I wouldn't argue that The Valley of Decision is an all-time classic, it's not even close to being Greer Garson's best movie, but I would strongly agree with Valley's own Miss Constance, Marsha Hunt, who called it an "underrated picture. It doesn't seem to have stayed with people the way it should have" (Troyan 188). Perhaps Greer Garson just has one too many classics to admit yet another to our memory.
Garson had just turned 40 during filming of The Valley of Decision and while she started late and didn't really enter public consciousness until Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1939, she had since that time already starred in a number of classics including Pride and Prejudice (1940), the career defining Mrs. Miniver (1942), Random Harvest (1942), and Madame Curie (1943). By the time of The Valley of Decision numerous fan and industry polls named her as the most popular star on the screen.
The entire world loved Greer Garson in 1945, though New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wasn't in love with how she was being used: "the constant reiteration of the same righteous character not only makes movies tend to monotony but wastes the talents of a capable star" (Troyan 189). Crowther's Times article was titled Goodbye, Mrs. Chips. Was The Valley of Decision finally too much of a good thing then?
It was one of the most popular movies of 1945, top grosser at over $5.5 million according to Michael Gebert (119); earning as much as every release but Thrill of a Romance (1945) and Anchors Aweigh (1945) writes Gary Fishgall in his Gregory Peck biography (101); and counted among at least the top 5 of '45 by every account I came across.
Garson received her sixth of an eventual seven Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role, though she'd already enjoyed what would be her only win for Mrs. Miniver by this time. Besides nominations for the previously mentioned Chips, Miniver, and Curie, Garson had already been nominated for Best Actress for her performances in Blossoms in the Dust (1941) and Mrs. Parkington (1944), both fine films in their own right relegated to second rung status alongside this one. I can imagine many of Garson's peers would be envious of just that second rung! The quality of her work during this period, 1939-1945, is simply amazing, really one of the best outputs of all time. Much later she'd pick up her seventh Academy Award nomination for her Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello (1960).
The Valley of Decision would be the third feature film for a new young star who at that time was taking Hollywood by storm, Gregory Peck. He'd just come off of his own first Oscar nomination for the successful The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) and had another big money maker, Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1946) lined up next. Peck would garner raves for his performance in The Valley of Decision being called "quietly commanding" by the Times; "outstanding" by Variety; and already "established as one of Hollywood's outstanding leading men," by Newsweek (Molyneaux 74).
In 1945 The Valley of Decision was a triumph, a critically acclaimed popular hit that turned a profit.
MGM purchased rights to the epic novel of the same name by Marcia Davenport for $70,000 with plans of it being a Greer Garson vehicle from the very start. I haven't read the book myself but it's supposed to be a real doorstopper of a volume that's actually a multi-generational saga, the story of Paul Scott and Mary Rafferty being just the small slice chosen to be turned into the resulting movie. Tay Garnett, who'd just directed Garson in Mrs. Parkington (1944) would do the honors again here. The next film Garnett directed would be the one he's best remembered for, the noir classic based on James M. Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
The cast beyond Garson and Peck is a long list of impressive supporting players beginning with Scott family patriarch William Scott played by Donald Crisp with the wonderful Gladys Cooper as his wife, Clarissa. Peck's screen siblings were Dan Duryea, looking somewhat out of place as William Scott, Jr.; Marsha Hunt as Connie, or Miss Constance when Garson's Mary is angry with her; and Marshall Thompson as the youngest, Ted Scott, a charming but irresponsible lad.
Hume Cronyn as originally slated to play Ted, but was considered too short to appear alongside the towering Peck and so the part went to Thompson (Molyneaux 75). Cronyn's wife, Jessica Tandy, is in The Valley of Decision though, as Louise Kane, the oldest friend of Peck's Paul Scott, though also the most unlikable character in the film by design.
Away from the Scott's Pittsburgh mansion and their steel mill upon the hill, were the flats where the mostly Irish workers lived. This is where Garson's Mary lived in a house headed by her father, Pat Rafferty, played by Lionel Barrymore. Barrymore's wheelchair would be part of the plot as his character pins an over-the-top hatred of the entire Scott family on the loss of his legs which occurred while working at their steel mill. More on Barrymore in a bit.
Coming to board at the Rafferty house after Mary departs to go into service at the Scotts is Jim Brennan, a heck of a nice guy played by Preston Foster who had hoped to one day marry our Mary.
