Perhaps one of the most oddly enjoyable films I have ever watched is Mrs. Miniver. As a fan of William Wyler, I became curious as to the film’s success with its 12 Academy Award nominations and 6 wins. Propaganda is the word most commonly associated with Mrs. Miniver, but for those living through World War II, the film brought faith and hope to people’s hearts.
Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) is a middle class housewife living near the countryside with her husband Clement/Clem (Joseph Cotton) and two youngest children, whilst her eldest son Vincent/Vin (Richard Ney) is at university. The Miniver family live a comfortable life and when Vin returns, he finds himself falling in love with Carol Beldon (Theresa Wright), the privileged granddaughter of Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty). The tone gradually changes however as German forces continue to expand across Europe and Churchill announces that Britain will enter the war against Nazism.
The war’s impact on each of the characters is quite profound but Mrs. Miniver isn’t just the name of the film’s main character; it is also the name of a rose given by station master Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers), named after the other Mrs. Miniver. Tensions rise when he announces his intention to enter it into the annual flower competition. It is here where we are able to establish a dual narrative as Lady Beldon expresses her concern that her famed, victorious roses may for the first time be beaten by a competitor. Both Mrs. Minivers are integral to William Wyler’s first Best Picture Oscar winner as Lady Beldon struggles to suppress her ego when competing with a station master, but she is also uneasy with her granddaughter seeing Vin, deeming his mother as being part of a plot to sabotage her win.
Following the premiere of Mrs. Miniver, the then-Queen Elizabeth personally wrote to Greer Garson expressing her gratitude in helping lift the spirits of the British people following events like the London Blitz. It was the film that Joseph Goebbels had feared as William Wyler took the reins to lead Americans in support of Britain against Germany. It’s a remarkable feat after years of flip-flopping on whether to support the Imperialist nation or the all-conquering Führer of the German Reich. The historical context of the film is fascinating, released in the middle of the war on a modest budget to receiving critical acclaim and commercial success.
The success of the film is unquestionably led by Greer Garson’s charming performance as the eponymous character. Over the course of the film, we see Mrs. Miniver carry out her domestic duties as a housewife, show unconditional love to her family and neighbours and we even see her slap a Nazi! Despite her off-screen affair with her on-screen son, Richard Ney, Garson encapsulated the boundless essence of her character and brought home an Oscar for what is now considered her signature role. Theresa Wright also left the Oscars ceremony with the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. I won’t spoil the ending but both ladies deserved their Oscars.
There is a strange absurdity to Mrs. Miniver in how there is a lack of desperation or sense of fear in the film; it’s almost “too” optimistic. But the impact the film had on audiences is undisputed by historians and film critics as Wyler carefully constructed a reality where Britons kept their stiff upper lip and carried on in the face of war. As the film’s slogan suggests: ‘when Hitler did his worst, Mrs. Miniver always did her best’!
by Carlos Tseng