Published on December 10th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Mrs. Miniver 
Summary: Well-acted Best Picture winner about the families left behind during wartime. Chock with pro-British propaganda for a people who likely needed it during WWII. Its stay-positive message may ring hollow today but the family at its core are a lovable lot.
NR | 134 min.
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West, Arthur Wimperis (Based on Jan Struther’s character)
Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Richard Ney
U.S. Box Office: $13.5 million
“Keep Calm and Carry On.”
Before that became a well-worn phrase adorned to countless T-shirts, it was a message written by the British government to boost its citizens’ morale in the days leading to World War II. It also might as well have been the tagline for Mrs. Miniver.
This sweet piece of pro-Brit propaganda would prove to be a hit on both sides of the pond, making millions at the box office and winning six Academy Awards. At the 1943 Oscars ceremony, Mrs. Miniver was named Best Picture over two formidable American classics, The Pride of the Yankees and The Magnificent Ambersons.
The film was crafted by Hollywood powerhouses: Produced by MGM and directed by William Wyler. Mrs. Miniver would be Wyler’s first of three Oscar-winners for Best Director, the others being 1959’s Ben-Hur and 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives.
We begin in 1939, a time which the opening titles describe as “That happy, easy-going England.” Kay Miniver (Oscar-winner Greer Garson) is a dedicated wife and mother, living in quaint Belham, a fictional town in the English countryside. Throughout the course of Wyler’s film, she will come to symbolize England’s — and perhaps also America’s — unity for the cause in World War II.
At first though, Mrs. Miniver is shown as a spendthrift, shelling out what we assume is a ridiculous amount of money for an equally silly hat. The first few scenes depict her as a typical pre-WWII housewife, shopping on her husband’s dime and admitting to her friends that she likes, “fine things far beyond my means sometimes.” Her spouse Clem (Walter Pidgeon) is no more cautious, buying a new car on a whim in an early scene of his own.
Of course these scenes of flippancy only exist to show the more responsible mindset of the Minivers — and Britain at large — once the war effort began. The upper middle-class Minivers and their son Vin (Richard Ney), who’s just back from college, are all thrust directly into the action at some point in the film.
I find it tremendously interesting that Mrs. Miniver was a thoroughly American-made picture because it’s loaded with British patriotism. When the majority of production on the film was done, the U.S.A. was still neutral in terms of WWII, which is reflected through much of this movie’s tone.
Unlike most films set during WWII, Mrs. Miniver is so polite and pleasant. Its characters all exhibit endearing characteristics and you won’t hear any dialogue spoken about Nazi atrocities, although Adolf Hitler’s name is dropped in one scene. Instead of talking, these characters are selflessly offering their family members, homes and way of life to help their country survive the war.
Indeed, the rub on Mrs. Miniver is that it’s about as sanitized as an Ebola doctor’s hands — at times it feels like you’re watching an episode of Leave it to Beaver set in the U.K. No tantrums are thrown by the film’s characters, even though there are times they’d be completely justified; instead they just pitch in as if they’re simply paying an unspoken toll. The Hollywood production code was in full effect when this film was made, leading to the Minivers sleeping in separate twin beds.
Garson is fantastic in the lead role, certainly deserving of her Oscar win. Her performance is not one that will leave you gasping because of its emotional breadth, but rather one of those turns where the audience feels comforted to be in her company. Kay, like the movie itself, is emotionally detached but she could charm the pants off of anyone.
Garson’s finest moment comes in one of Mrs. Miniver’s most tense scenes, as she waits breathlessly in her dark bedroom to hear Vin piloting a fighter plane overhead. Allowing the audience only to hear the bombers flying over the family’s quiet home, rather than seeing them, is a simple and effective way Wyler builds dread. The director uses this device again later in the film as Kay, Clem and the couple’s two younger children are seen hunkering in an underground bunker, trying to distract themselves as the sounds of bombs falling and guns firing are heard ringing in the streets of their neighborhood.
Each of the players in Mrs. Miniver does a fine job in their part, even if Walter Pidgeon’s accent doesn’t sound remotely English. A ton of credit for the film’s success belongs with the four-headed screenwriting team of Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton and Claudine West. The script is straightforward and very well-paced but features just enough symbolism to make you ponder its subtext.
The foursome won an Oscar for the movie’s script and would again team up together — and with Greer Garson — on a 1942 adaptation of Hilton’s novel Random Harvest. Interestingly, both Random Harvest and Mrs. Miniver would be nominated for Best Picture at the 1943 Oscars.
Like Wyler’s later Best Picture-winner The Best Years of Our Lives, this movie focuses on the war at home. We aren’t stuck in the trenches with young men gunning for Hitler’s head, instead we are witnessing the toll war takes on the folks left behind — in this film spouses, not soldiers, are casualties. In a not-so-subtle way, Mrs. Miniver conveys the need for strong community during a time of national strife.
The movie’s closing scene acts as a locker room pep talk directly to a war-weary audience in 1942. A priest tells his congregation, “This is a war of the people. Of all the people.” He rings the crusade bell hard and as the choir sings “Onward Christian Soldier,” cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg tilts skyward and we see that the church is missing its roof, likely due to an explosion.
I wish the majority of Ruttenberg’s shooting in Mrs. Miniver were as inspired as this closing shot but instead we get a film that looks very boring. Most of the framing is strictly by the books, plenty of two, three and four shots with a fixed camera. We get few, if any close ups, leading to the feeling of detachment you will inevitably get from the characters. With 139 credits and four Oscars to his name, Ruttenberg was a master cinematographer but I found his work here mostly dull. If you’re expecting risky filmmaking, Mrs. Miniver will disappoint you but those expecting a safe, well-acted picture will be happy they checked it out.
Make no mistake, Mrs. Miniver is a feature-length piece of wartime propaganda. Just as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will was meant to show German citizens the sheer power of the Third Reich, Wyler’s film was produced to show Brits and Americans the power of maintaining a stiff upper lip.