The story takes place in Pittsburgh beginning in 1873 and revolves around the activities of the Scott family household as well as their place of business, the Scott steel mill. While Crisp as the elder Scott refers to Andrew Carnegie a few times (My favorite: "Big fish eat little fish and I'm a little fish. Oh yes I am, compared to Carnegie. But at least I own my own puddle and that's where I'm going to stay."), you get the feeling he's mentioned as a rival more to make clear that The Valley of Decision isn't actually a fictionalized account of the actual Carnegie.
The Scott mill is the elder William Scott's puddle, and like many an aging entrepreneur one he hopes his children will one day wish to wade in. But as is so often the case of inherited wealth there's not an overwhelming desire by the majority of his children to do much more than maintain the wealthy lifestyle they've enjoyed their entire lives. The youngest, Tom, is a spoiled ne'er-do-well; his sister, Connie, just as spoiled, with aspirations of marrying a title; Scott's namesake, the younger William, is a playboy, albeit a married one.
Only Peck's Paul Scott harbors dreams of keeping the Scott mills a great place and he throws himself into it with as much passion as his father ever had. For Paul Scott his family's steel mill is "a giant of a human thing. It's got a heart and a soul," a line Garson's Mary overhears and takes to heart as she falls in love with Paul on the night he utters those words to a visiting man of industry, her first night in service to the Scott family.
You'll note the year I mentioned as the open for The Valley of Decision, 1873, and it's not a good year in American history as there was an economic panic across the country. A coincidental note, I'm currently very slowly reading David Nasaw's biography of Andrew Carnegie and of that very period he writes of his subject, "... the shortage of investment capital that was both cause and consequence of the Panic of 1873 forced him to temporarily halt construction of his new steel mill, sell off almost all his holdings in other industries, and cease investing in new ventures" (153). But we see the suffering more in the flats than on the hill in The Valley of Decision, in the world of the Raffertys, not the Scotts.
The Valley of Decision opens with Garson's Mary arriving home to tell her seemingly loving father, Barrymore's Pat Rafferty, that she has landed work. She immediately begs him not to be angry before revealing that it's work in service for the Scott family. Pat Rafferty explodes. Family friend Jim Brennan (Foster) tells Pat that it's great to have any job during the Panic, but Pat is completely irrational when it comes to anything having to do with the Scotts.
Pat Rafferty blames the 12 hour workday along with the lack of safety precautions at the mill, but most especially William Scott as owner of the mill, for the loss of his legs and livelihood. Mary waves off his complaint explaining that the Scotts have paid him full wages ever since the accident, but Pat will have none of it. Mary, for the first of a few times, remarks about the pain in Pat's legs having infected his mind.
Lionel Barrymore doesn't have a ton of screen time in The Valley of Decision, but if you took the romance out of the movie his Pat Rafferty becomes the most pivotal character in the story. It's a tough part, one which Barrymore must consistently show love for his daughter but at the same time blow up in every scene wishing terrible things upon the Scotts and eventually even Mary, his hatred only growing worse as the movie goes along and more time passes for him bound to his wheelchair.
Every time Mary returns home she finds a Barrymore as sweet as his Gramps from On Borrowed Time (1939), but each mention of her becoming more deeply involved with the Scott family turns kindly Gramps into It's a Wonderful Life's (1946) Potter on a real bad day! As evidenced by her belief that the pain in his legs has gone to his head, Mary thinks her father is physically ill, but others more accurately tell her that the sickness has burrowed into his soul. Pat is not wholly bad. He's is a good man, most of the time, and he loves Mary, most of the time, but he has a hatred for the Scott's that supersedes any goodness or love he may have.
The Scotts, in fact, are a pretty nice group of people. Not without flaws, except maybe Peck's Paul, but full of love for one another despite their self-involvement. While each of Paul's siblings suffer the consequences of a silver spoon, none are outright evil or criminal as you might expect members of an ultra wealthy family to be portrayed on the screen as in, for example, Garson's Mrs. Parkington.
Mary arrives for her interview with Mrs. Scott the same day that Paul Scott arrives home from England. Peck puts a finger to his lips to keep her quiet and then greets his family one by one, the younger members raising Garson's eyebrow as each slides down the bannister to greet him. It's quite the scene for an outsider to stumble into with the overwhelming emotion on display being the Scott family's genuine fondness for one another. Later that evening when Mary first meets the elder Scott he's standoffish yet kind leaving her to wonder aloud at why her father has deemed him the devil.
The Valley of Decision is foremost a love story but tucked alongside the romance between our two stars is a historical tale of business. While Paul Scott falls for Mary what stood out most about the character was his entrepreneurial spirit, his refusal to give in as he sought the recipe for a better steel, his getting his hands dirty alongside the other mill hands, especially the bond he shared with Preston Foster's Jim Brennan.
