Mrs Miniver: cinema in wartime

“You can say goodbye to your roses!” “Let’s not talk nonsense: it would be the same as saying goodbye to England! There will always be roses …”

Mrs. Miniver: Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon

There are films whose importance is linked, even before any artistic merits or commercial success, to their ability to grasp the Zeitgeist and to express the collective spirit of a nation, especially in particularly fateful moments for society. In this sense, one of the most emblematic cases by far is constituted by Mrs Miniver: a film known mainly by lovers of classic cinema, but which eighty years ago, in the middle of the Second World War, had an impact of impressive proportions, becoming a formidable propaganda tool for the Allies. Indeed, while the European continent had fallen under the control of the Axis powers, the United Kingdom was increasingly isolated and the United States suffered the humiliation of Pearl Harbor, the character played by Greer Garson was elected to symbolize courage and resilience of ordinary people against the threat of Nazi-fascism.

The daily life of Mrs. Miniver

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Mrs. Miniver: Teresa Wright and Greer Garson

Recalling a work such as Mrs. Miniver, which premiered in American theaters on July 22, 1942, in record time and under pressure from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, therefore also means analyzing the cultural and political weight of cinema – and specifically Hollywood cinema – in the context of twentieth-century history. Inspired by the figure created in 1937 by writer Jan Struther for a column on the Times and at the center of the 1939 book of the same name, the project of Mrs. Miniver was put in the pipeline by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and by the producer Sidney Franklin in 1941, but not without some mistrust: the United States is still divided between interventionists and neutralists and there are those who, just the year before, had branded Charlie Chaplin as a warmonger for having derided Nazi Germany in The Great Dictator. There war that is being fought in Europe, in short, in America is still a delicate subject.

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Mrs. Miniver: A picture from the film

Mrs. Miniver William Wyler 1942

Mrs. Miniver: Henry Travers and Greer Garson

It should be noted that William Wyler’s is not really a war film, but rather a description of everyday life in wartime through the events of the small community of Belham, a fictional village in the London countryside. To arouse greater involvement in the public, Wyler knows that first of all he must encourage him to become attached to the aforementioned community and to the Minivers, a family of the upper middle class composed of the architect Clem (Walter Pidgeon), his wife Kay (Greer Garson) and their three children; hence the choice to build a long background in which to represent the ‘normality’ of the characters and the placid atmosphere of the town. For the first thirty minutes, set in the summer of 1939, the only conflicts in the film therefore consist in the exorbitant price of the bizarre hat bought by Kay Miniver, fearful of her husband’s reaction, and the preparations for a floral exhibition sponsored by the aristocratic Lady Beldon (Hitchcock character actress May Whitty).

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The “Battle of Britain” according to William Wyler

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Mrs. Miniver: A picture from the film

William Wyler, one of the greatest masters – never too remembered – of classic cinema, immediately created an effective balance between the different registers: a few brushstrokes of brilliant comedy, the attention to detail in painting the domestic routine of the Minivers and the suffused romanticism in the relationship between their eldest son Vincent (Richard Ney) and pretty Carol (Teresa Wright), Lady Beldon’s niece. Then, from the news of the invasion of Poland, the drama broke out: the anguish for the fate of Vincent, enlisted in the Royal Air France, and for the other men who left for France; the drastic change in habits (curfew, darkening of houses) and tension when, during the “Battle of Britain”, the country is subjected to raids by the Luftwaffe; but also the awareness of having to face the anxiety and continue to live, not giving up admiring the beauty of the roses, even under the bombs.

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Mrs. Miniver: Helmut Dantine and Greer Garson

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Mrs. Miniver: Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson

It is no coincidence that Ms. Miniver will be the forefather of a series of films aimed at recounting the Second World War from the point of view of the civilian population, often favoring a female perspective, such as John Cromwell’s Since you left (1944), with Claudette Colbert and Jennifer Jones, and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a masterpiece by Wyler himself, with Fredric March and Myrna Loy. And in the 1942 film, one of the leading actresses of MGM, the 37-year-old, embodies the fortitude of the British people. Greer Garson, originally from Essex and first appeared on screen only in 1939, in Goodbye, Mr. Chips !. Immediately appreciated for her ability to combine elegance, sweetness and determination, Greer Garson has just earned a second Oscar nomination for Flowers in the Dust, in which she starred herself with Walter Pidgeon: a duo immediately replicated by Wyler, who will promptly leverage the alchemy between the two protagonists.

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Mrs. Miniver: Teresa Wright and May Whitty

Careful to smooth out the ideas of social criticism (the invective of the young Vincent against the privileges ofupper class) in favor of a widespread sense of solidarity, to which the rich and snobbish Lady Beldon will also adhere, Mrs. Miniver is still in the process of filming when the Japanese air force attacks the Pearl Harbor base by surprise, accelerating the entry into US war. What was born as a tribute to Great Britain is thus transformed into a film that, indirectly, also speaks of America: the final speech delivered by the priest in a ruined church, an appeal for the unity of the people against tyranny and dictatorships, acquires an even wider and deeper resonance, because in 1942 the war is now truly ‘global’. And spectators flock to theaters: Mrs. Miniver will be by far the most watched film of the year, with over thirty million tickets sold in the US alone.

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Mrs. Miniver: Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon

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Mrs. Miniver: a picture of Greer Garson

Within a few months, the collective enthusiasm will lead to an inevitable triumph at the 1942 Academy Awards, dominated by two patriotic titles such as Michael Curtiz’s Ribalta di gloria and, in fact, Mrs. Miniver, which won six Oscars. : Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress for Greer Garson, Best Supporting Actress for Teresa Wright, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Although today it does not enjoy the same consideration as other classics of the 1940s (and leaving out the unfortunate 1950 sequel, Goodbye Mrs. Miniver), William Wyler’s work nevertheless remains a fundamental work for understanding, between strengths and limits, the aggregating function of Hollywood industry in the darkest period of the twentieth century, narrated here while it is still in full swing.

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