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How Green was my Valley

Citizen Kane is almost universally regarded as the greatest movie ever made. Film students are taught to try to capture some of its artistry. Orson Wells invented several cinematic techniques, such as showing a character’s greatness by filming the actor from a low angle, that are universally employed today. AFI has twice named it the greatest movie ever made. So of course the Academy snubbed it come Oscar time in favor of How Green was my Valley.

Roddy McDowall, who 46 years later would gain fame playing Cornelius in Planet of the Apes, plays Huw (yeah, that’s how they spell it) the youngest member of the Morgans, a coal mining family in turn of the century Wales. His older brothers all rebel against their father by calling for the formation of a union. When Mr. Morgan draws the ire of other miners by opposing a strike, Huw’s mother marches out through a blizzard to ask the other miners to be nice to the old man. After her speech she and Huw fall through some ice, resulting in both being confined to bed for months on end.

A young preacher named Gruffydd played by Walter Pidgeon helps in Huw’s recovery and in the process falls for his sister, but she marries someone else instead. Huw, once fully recovered, passes a school placement exam and heads off to get an education, but on his first day a bully beats him up. To prevent this from becoming a daily thing, the local boxer trains Huw to fight. Of course once Huw becomes a lean mean fighting machine, the teacher, a cruel man wielding a rod, beats him for fighting. Outraged at the treatment, Huw’s boxing trainer heads off to school himself, to give the teacher an education in boxing.

However after one of his brothers is killed in a mine accident, Huw turns his back on the civilized life and gets a job in the mines himself. Once he’s down there, the rest of his brothers are laid off, their wages adjusted for their years of experience being more expensive than what the mine can get an inexperienced worker for.

Then Huw’s sister comes back to town without her husband, seemingly still in love with the preacher. The preacher is about to be run out of town, delivering a stirring speech about hypocrisy in the church on his way out of town, but his departure is delayed by another accident at the mine, in which Huw’s father is killed.

So is this a movie about deplorable labor conditions in coal mines that persist to this day? Is it a condemnation of religious zealots who turn any sinner into an outcast without living by the tenants of their own faith? Is it a morality tale contrasting the high falutin’ school with the sensibilities of a young boy from the coal mines? The thing is, it tries to be everything, and ends up being nothing, It jumps from point to point, making none of them well. Each of these themes deserves an excellent movie to be made of it, especially hypocrisy in religion, but this movie isn’t it. This movie is simply a mess.

There are a couple good performances, especially McDowall and Donald Crisp as Mr. Morgan, a role that won him an Oscar for best supporting actor. But there are some pretty bad ones too. The following year Pidgeon would star in Mrs. Miniver where he displayed a steadfast refusal to even try an English accent. Here he plays a Welsh preacher who for whatever reason sounds just like a guy from, oh, I don’t know, St. John, New Brunswick.

I’m not sure what, exactly would warrant giving this thing a statue. It’s not in the same league as another nominee that year, Maltese Falcon, one of the best film noirs ever made, and far, far inferior to Citizen Kane. But the Academy couldn’t stand Orson Wells striking gold on his first try so they wanted to honor someone with a little more studio training, and that person was John Ford who had a quarter century in the business under his belt by then. So what if you make a bad movie. You can still walk away with an award if the folks like you.

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