1001 Classic Movies: How Green Was My Valley

How Green Was My Valley (1941) starring Walter Pidgeon and Roddy McDowall is one of the 1001 classic movies you should see.

Each Monday, I'm going to recommend a classic movie you should see (for the reasons behind the 1001 series and reviews of earlier films covered go here). August's theme coincides with TCM's Summer Under the Stars, a month-long film festival that celebrates the talents of some of old Hollywood's most beloved actors with 24 hours of their best movies. This week's selection is director John Ford's masterpiece How Green Was My Valley (1941) starring Aug. 15 honoree Roddy McDowall.

How Green Was My Valley tells the story of Huw Morgan  (McDowall), the youngest son in a large family of coal miners who lives in a small village in South Wales. The film follows Huw as he experiences the pleasures and pains of growing up, while his long-suffering parents (Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood) deal with a series of  crippling labor strikes and his sister Angharad's (Maureen O'Hara) unhappy marriage to the mine owner's son (Marten Lamont).

How Green Was My Valley, which is based on a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn, was the pet project of 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck. Zanuck wanted to make a Technicolor epic filmed on location in South Wales, but that vision never came to fruition because of the start of World War II, and because Fox shareholders were reluctant to finance an expensive project about Welsh coal miners. Instead, Zanuck forged ahead, but with a vastly reduced budget. Despite these setbacks, Ford turned in a lyrical masterpiece that won several Academy Awards, including best picture and best director.

How Green Was My Valley was the 12-year-old McDowall's first American film, although he had been in show business since he was in diapers (McDowall was a model as a baby, and he had already appeared in several British films before his family moved to America). McDowall turns in a beautifully nuanced performance that doesn't rely on the usual antics employed by old Hollywood child stars. He has an impressive range for a 12 year old; while his performance is most remembered for his sentimental scenes with Allgood and Walter Pidgeon, his character is also capable of teenage angst, which he displays in an explosive scene where he screams "liar, liar, liar" over and over again.

How Green Was My Valley Viewer's Guide: This movie is is a lyrical masterpiece from one of America's greatest directors. Here's what to look for when you watch:
1. Citizen Kane vs. How Green Was My Valley. This movie is beloved by old Hollywood film buffs, but it is best known to the general public as the movie that beat Citizen Kane at the Oscars. While Kane is rightly regarded by many critics as the greatest American film ever made, that doesn't mean that How Green Was My Valley didn't deserve its Oscars. As director and film historian Peter Bogdandovich points out, Kane is a masterpiece of the mind, while How Green Was My Valley is a masterpiece of the heart.
2. Ford. The curmudgeonly director always denied it, but he was one of the great poets of American cinema. He is at his lyrical best in How Green Was My Valley, which features beautiful compositions that are based on the paintings of old masters. Watch for them especially in the movie's final scenes, which are directly taken from Catholic iconography.
3. Music. How Green Was My Valley has a lovely score from Alfred Newman, but the really memorable music is the Welsh folk songs that are interspersed throughout the movie. The Welsh have a great tradition of choral music, and several choir members were flown in directly from Wales to perform throughout the film.
4. Pidgeon. The actor was a stalwart leading man at MGM for three decades, but How Green Was My Valley features his finest screen performance as the sensitive, idealistic minister who befriends the Morgan family.

Other critics: How Green Was My Valley has a 90 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and Leonard Maltin calls the movie "beautifully filmed, lovingly directed" in a four star review for his Classic Movie Guide. Critics in 1941 were equally enthusiastic. The New Yorker critic praised the movie's nostalgia factor, writing that How Green Was My Valley "captures an idyll of youth that has been lost to the corrosive practices of modern business," while Variety correctly predicted the movie's box-office prowess. "How Green Was My Valley is one of the year's better films, a sure-fire critic's picture and, unlike most features that draw kudos from crix, this one will also do business."

Maureen O'Hara as Angharad in How Green Was My Valley (1941).
The bottom line: How Green Was My Valley is simply a must-watch for all classic movies buffs. It is a lyrical masterpiece from one of the great directors in American cinema.

Availability: How Green Was My Valley will air at 11:30 p.m. Monday (8-15) as part of the Summer Under the Stars celebration of Roddy McDowall. The film is also available on DVD, Blu ray, and video on demand.

Next week, I'll continue the Summer Under the Stars theme with another Ford film, the World War II drama They Were Expendable (1945), starring Robert Montgomery.