Tuesday, December 3, 2013

An Outtake From “How Green Was My Valley”

An outtake from John Ford’s 1941 film, “How Green Was My Valley”.

“How Green Was My Valley” strikes me as the finest of Ford films, although any director would be proud to claim “The Informer” and “The Quiet Man” as his own. (I find “The Grapes Of Wrath” too full of fakery, and I remain clueless regarding the exalted reputation of “The Searchers”.)

While the film was in pre-production, “How Green Was My Valley” was intended to be filmed in color, in Wales, with William Wyler directing.

German bombers over Britain caused Twentieth Century-Fox to reassess the situation; the studio decided to keep production in the U.S. and to construct a Welsh mining village from scratch in Southern California (which necessitated shooting the film in black-and-white, Southern California lacking the green vegetation of Wales; the move caused Wyler to leave the project).

Despite an occasional over-supply of sentiment, “How Green Was My Valley” is an emotionally-tough film, with most surviving characters destined to lead lives of hardship and suffering. That the American public responded so positively to the film is testament to Ford’s narrative skills.

The picture belongs to Donald Crisp, who gives a great performance at the center of the film. (Although Crisp has the most important role, Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O’Hara, both in subsidiary roles, received top billing.)

Crisp began his career as an opera singer. His first important film role was Ulysses S. Grant in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth Of A Nation”. During World War I, Crisp served in British intelligence. During World War II, Crisp served in the U.S. Army Reserve. For decades while working in Hollywood, Crisp was a key advisor at Bank Of America, a leading lender to the movie studios; many important films were financed only with Crisp’s imprimatur. When he died, Crisp, a savvy investor, was rich as Midas.

Roddy McDowall, who plays Crisp’s youngest son, is both convincing and cloying. He offers one of those performances it is possible to admire one moment and loathe the next. The worst scene in the film is the one in which McDowall takes his first step after recovering from a life-threatening illness; the scene—played in a field of daffodils—is laughable.

The best scene in the film involves O’Hara emerging from the church on her wedding day, her long wedding veil twisting in the wind. For reasons of circumstance, O’Hara has married a man with money, not the man she loves. The pain in O’Hara’s eyes is heartbreaking.

I am diffident on the issue whether Ford was a great director. If forced to offer an opinion, I would say “No”—Wyler would receive from me an unqualified “Yes”—and my reluctance to endorse Ford is based upon his work’s lack of an individual style. Ford was a skilled technician, a master of the film medium—but he was more craftsman than artist. Ford films, unlike Wyler films, are not crammed with special, unique moments that could have come from no other director.

Further, Ford films do not reward repeat viewings. “How Green Was My Valley”, quite good in its own right, is worth seeing only once or twice. The viewer does not find a thousand new subtleties with each repeat viewing, a thousand new fine points of style; everything is pretty much on the surface.

Below is a photograph taken during the film’s principal photography, with a farm near Santa Monica standing in as Wales.

As an addendum to a discussion of Ford’s work, I submit that “The Grapes Of Wrath”—largely a piece of hokum—is Ford’s most visually-striking film. I further submit that the special “look” of the film is the work of cinematographer Gregg Toland, not Ford. Toland was a genius. Toland’s cinematography for “The Grapes Of Wrath”—original and complex, if perhaps a touch too “arty”—may constitute Toland’s finest work.

Following “The Grapes Of Wrath”, Ford went to work on “How Green Was My Valley” (with cinematographer Arthur C. Miller) while Toland went to work on “Citizen Kane”, giving first-time film director Orson Welles his only unqualified success. The film industry, in awarding its prizes for 1941, gave everything to “How Green Was My Valley” instead of “Citizen Kane”, a choice based upon personalities as much as merit.

Five years after his epic work on “Citizen Kane”, Toland was to shoot Wyler’s “The Best Years Of Our Lives”, giving Wyler his most visually-arresting film.

Toland was soon thereafter to die of heart failure, at the age of 44. Toland’s early death was an incalculable loss to the film medium: he may have been the most innovative cinematographer that ever lived.


  1. I have no desire to re-view "HGWMV," while I never tire of watching "Citizen Kane."

  2. “How Green Was My Valley” is a nice movie, but everything is on the surface.

    I do not understand Ford’s high reputation. To me, it is incomprehensible.

    I don’t understand Spielberg’s high reputation, either, but I understand Scorsese’s. Even in something like “New York, New York”, everything Scorsese does is fascinating and unique. Nothing Spielberg does is fascinating or unique, even in his best pictures.