If anyone ever doubted the intentions of MGM’s Best Picture–winning hit Mrs. Miniver, director William Wyler clarified them in a later interview. “I was a warmonger,” Wyler said. “I was concerned about Americans being isolationists. Mrs. Miniver obviously was a propaganda film.”1 Wyler may have had blatant political motivations—he was, in fact, nearly broke in attempting desperately to get his Jewish relatives out of Europe2—but he was also one of the most talented directors working in Hollywood at the time. Even with its propagandistic goals, Mrs. Miniver remains powerful, thanks in no small part to the strong central performance from star Greer Garson.
The British actress stars as the matriarch of the Miniver family, who live a comfortable life in a small town just outside of London. At the start of the film, in 1939, her primary concern is getting to a favorite shop before someone else buys the new hat she was eyeing. Her architect husband (Walter Pidgeon, reuniting with Garson after Blossoms in the Dust) finds himself similarly splurging on a new car; both worry that the other will be mad about their frivolous purchases, but the two approve of their respective extravagances. The focus on these petty little conflicts makes their situation very clear: these are people who know little of the war or the horrors that are to come. Wyler’s film follows the family and their town through the London Blitz, showing how individuals persevere through war, and making a case for America to finally step in (the film began shooting before Pearl Harbor).
The rest of Mrs. Miniver plays out episodically; it was based on a series of newspaper columns by Jan Struther later packaged together into a book. Subplots include a romance between the eldest Miniver son (Richard Ney, in his screen debut) and the granddaughter of a local aristocrat (the always delightful Teresa Wright); that aristocrat (Dame May Whitty) has her own subplot involving the village flower show and her competition with the town stationmaster (Henry Travers). The sections are united by the overall narrative of the war, but some segments have significantly more heft than others. Two characters fighting over the award for Best Rose can seem childish when juxtaposed with a scene of Mrs. Miniver faced with a Nazi pilot in her own backyard. When the film is at its best, Wyler and writers Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, and Claudine West strike a balance between acknowledging the frivolousness of some of the characters’ apolitical actions during wartime, and playing many of these small moments as incredibly human—there’s an empathy for all of the story’s characters that not all filmmakers would have brought.
Garson holds the film together with her performance as a woman determined to get her family through the war as best she can. Pidgeon comes off perhaps a bit too lighthearted against her, but the two have chemistry and would remain screen partners for over a decade, appearing in eight films together. The Miniver sons are a particular weak point, from the tiresomely chipper Richard Ney (who Garson married soon after) to perhaps the most unbearable child actor in history, Christopher Severn. The highlight of the film has to be Travers, who takes what is seemingly the most inconsequential subplot to a climax that plays out as the most emotional moment of the film.
A lot of the credit is due to Wyler, at this point in his career both respected and yet infamous for his rigorous treatment of actors. He was coming off of The Little Foxes, where he feuded so heavily with Bette Davis that the two ended a creative partnership that had spanned three films. But he would get the best out of his stars, an ambition Garson understood when she took on the role. Wyler also crafted some superb sequences, the standout of Mrs. Miniver being the bombing of the Miniver house. The family is safe in a bunker below the house, Wyler (with cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg) keeping the camera within it throughout the sequence. We only hear the attack; we experience it alongside the family, feeling the same terror that they do. While in its entirety Mrs. Miniver sometimes lacks the high drama that makes other Wyler films so memorable, there are sequences, like that in the bunker, ranking among the director’s very best work.
“We more than likely will lose $100,000 on the picture,” producer Sidney Franklin had told MGM executive Eddie Mannix. “Nevertheless, I think it’s mandatory that we make it.” Mannix agreed. “Someone should salute England,” he said.3 In the end, the film landed as the highest grossing film of the year with over 8 million dollars worldwide,4 and won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Wyler (his first win), and Best Actress for Garson (her first and only win).
“Let’s make propaganda pictures, but make them good,” Wyler once told Hedda Hopper.5 It’s that basic mentality that sets Mrs. Miniver apart from the countless perfunctory war films of the era—that propaganda does not inherently need to be bad or overbearing. Mrs. Miniver may play to some audiences today as excessive, but in comparison to a film like 49th Parallel, Wyler’s film comes off as restrained.
Where to Watch
For More on Mrs. Miniver
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Behind the Scenes
References [ + ]
|1.||^||Jan Herman, A Talent for Trouble (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996), 234.|
|2.||^||Mark Harris, Five Came Back (New York: The Penguin Press, 2014), 51.|
|3.||^||Scott Eyman, Lion of Hollywood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 344.|
|4.||^||Mark H. Glancy, “MGM Film Grosses, 1924–1948: The Eddie Mannix Ledger.” Historical Journal Of Film, Radio And Television 12, no. 2 (1992): 127-44.|
|5.||^||Jan Herman, A Talent for Trouble (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996), 237.|