Program Notes: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

If How Green Was My Valley isn’t John Ford’s finest film, it’s certainly the most honored.

Nominated in 1941 for 10 Oscars, it won five – picture, director, supporting actor (Donald Crisp), art direction and cinematography. This in a year when Citizen Kane was up for most of the same honors.

Ford did something extraordinary with How Green... He took an essentially downbeat, pessimistic novel about the lost world of turn-of-the-century Welsh coal miners and somehow made it affectionate and poetic.

In the words of Ford biographer Scott Eyman: “It’s a tribute to Ford’s powers of suggestion that he could convincingly create an aura of warm nostalgia around a movie about bad marriages, poverty, fatal mining accidents and violent, family-rending labor disputes, without ever actually betraying the tone of the material.”

Film Screening:
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Saturday, Mar. 10 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Ford wasn’t supposed to make the big-screen adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s best-selling 1939 novel. The film originally was developed for director William Wyler, who spent three months in pre-production and working on the script with writer Philip Dunne.

Fox honcho Darryl F. Zanuck saw How Green... as his answer to David Selznik’s Gone With the Wind. It would be shot on location in Wales in Technicolor with a cast that included Tyrone Power, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn and Greer Garson.

But the money men at Fox’s New York office didn’t like the story – especially its pro-union stance – and were wary of what they saw as Wyler’s profligate ways. They delayed the production.

Meanwhile World War II broke out and with it any chance of filming in Wales.

By this time Wyler had dropped out and Zanuck turned to Ford, who recast the picture with Walter Pidgeon (the only marquee name), 13-year-old Roddy McDowell in his American film debut, Donald Crisp and newcomer Maureen O’Hara (with whom Ford would go on to make four more films, including The Quiet Man with John Wayne).

Llewellyn’s book follows young Huw Morgan from childhood to a dead-end adulthood. Power was to have played the adult Huw in Wyler’s version. Like Gone With the Wind, this How Green... was expected to run for nearly four hours.

But Ford and Zanuck took one look at young McDowall’s screen test and decided that the adult Huw should never been seen, that the entire story should be told through the child’s eyes.

“That solves our length problem,” screenwriter Dunne announced, “because they’ll never forgive us if we let that boy grow up.”

In fact, McDowall was so good that another Ford biographer, Joseph McBride, calls his work in the film “perhaps the finest performance by a juvenile actor in movie history.”

Because the front office didn’t have much faith in the project, any thought of shooting in color was abandoned. It was too expensive. Also, if the dry brown hills above Malibu were to stand in for Wales, the movie would have to be shot in black and white. There was nothing “green” about the valley in which the picture was filmed.

Ford often called How Green Was My Valley the project he most identified with. Perhaps it’s because these common Welsh laborers reminded him so much of his own Irish ancestors. And Ford strongly identified with the world of rituals – everything from religious worship to the men folk washing up after a grimy day in the pit – so carefully depicted in the film.

In the conflict between the Morgan boys and their father – the youngsters want to form a union, the father defends patriarchal capitalism – mirror Ford’s own conflicting viewpoints. Despite being instrumental in getting the big studios to recognize the Directors Guild of America, Ford was essentially a conservative. (Don’t forget, Ronald Reagan was once president of the Screen Actors Guild).

The film is crammed with beautiful moments, some still capable of taking one’s breath away. Unforgettable is the shot of Maureen O’Hara’s character leaving the church where she has just been married to the mine owner’s son.

As she descends several steps to a waiting car, a gust of wind lifts her bridal veil and sends it dancing around her figure.

“Everybody said, ‘Oh, that Ford luck! How wonderful that was!’" O’Hara later recalled. “Rubbish! It wasn’t ‘Ford luck.’ It was three wind machines placed by John Ford, and I had to walk up and down those steps many times while he worked out that the wind machine would do exactly that.”

Other films in the series “John Ford: Not a Cowboy In Sight”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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