everything about the movie is so blessedly earnest it’s almost unnerving to watch. (Can you imagine what the film would look like if its source novel were adapted in 2014?) The film’s story of a hard-working Welsh family who witness the slow destruction of their native mining town and beloved way of life is played with absolute wide-eyed sincerity, beat by nostalgic beat.
And there’s something refreshing about that– being forced to abandon my sense of irony for two hours might have even been spiritually beneficial to me in some way. That said, there’s only so much black-and-white (har har) moralizing I can stand, and Ford really pushes the limits here. (These are a plain, upstanding people! So strong, so simple! They are more pure of heart and spirit than any of us corrupt mortals! Have you got that? Have you got it?) How Green Was My Valley has been much maligned in film history as the undeserving thief of Citizen Kane‘s rightful Best Picture Oscar, much as the similarly earnest Forrest Gump and The King’s Speech would be decades later for their victories over much edgier competitors.
Best Picture debate (and corn factor) aside, How Green Was My Valley is photographed with undeniable beauty and finesse. Director of Photography Arthur C. Miller made smart, potent staging and lighting choices throughout the film, producing some truly breathtaking frames. Particularly striking is the film’s divine depth of field, with nearly every shot giving the viewer something distinct to look at in the background and middle ground as well as the foreground. I didn’t realize just how starved I was for depth in frames until just now. Bring it back!
This visual richness is immeasurably aided by the production design team. They made the absolute most of their sound stages, crafting a genuinely credible Welsh countryside on their studio backlot. That is some top-notch set design and scene painting.
The effectiveness of the movie’s emotional arc relies on hammering home the tragedy of the titular valley’s descent into ruin. For that feeling to truly land, the viewer needs to buy the ‘Before’ valley of the film’s beginning as an absolute idyll, and boy, were Ford and Miller working overtime to make that sell. Within the first five minutes you see sufficient proof that the cinematography Oscar was well-earned. Shot after lovingly, painstakingly framed shot shows us perfect rolling countryside neatly bordered by perfect rows of houses. Even the smoke curls beautifully across the sky– pollution never looked so picturesque. Not only is it lovely in the valley, but its lucky residents are so darn happy all the time that they can’t help but lope through the streets singing in joyful unison. (Even though they are coal miners. The film relishing in regaling us with the evils of Too Much Coal Mining, instead of Just Enough Coal Mining, which is I guess what we should all be going for.)
The beauty of the early scenes makes the ravages of time seem all the more cruel. Which brings me to my choice for Best Shot:
Spring has arrived in the valley, and the tight-knit valley community comes as a body to the Morgan family doorstep. Geometrically, the frame is beautifully staged: I love the converging lines of the paths and the rooftops and the stream of people. Pretty young girls bearing fresh wildflowers trailed by the fraternal mining men and a swell of tender Welsh choral music are about as picture-perfect as it gets. The loveliness of the scene is tinged with something poignant and sad – we know it’s soon to be lost forever.
O, the valley. My, she was