#533) How Green Was My Valley (1941)

#533) How Green Was My Valley (1941)

OR “A Tree Grows in Wales”

Directed by John Ford

Written by Philip Dunne. Based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn.

Class of 1990 

The Plot: As he prepares to leave his home in the South Wales Valleys, Huw Morgan (voiced by Irving Pichel) reflects on his upbringing. Young Huw (Roddy McDowall) is raised by his supportive parents (Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood), as well as a plethora of siblings (including Maureen O’Hara). The male family members all work for the local coal mines, which are starting to blacken the nearby valley. Over the years, the Morgan family deals with a miners strike, an unspoken affection between Angharad (O’Hara) and new pastor Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), and the inevitable dangers of working in a coal mine. But no matter how much the mines blacken his idyllic childhood, Huw will always remember how green was…that particular plot of land.

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up highlights the “seamless collaboration of creative talent” that contributed to the final film. No real superlatives here, just some NFR 101.

But Does It Really?: This one’s going into the “Minor Classic” pile. “How Green Was My Valley” is a well-crafted drama, but like so many other early classic films it has, through no fault of its own, been eclipsed by later movies that resonate stronger with modern audiences. On its own, “Valley” benefits from its endearing storyline, an excellent ensemble of actors, and a versatile John Ford at the helm (this viewing was a refreshing reprieve from Ford’s countless westerns on the list). While “Valley” is remembered today as a footnote to other 1941 movies (see “Seriously, Oscars?”), it’s still an engaging piece of film, and worthy of its NFR induction.

Everybody Gets One: Like many a figure covered on this blog, “Valley” screenwriter Philip Dunne was connected to the Hollywood Blacklist, but Dunne’s experience was somewhat unique. Dunne traveled to Washington D.C. with such outspoken Hollywood liberals as John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall to condemn HUAC and their hearings. Despite his vocal objections, and despite collaborating with several known Communists in Hollywood, Dunne was never accused, subpoenaed, or blacklisted himself.

Title Track: The title is uttered by our narrator as a metaphor for the nostalgia he has for his youth. In the novel, the phrase was uttered in a later chapter after Huw’s first sexual encounter!

Seriously, Oscars?: One of the most successful movies of the year, “How Green Was My Valley” received 10 Oscar nominations, one behind pack-leader “Sergeant York“. “Valley” ended up taking home five Oscars, including Best Picture, John Ford’s third Best Director win, and Supporting Actor for silent film veteran Donald Crisp. Among the film’s fellow Best Picture nominees were “Sergeant York”, “The Maltese Falcon” and, what’s that other one? Oh yes, “CITIZEN FUCKING KANE“. “Valley” may have been the right choice at the time, but hindsight has made this win one of Oscar’s biggest head scratchers.

Other notes 

  • Fox originally bought the film rights to “How Green Was My Valley” with the intention of turning it into a four-hour epic to rival “Gone with the Wind“, including filming in Technicolor and on location in Wales. For a variety of reasons (mostly related to money and the impending war), the two-hour film was shot in black and white on a set constructed in the Santa Monica Mountains.
  • William Wyler was originally slated to direct “Valley”, but production delays caused him to depart to helm “The Little Foxes”. Wyler did, however, make an impact on the final film: he supervised the set construction, and cast Roddy McDowall as Huw.
  • For the record, supporting player Rhys Williams is the only actor in this movie who is actually Welsh. Most of the cast are either English or Irish.
  • This is Roddy McDowall’s second American film, and his first leading role. The twelve-year-old English newcomer is listed in the opening credits as “Master Roddy McDowall”.
  • Although no stranger to American films at this point (including NFR entry “Dance, Girl, Dance“), this is Maureen O’Hara’s breakout film performance. And she is quite charming, I give her that. By the way, do we know if she’s doing her own singing?
  • Another union/labor strike movie? I can’t escape them! But what do you expect when your screenwriter helped co-found the Writers Guild?
  • As always, I will listen to Walter Pidgeon say anything. And despite having a supporting role, Pidgeon manages to receive top billing over Donald Crisp and Maureen O’Hara.
  • Not to split hairs, but Huw sure is remembering a lot of events he didn’t actually witness.
  • I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that this movie set in Wales features “God Save the Queen” in its underscore, and not “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”. This of course led to me singing the Eddie Izzard lyrics.
  • Roddy McDowall spends part of this movie beating up other kids. Screw “Kane”, give this movie all the Oscars!
  • A surprisingly funny moment in the movie is between the boxers Dai Bando and Cyfartha: “I’m not accustomed to speaking in public.” “Only in public houses.”
  • Again with the child labor! But at least this movie is actually utilizing Roddy McDowall for its second half. He spent most of the first hour sidelined by injury.
  • Unsurprisingly, Donald Crisp’s best moments in this movie are his moments of silence. Even without speaking you sense the immense weight Gwilyn Morgan carries for his family and community.
  • Perhaps the most ironic part of this movie: Because it’s in black and white, we never actually see just how green that valley was.
  • Something that caught my eye during the end credits of the restored version: a credit mentioning the support of the AMC television channel, back when their primary focus was on American Movie Classics (yep, that’s what it actually stands for).

Legacy 

  • “How Green Was My Valley” was an instant hit, and Fox commissioned Richard Llewellyn to write a sequel novel, “Men of the Valley”, which would subsequently be adapted for film. Although this immediate follow-up never materialized, Llewellyn returned to Huw’s story twenty years later in three books: “Up Into the Singing Mountain”, “Down Where the Moon is Small”, and “Green, Green My Valley Now”. As best I can tell, none of these have become movies.
  • The BBC has adapted “How Green Was My Valley” not once, but twice. Both the 1960 and 1975 adaptations are multi-episode miniseries that retain more story elements than the film version.
  • The musical adaptation “A Time for Singing” opened on Broadway in May 1966, and closed the following month. Die-hard theater buffs still (forgive me) sing this show’s praises, and you can still listen to Bing Crosby’s recording of some of the songs.
  • “How Green Was My Valley” is another one of those classic movies where the title gets referenced a lot, but nobody could tell you what the movie is about. Hell, before this viewing, I couldn’t have told you the plot of this movie, and I actually pay attention to this stuff!

3 thoughts on “#533) How Green Was My Valley (1941)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s