And so begins the 1940s. This decade will be an odd combination of the ridiculously famous (CASABLANCA and Laurence Olivier’s HAMLET spring to mind) and the nearly-forgotten (like GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT and THE LOST WEEKEND). The first two, are in the middling range – known to some, forgotten by others.
Rebecca (Best Picture, 1940)
This film has the interesting distinction of being the only Hitchcock film ever to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. According to the IMDB trivia page, it was actually filmed the same year as GONE WITH THE WIND, but its release was delayed by a year. The films were produced by the same man, David O Selznick, and it was believed (rightly) that GONE WITH THE WIND would dominate the award season, so to give REBECCA a fair chance, it was held back until the 1940 award season.
REBECCA is based on the Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name, and is told through the eyes of an unnamed heroine, simply known as the second Mrs. De Winter. The orphan narrator is a paid companion to a demanding and aging socialite when she meets rich and charming Max De Winter. After a whirlwind romance, they marry and return to his English estate, Manderley, where odd things start to happen. It quickly becomes clear that the first (and deceased) Mrs. De Winter, the Rebecca of the title, had an impact on the household that has not really faded. It is said that Max was devastated by her death, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is downright obsessed. Rebecca’s bedroom and boudoir are kept just as they were when she was alive, from the precise angle of the hairbrushes to the readiness of her expensive lace negligee on the bed. Mrs. Danvers starts to psychologically undermine her new mistress by continual comparisons to and descriptions of Rebecca’s charm, beauty, skills, etc., to the point of trying to destroy her relationship with Max and even drive her to suicide.
If you have neither watched the film nor read the book, this is where the spoilers start. You’ve been warned.
A boat is found that contains a body, and both turn out to be Rebecca’s. It is quickly determined that the boat did not sink by accident, but was sabotaged so it would capsize. Naturally the two leading suspects in Rebecca’s death are Max and Rebecca herself. When the second Mrs. De Winter finds this out, she suddenly transforms from a childlike innocent to a competent, almost worldly woman in her determination to protect her husband – whether he is guilty or not. This is an important point, because in the course of describing the events of the evening of Rebecca’s death, Max reveals to his new wife that contrary to everyone’s opinion, he hated Rebecca. Eventually, of course, the true circumstances of Rebecca’s death are discovered (oh come on – I’m not going to reveal THAT twist!), but Mrs. Danvers has finally gone ’round the bend. As Max and his estate manager return to Manderley, they discover it to be on fire. The second Mrs. De Winter escapes, presumably to live happily ever after with Max, and Mrs. Danvers dies in the blaze.
I’ve gone back and forth on this film. On the one hand, it is a truly creepy psycho-drama. Judith Anderson, who plays Mrs. Danvers, manages to glide rather than walk and is never seen to blink. Anderson turns in a magnificently mesmerizing and horrifying performance as the obsessed housekeeper, and her psychological power over the young Mrs. De Winter, played by sub-Ingrid-Bergman-lookalike Joan Fontaine, is entirely convincing. Laurence Olivier is tormented and mercurial, going from charming and affectionate to furious and blasting in mere seconds. Hitchcock’s direction is masterful and the plot twists are revealed in ways that are totally unpredictable. Unlike some of his other works, like THE BIRDS, REBECCA has aged well.
On the other hand, it makes me internally itchy in a way that is reminiscent of my reaction to Jane Eyre. The relationship between the older, tormented man and his young second wife has the potential to make a modern viewer intensely uncomfortable. Max treats his second wife as a child – he even calls her a child to her face sometimes – by insisting she wear rain slickers when there isn’t a cloud in sight or by laughing at her when she tries to wear a sophisticated, fashionable gown and hairstyle. He asks her to “never wear black” and “never be 36.” He wants a child-bride. Like Rochester, he is attracted to the unblemished innocence of a young woman who has not had her soul marred by the beatings of the world. I don’t say there’s anything wrong with that. My quibble is with the reluctance to let the young bride mature into a fully-grown woman. It is a decided relief when Joan Fontaine’s innocent takes the opportunity afforded by unfortunate circumstance to move from child to woman in her husband’s eyes. In the long run, I believe he will like her the better for it.
How Green Was My Valley (Best Picture, 1941)
A sentimental portrayal of the loss of innocence at individual, familial, communal, and natural levels, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY shows the progression of a small Welsh valley from idyllic to fractured through the eyes of a child, played by Roddy McDowall, and narrated by his grown-up self, who is never seen on camera. I suppose it could be described as a slice-of-life film, since it doesn’t so much tell one story as charts a period of some years in one family’s experiences. At the start of the film, Huw (the narrator and the child) explains how he remembers the valley of his childhood when it was still green and lush, before the coal mining industry took over and covered everything with slag and soot. Over the course of the film, every event that takes place begins a domino effect, all leading to the unstoppable collapse of the village’s way of life. The entrance of a new preacher leads to a mentor for Huw, a self-denying lover for Huw’s sister Angharad, and an antagonist for the local church deacons, who insist on publicly humiliating and punishing anyone who steps the least bit out of moral line – or in Angharad’s case, simply thinks of stepping out of moral line without actually doing so. Another theme is the growing divide between mine owners and mine workers, as the workers form unions and strike, and the owners fire experienced workers in favor of less experienced but cheaper labor.
It is a film that starts happy, if rather saccharine, and gets increasingly distressing. Furthermore, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY is a slow film. I was surprised by how much it actually drew me in, if only because I didn’t notice it. With some films, like GONE WITH THE WIND or ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, the audience drops nearly bodily into the world of the picture, like Harry Potter dropping into Dumbledore’s Pensieve. HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, directed by the famous John Ford and starring Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O’Hara alongside Roddy McDowall, sneaks up on the audience, slowly reeling them into the story until they cannot help but be moved. I can’t say I loved it or even that I liked it on an emotional level all that much, but I was gripped. I am the first to admit that I always prefer that my entertainment make me laugh than cry – but HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY was so subtle that the characters were believable in spite of the romanticization inevitable in such a film made at such a time in world history.
A fun bit of trivia that led to unexpected effect – according to the IMDB trivia page, the producers of the film originally intended to film in Wales, in Technicolor. Unfortunately, World War Two kind of got in the way, so they ended up having to build the town in Malibu Canyon and had to shoot in black and white because the wildflowers of California (amazingly) don’t match those in Wales. This may have disappointed the director and producers. I think it’s to the film’s benefit. The black and white heightens the sense of nostalgia for a time lost. I think color would have cheapened the experience.
Further trivia: HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY beat out these other Best Picture nominees: CITIZEN KANE, THE MALTESE FALCON, SERGEANT YORK, and SUSPICION. What a lineup!
Up Next: Mrs. Miniver (Best Picture, 1942) and Casablanca (Best Picture, 1943)