How Green Was My Saturday Evening
There was a point last evening where I was both hungry and bored, but lacking the motivation to do anything to address either issue. I ultimately decided on one of those frozen low calorie sodium-heavy “smart healthy lean instant” frozen box dinners and finally watched my DVD of John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” from Netflix.
“Valley” was Ford’s favorite movie that he worked on, which isn’t surprising considering the heavy melodramatic sentiment and parallels to Ford’s own upbringing. Even the actors cast to play the patriarch and matriarch of the Morgan family are said to have been dead ringers physically for Ford’s own parents. The film won every important category at the 1941 Academy Awards, beating out the likes of “Citizen Kane” for Best Picture. To compare the two films is somewhat of a misnomer, since they take entirely different approaches: while “Valley” is a film from the heart while “Kane” is a film from the head. I’d say that ultimately “Kane” is the better film, but that comes with the knowledge that it changed the ways films were made. In 1941, they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight.
What I found interesting in reading up on the making of the film is that it was only made after Ford, the film’s producer, and screenwriter Phillip Dunne agreed to tone down the pro-union labor sentiment in the story. What strikes me about the film, though, is Ford’s brilliance as a conman working the marks at the big studios for the purpose of higher art. He engaged in this practice with his refusal to do more than two takes for any scene, which garnered him the reputation first and foremost as a financially efficient director despite the fact that his hurried approach produced some of the best shots of that or any era. With “Valley,” he was able to fool studio execs by making the scenes involving family so over-the-top in their melodrama that they overshadowed the socialist messages.
But boy, are they ever present and decidedly not subtle, with even the character of the patriarch of the Morgan family telling calling his own sons socialists and portraying the coal mine’s owner and his son as something less than unsympathetic robots. It’s also important to note that all the themes of betrayal, turmoil, and tragedy extend beyond the Morgan household and throughout the entire Welsh village that’s the setting for “Valley.” The entire village IS, in essence, the Morgan family. They all ebb and wane with the events in the Morgan household.
It’s not the subtext of the proletariat as an extended family struggling against oppression from big business and organized religion that makes this film great. Rather, it’s the fact that John Ford pulled it off while there are critics and film historians that to this day will insist that he somehow “played down” these themes. That, my friends, is art.