Friday, November 6, 2020

How Long Ago and Far Away Was My Valley

When the present is filled with anxiety, movies can be helpful in wafting us to long ago and far away. That’s why I spent part of election day in Victorian-era Wales, watching John Ford’s 1941 screen adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s popular novel, How Green Was My Valley. I’d read the novel in high school, falling in love with this saga of a family of Welsh coal miners. Ford’s film was so respected by Hollywood that it won the Best Picture Oscar against stiff competition, including Citizen Kane. It also nabbed four additional Oscars, including Best Director, nods for black-and-white cinematography and art direction, and a well-deserved Supporting Actor statuette for Donald Crisp, as the Morgan family’s indomitable patriarch. Five additional nominations included the categories of Best Supporting Actress (for feisty mother-figure Sara Allgood) and Best Musical Score. The Welsh love of choral singing was beautifully highlighted in the film by Alfred Newman’s work.

 The central figure in How Green is My Valley is Huw Morgan, vividly played on screen by Roddy MacDowell, just starting out on his long cinematic career. It’s a memory piece, beginning with now-grown-up Huw, in voiceover, leaving the valley and its family connections behind. The Morgans (with Huw as the youngest of 6 sons) have worked for generations in the local colliery, or coal mine. Over the years the soot from the mine has gotten deep into their skin, and into their souls. With their father they’ve gone down into the pit daily, collecting their wages, politely tipping their caps to the clerk, and returning home (singing all the while) to deposit their earnings into their mother’s apron. From their parents they’ve learned the dignity of labor, polite manners, religious faith, and deep family feelings. But as economic conditions worsen, cracks appear in the family’s unified front. Several of the brothers strongly favor the formation of a labor union, outraging their tradition-minded father. Mine disasters are frequent, claiming many local lives. A subplot focuses on the story of the family’s spirited daughter, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara), who loves the local minister but is persuaded to marry the wealthy, snooty mine owner’s son.

 I’ve recently seen The Quiet Man, also featuring O’Hara, and they make an interesting comparison. The Quiet Man, set in Ford’s beloved Irish countryside, can be seen as the flip-side of How Green is My Valley. Both revel in portrayals of small-town life, among people who dwell close to the soil, and both boast colorful characters galore. But The Quiet Man is a raucous comedy, while How Green is My Valley (for all its lively comic moments) is filled with heartbreak. The latter film is also a reminder of how hard it is to adapt a fat historic novel to the screen. So many fascinating situations are set up and then quickly dropped, like scenes in which Huw, starting school among better-dressed children in the next valley, is physically brutalized by both kids and their teacher for his coal-miner roots. The teacher gets his hilarious but vicious comeuppance at the hands of a local boxing champ, and then almost immediately Huw is graduating, earning honors and a scholarship, without any sense of how this came to pass. Angharad moves with her husband to Cape Town, of all places, and then suddenly returns. There’s just not room in any movie for all the connective tissue that a good novel can supply.

 One amusing note: the plan was to film in Wales, but World War II changed that. And so the film’s charming and authentic-looking Welsh village was built in the hills of Malibu, California. Who knew?



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