This one chokes me up exactly as it’s intended to. It got me again on TCM this past Thursday night.
How Green Was My Valley is a timeless and universal story set in a very specific time and place: a small coal mining village in Wales during the late 19th century.
But this winner of five Academy Awards focuses on an ordinary family whose way of life is disrupted by outside forces that soon sweep into town and across their own dinner table. The names of the characters are as personally unfamiliar as the setting, but the people are very familiar and always will be.
A father and his five eldest sons all work at the local mine. Life is as simple as the work is hard. The eldest son marries and moves to his own home, presumably to continue this cycle as his family unit grows.
Life is thrown out of balance when a nearby iron works is shuttered. Outsiders arrive who are willing to work in the mine for less wages. The established workers find their own wages lowered and soon some are even discharged.
“A good worker is worth good wages and he will get them,” Gwilym Morgan (Donald Crisp) insists when his sons suggest injustice. When one of his boys wonder why the mine owners would pay more when others are willing to work for less, Gwilym’s answer is simple: “Because the owners are not savages.”
Gwilym Morgan has likely worked in this mine all of his working years encompassing several decades. He does not want his way of life disrupted and refuses to accept that the mine owners would be barbaric enough to change the rules on him midstream. When his sons suggest forming a union, he is outraged that they would betray this unspoken contract with their employers. “I never thought I’d hear my own sons talking socialist nonsense,” he responds.
His boys leave his house. Eventually they each leave the valley. The world Gwilym Morgan has known is being swallowed by change. And it will continue. We know this because Huw Morgan, portrayed in youth by Roddy McDowall throughout the film, was shown in the opening scene packing to leave the valley after having spent the first fifty years of his life there.
How Green Was My Valley won its Academy Award for Best Picture over a strong class of movies including Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon. That selection can be long debated, but the choice of Donald Crisp as Best Actor in a Supporting Role remains a strong selection by any taste.
McDowall’s Huw, reflecting later in life through the voice of Irving Pichel, says, “if my father was head of the house; my mother was its heart.” That may be so, but Donald Crisp, as his father, is also its soul.
“Everything I ever learned as a small boy came from my father,” Huw says. “And I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless.”
While the suppressed love between the self-sacrificing Walter Pidgeon character and Maureen O’Hara's Morgan daughter may be what they were splashing on the posters to draw interest, How Green Was My Valley is Huw’s story. His friendship with Pidgeon’s preacher and his relationship with his mother, played by Sara Allgood, are integral to his tale, but it is the son’s worship of his father which molds him most of all.
We watch Huw watch his father’s world crumble. While it is likely that escaping the valley may have worked out well for some of the younger Morgans, this isn’t that story. This is about the heartbreak of change. Loss subtracts from the family and the valley. These are the painful first steps towards progress at a later date. Again, a different story.
Crisp's pleasant demeanor as Morgan family patriarch is responsible for much of this. A little glance or a sudden outbreak of mirth from him often breaks the tension. The friendly arguments between he and Allgood are good for a smile every time. Then there are the small helpings of outrageous behavior by loyal family friends Dai Bando (Rys Williams) and his sidekick, Cyfartha (Barry Fitzgerald).
As depressing as it may be to concentrate upon the ever more uncertain world of Gwilym Morgan, How Green Was My Valley is uplifting in tracing the tale of his son, Huw, whose life was enriched by his once tightly bound family and his experiences born from that same seemingly ungrateful valley.
While I may watch Citizen Kane and wonder at the technique and storytelling or thrill to the dialogue of The Maltese Falcon, I watch How Green Was My Valley to feel alive. It works your heart more than your head as explained by Greg Ferrara in a recent post to TCM's Movie Morlocks blog.
How Green Was My Valley was a Darryl F. Zanuck production at Twentieth Century Fox. John Ford continued to build his legend winning his third of four total Academy Awards for Best Director for his work on this film. He had also won the year before for the classic The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Based on the 1939 bestselling novel by Richard Llewellyn, a classic in itself, How Green Was My Valley was adapted for the screen by Phillip Dunne, who received one of the movie’s ten Academy Award nominations for his work. Dunne was not a winner, but How Green Was My Valley did win five of its ten total Oscar nominations.
The 1941 release has long been available on DVD from Fox.
Lou Sabini writes about the background and back story of How Green Was My Valley.