The Best Picture Winners: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

05 Oct

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

If you’re wondering why today’s movie isn’t Citizen Kane then you’ll be left to ponder one of the major crimes committed by the Oscar voters.  Actually it’s not their fault.  Orson Welles magnum opus was at the center of a power struggle between the director and magnanimous newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who accused the 25 year-old filmmaker of mocking him by indirectly making a damning picture about he and his mistress.  With that, Hearst set out to remove all mention of Citizen Kane from his newspapers and to see that the film was rarely screened.  Of course, history would have the last laugh; Citizen Kane has routinely been lauded as the greatest film ever made while Hearst is generally unknown to anyone under the age of 40.

The positioning of the Academy voters for their Best Picture of 1941 leaned in the direction of an apology to John Ford for overlooking his magnum opus, The Grapes of Wrath, for the Best Picture of 1940.  In that, they decided to reward Ford’s next film, an adaptation of Robert Lewyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley, another epic about a family facing hardship, tragedy and broken dreams.

The major difference is that the story here – about the ups and downs that befall a Welsh family as their land is spoiled by a mining operation – is far less compelling.  Our rooting interest in The Grapes of Wrath was the characters and their hardship as they head out across the American west.  How Green Was My Valley doesn’t offer anything new and the hardships experienced by The Morgan family seem to well up out of the screenplay rather than the natural progression of the story.  Perhaps for those reasons, How Green Was My Valley has, more or less, faded into obscurity. It has its place in film history but ordinary film fans rarely seek it out.

That doesn’t make it a bad film, it’s just that you’re better off watching The Grapes of Wrath because you’re more likely to feel for the characters on the screen.  How Green Was My Valley is a nice film, and that’s about it.



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