Monday, September 3, 2012

Don't Make a Scene: How Green Was My Valley

The Set-Up: On this Labor Day week-end, we present a scene from a film that had 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck grousing that he was being forced to make a "pro-union" film. But Zanuck bought it, and hired leftist screenwriter Phillip Dunne to adapt it. Then hired Roosevelt Democrat John Ford to direct. What did he expect?

Richard Llewelynn's 1939 novel is the melancholy remembrance of a Welsh coal-mining community, and specifically of the Morgan family, who's patriarch Gwilym Morgan is the miner's spokesman with the owners of the colliery. The scene today comes early in the film, when the four mining sons take issue with their father's stance regarding the owners, and pledge a willingness to strike--a move strongly disapproved by the father.

Ford stages this scene quickly. He has already established the Morgan routine of the family dinner table, so this scene, coming on the heels of a shot of Old Gwylim suffering the humiliation and health dangers of a day spent in the pouring rain, rapidly contrasts with the peaceful order of things. Just as the boys are eager to challenge the authority at the colliery, they must first contend with their father's authority, which is autocratic--modern film-goer's may blanch at the women's subjugated roles at the dinner table, but they are as subjected as the sons. It should be pointed out that throughout this scene, the voice of Gwylim Morgan, never rises above normal conversation level and is measured. He does not countenance the up-rising (literally) of his sons, but throughout the scene, he is always willing to be conciliatory...until the end. And, with the leave-taking of the four boys, Ford repeats the shot of that long dinner table--now empty, save for the Father and the youngest, Huw (played by the recently-arrived-to-the-U.S. Roddy McDowell, sent by his family from London to be spared the blitz--the same reason the film was shot in Malibu, rather than Wales). It is as quiet, and as potent, an image of loss as any in cinema (and Ford compounds it on the last angle of Crisp with a view of an empty chair--presumably the one that accommodated his married son--in the down-scene living room--the father is surrounded by loss and echoes of it).

How Green Was My Valley won the 1941 Academy Award for Best Picture in a competition that also included The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, and...Citizen Kane.* Despite all that, it's hard to argue with the quality of the choice. How Green Was My Valley was, and is, an exceptional film, full of character and incident and spoke of on-going issues that would only be interrupted by the on-coming war. Orson Welles' next film, the studio-sabotaged The Magnificent Ambersons, contained many of the same themes as ...Valley: of the shattering of tradition and family, the crushing march of progress, and its subsequent scarring of the earth.

How Green Was My Valley was selected in 1990 for the National Film Registry.

The Story: The dinner table of the Morgan household is usually a warm place. Tonight, it's seething. The family of Welsh miners are divided as the head of the household, Old Gwilym Morgan (Donald Crisp), also the head of the miners' negotiating committee, has been punished for his stance by being transferred to a position that has seen him standing in the middle of a torrential down-pour. His sons are determined to call a strike to protect the old man, but he will have none of their "socialism." Observing the dinner discussion are Mrs. Morgan (Sara Allgood), daughter Angharad (Maureen O' Hara), and youngest son, Huw (Roddy McDowell).

Action!



Davy Morgan: Do you think I'll let them make my father stand like a dog in the rain and not raise my hands to stop it?
Beth Morgan: Hush, Davy.
Mr. Morgan: Who gave you permission to speak?
Davy: This matter is too important for silence. They're trying to punish you for...

Mr. Morgan: Is that more important than good manners?
Ianto Morgan: Then, what are we going to do about it? You'll die of the cold when it comes to snow!

Ianto: Let us all stand together and see how they'll act then!

Gwilym: Right! The men will come out if we say the word. All the pits are ready.

Mr. Morgan: You will not make me a plank for your politics. I will not be the excuse for any strike.

Ianto: But if they learn they can do things like that to the spokesman, what will they try and do to the men?
Mr. Morgan: We will see. Be silent now. Finish your supper.
Ianto: But, Father...

Mr. Morgan: Enough now!

Angharad: But...
Beth: On your work....

Owen Morgan: It is not enough!
Mr. Morgan: Owen!
Owen: I am sorry, sir....

Mr. Morgan: Hold your tongue until you have permission to speak!

Owen: I will speak against injustice anywhere, with permission or without it!

Mr. Morgan: Not in this house.

Owen: In this house and outside, sir!

Mr. Morgan: Leave the table.

Owen: I will leave the house!

Beth: Owen! Tell your father you're sorry.
Owen: I am not sorry!


Gwilym: I am with you. We can find lodgings in the village.

Beth: Gwilym!

(Ianto, the oldest, slowly stands)

Mr. Morgan: All of you, then?

Mr. Morgan: For the last time, sit down. Finish your supper. I will say no more.

Ianto: We are not questioning your authority, sir. But if manners prevent us from speaking the truth, we will be without manners.

Mr. Morgan(resignedly): Get your clothes and go.

Angharad: I'm going with them to look after them.
Beth: Hold your tongue, girl. Get on with your dishes.

(The mother goes after the boys.)
(Huw eats a bite, then drops his cutlery loudly on the plate. No reaction from the father, who sits despondently at the head of the table.)
(Huw drops it again, then loudly clears his throat.)

Mr. Morgan: Yes, my son. I know you are there.


How Green Was My Valley

Words by Phillip Dunne

Pictures by Arthur C. Miller and John Ford

How Green Was My Valley is available on DVD from Fox Classics Home Video.





* And, in the small circle of critics, "the buzz" is all about how Citizen Kane has been "dethroned" by Vertigo in the No. 1 spot of Sight & Sound's "50 Greatest Films of All Time" poll (after being in the top spot for fifty years).  Sight and Sound's poll, although it enjoys the reputation of being the most watched (a distinction that I'm sure will also fall at some point, given the vagaries of fashion), has the same effect on individual tastes as any poll—none—and merely offers a list for comparison and the occasional (and only occasional) "new" idea.  Tastes and reputation change over time, as the only inevitability in life is change.  I stay away from polls and "Ten Best" lists, only giving them a cursory glance, but if one wants to see what my favorite films are (if such a term can be used), I would refer them to the "Anytime Movies" series of articles here for the films that have such a hold on me that if I start watching them, I must stay with them to their conclusion—no matter how many times I've seen them.  A quick summation is in the left-hand column of the LNTAM Index, a handy guide to what's archived on this blog.

1 comment:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Aaaah, such a great scene. I've said it before, this is my favourite movie of the line-up and I think it's generally stellar.