Eventually the workers at the Scott mill walk off the job in a labor dispute giving (loud) voice to Pat Rafferty's complaints while union head Brennan tries to peacefully square matters with Paul Scott.
When some ruffians from the flats push matters towards violence by throwing rocks through the Scott home's window, Dan Duryea's Scott, Jr. convinces his father of the need to import strikebreakers from Detroit. Returning to the Nasaw biography this appears to be another parallel with the real-life Carnegie who'd brought in Pinkerton agents to quell unrest in 1888. Nasaw explains that the Pinkerton's "arrival was a signal that company owners were willing to use any violent means necessary to get their way." The use of the strikebreakers in The Valley of Decision is a misunderstanding which leads to the most explosive moment of the story, one which immediately even changes the dynamics of Mary and Paul's relationship.
Garson was beat by Joan Crawford for the Oscar that year. I won't argue with Crawford's winning for Mildred Pierce (1945), except to say I wouldn't have sacrificed a word of complaint had Garson won for The Valley of Decision. About Mary Rafferty, Garson had remarked that "it's much more difficult to play a good person than a bad one" (Troyan 185), though one could argue, as Bosley Crowther did in that earlier quote, that Garson's Mary was too good.
MGM certainly pulled out all of the stops in making everything as perfect as could be for their most valuable star. In a quote I stumbled over in three different sources, Peck said of Garson, "When it came to viewing the rushes, I saw that every time I was in a scene with her, her face was a lovely luminous moon floating in the center of the screen and I was the rather dim figure beside her in semi-shadow" (Troyan 186).
Garson was a titanic presence on the screen backed by an equally huge performance. My favorite trick from The Valley of Decision was her slowly dissolving Irish brogue, done so subtlety you don't really notice until Tom Scott remarks on its disappearance and she brings it back for a moment to tease him with it.
Indeed Peck, for all of the period raves, takes a distinct back seat to Garson with his description of what he saw on the screen holding up as more or less accurate upon viewing today. He's fine, in fact young Gregory Peck gives one of my favorite Peck performances, a little looser than usual, but Garson hangs huge over every scene they share.
Gladys Cooper is fantastic as the Scott family matriarch, adding some subtleties herself in leaving the viewer to wonder just exactly how warmly she feels about Mary, household help who falls for her son. That's made quite clear as the film progresses.
Marsha Hunt is great fun as Connie, her interactions with Garson's Mary reminding me of the interplay between the help and younger household members some 25 years later in the series Upstairs, Downstairs (Also forced to mind in The Valley of Decision when a maid complains in a singsong voice about her having to go, "Upstairs, downstairs, upstairs, downstairs.").
Dan Duryea is out of place, but not really in the movie enough for it to matter, though by my ear he delivers some of his dialogue so stilted that he's easily crowned worst in film. It's not enough to tarnish The Valley of Decision as a whole though.
Donald Crisp is a bit invisible himself until his tender moment with Garson after discovering just how she feels about his son, and immediately thereafter, the uncomfortable moment where Duryea convinces him that they need to call upon the strikebreakers. We're led to believe that Peck has verbalized most of the Crisp character's opinions throughout The Valley of Decision, but the father's outburst against the workers with Peck and Duryea leave the viewer thinking, so that's how he really feels!
Again, the toughest performance is the job of Lionel Barrymore. He's a bit over the top no matter which way he goes here, either smiling like he's lost his marbles or exploding like--like he's lost his marbles, any of the subtleties I'd mentioned enhancing other performances nowhere to be found. Barrymore succeeds in keeping Pat Rafferty not wholly evil, a place he easily could have gone, but the pure joy which beams from his face when he first sees his daughter after long periods apart keep him human. Barrymore's weakness is in the transition between the two extremes.
The Greer Garson fan absolutely cannot go wrong with The Valley of Decision. If you like a good romance you've got Gregory Peck falling out of his class for Garson. Peck though is at his best when showcased as entrepreneur and not directly battling Garson's lovely luminous presence on the screen. Largely due to Peck, The Valley of Decision is a good bet if you like a good movie about business, especially in a historical context. Finally The Valley of Decision is a movie about family and relationship executed here by one of the finest supporting casts you'll ever come across. It's no Mrs. Miniver, but it's certainly right up there with Madame Curie, even if Walter Pidgeon is nowhere to be found this time around!
Fishgall, Gary. Gregory Peck : A Biography. Simon and Schuster, 2002.
Gebert, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards. New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1996.
Molyneaux, Gerard. Gregory Peck: A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995.
Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. Penguin Books, 2006.
Troyan, Michael. A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson. The University Press of Kentucky, 2005.