THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Mrs. Miniver’ (1942)

In 1943, the 15th Academy Awards ceremony was held at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1942 and December 31, 1942 the awards were held on March 4. Due to wartime shortages and restrictions, the Oscar statuette was not composed of its usual metal-filled, gold-plated construction, but rather made out of plaster. When the war was over, the winners each received a typical Oscar statuette as a replacement. The ceremony also had a decidedly military flavour, with several honoured guests from all branches of the military in attendance.

Up until this point, it was customary for winners to say a brief “thank you” and get off the stage, taking no more than 30 seconds or so. When Greer Garson received her Best Actress award for her role in Mrs. Miniver, she broke all conventions, and carried on for almost six-minutes. It was exaggerated in the papers the next day that she had spoken for nearly an hour, and thus the urban legend of her insanely-long Oscar speech was born.

The race for Best Documentary was so crowded with great contenders, it ended in a four-way tie, and four films all took home the award, including the first win for an Australian and an Australian film, Kokoda Front Line!. The four-way tie would force the Academy to re-examine the category, and split the category the next year. Irving Berlin, presenter of Best Song, became the first person to announce an award where the presenter was the winner, after his song “White Christmas” won the award.

Teresa Wright became one of only nine people to received nominations in two acting categories in the same year, after her nominations for Best Actress for The Pride of the Yankees and Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver, winning for the latter. After her Best Supporting Actress nomination the previous year for her debut in The Little Foxes, Wright still remains the only actor to receive Academy Award nominations for all of their first three films.

The nominees:
The Invaders
Kings Row
The Magnificent Ambersons
Mrs. Miniver
The Pied Piper
The Pride of the Yankees
Random Harvest
The Talk of the Town
Wake Island
Yankee Doodle Dandy

The winner:
Mrs. Miniver

Inspired by Jan Struther’s 1940 novel, Mrs. Miniver is a war film completely devoid of the usual scenes of battle synonymous with the genre. It instead shows the ways in which the war affects a small, unpretentious British town and how it shatters their peaceful way of life. Beginning in the last few carefree days of summer of 1939, on the cusp of war breaking out in Europe, the Minivers are blissfully enjoying life in the fictional town of Belham, outside of London. Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) and her husband, Clem (Walter Pidgeon) both have a penchant for the finer things in life. They live a comfortable life with their two young children, Toby (Christopher Severn) and Judy (Clare Sandars), while their eldest son, Vin (Richard Ney), is away at university. Vin returns home on vacation, and promptly falls for Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), the granddaughter of Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), a crusty and pompous wealthy widow, who presides over the town. Their romance is interrupted by the advent of World War II. Vin and Clem soon join the fight, in differing ways, and the perils of war soon come to Belham, affecting all who live there.

Why did it win?
As we’ve seen before, the winner of Best Picture is often the right film hitting at just the right time, and that’s clearly the case with Mrs. Miniver. When the film went into pre-production, America was still a neutral territory and not directly involved in war activities. But once production of Mrs. Miniver began, World War II had broken out, and the film was ultimately re-written to take on more of a propaganda role. The film was being made and released in the midst of great turmoil, with the result of the war still entirely uncertain. It took on the responsibility to showcase the light at the end of the tunnel, and to instil both American and European audiences with a sense of hope and pride.

Up until this point, Hollywood had cowardly shied away from producing films with any semblance of anti-Nazi sentiment. That all changed with Mrs. Miniver. The film took a strong stance on Germany’s actions, particularly in its portrayal of the escaped German soldier who aggressively takes Mrs. Miniver hostage, and the devastating consequences of their bombing raids over Britain. The result was a resounding success. Winston Churchill stated the film’s propaganda value was “worth either five battleships or 50 destroyers,” and credited the film with genuinely changing American sentiments towards the war. Franklin D. Roosevelt urged MGM to spread the film to as many American cinemas as possible, and saw it as a real opportunity to consolidate public support for Britain. It’s a genuine example of a piece of cinema changing the world – something not many films can lay claim to.

The film was a massive success at the box-office, both in the US and the UK. It was the highest-grossing film MGM had ever released, taking an incredible $5.3 million in the US and Canada, and a further $3.5 million internationally, particularly in Britain where it was the highest-grossing film of 1942. It stood as the most profitable film of the year, and still stands as one of MGM’s most successful achievements. The film also received rave reviews, with The New York Times calling it “one of the greatest motion pictures ever made” and “the finest film yet made about the present war.” Like many of its predecessors, we see an example of Best Picture winner being truly beloved by both audiences and critics.

When it came time to the Academy Awards, there was simply no other choice for Best Picture, and the five other awards it also won. No other film had captured audiences and critics like Mrs. Miniver, and no other film had made such a deep cultural impact. Propaganda can be a dirty business, but the sentiment and intentions of this film were valid and necessary, and it’s a time when Hollywood finally stood up and made a difference, after sitting back for so many years.

Did it deserve to win?
Can you ever really say a film that, in a way, changed the world didn’t deserve a title like Best Picture? Yes, it’s easy to dismiss it as a sentimental piece of propaganda, and, in many ways, it is just that. It’s designed to stir something in its audience. It’s designed to elicit a particular “chin up and carry on” reaction. But given the stakes, is there anything wrong with that? The best pieces of cinema are crafted to move you, and Mrs. Miniver is a shining example of that. Even today, it’s hard not to be moved by the film, particularly it’s glorious and powerful closing sermon, which I would strongly advise you to seek out.

What sets Mrs. Miniver apart is the way it deals with its World War II storyline in a remarkably different perspective. This is not your usual war film about uniformed soldiers, heading off into epic and bloody battles. This is a film concerned with those left behind, who attempt to carry on some semblance of a normal life, while the world crumbles around them. By focusing on the domestic lives of small-town civilians, we see the effects of war in a decidedly different way. Master director William Wyler crafts his film with such jarring juxtaposition, beginning by showing us the frivolous day-to-day lives of the Minivers before slowly allowing the war to creep into their lives, and ending with the devastating and tragic effect it has on them.

Despite the town of Belham being set far away from the front lines, the residents are still subjected to the immense and destructive consequences of the Battle of Britain, as the bombs rain down on their once-peaceful home. When the family take refuge in their bomb shelter, they attempt to carry on as normal, with Kay spending her time knitting, and the children sleeping peacefully in their beds. But the explosions grow closer and closer, and the scene becomes something utterly terrifying.

With a remarkable performance by Garson as the titular character, and brilliant directorial vision from Wyler, the film is a gripping and moving masterpiece. It’s a glorious tribute to the civilians of Britain, who became fighters themselves, and stood strong with courage that would become the strength the nation needed. It’s a landmark film for numerous reasons, and a deserving winner of Best Picture.