Recalliery

Watching HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY I wondered if it appeared in time in 1941 to influence Orson Welles’ plans for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS? (Welles being a big Ford fan after all. And there are thematic similarities in these accounts of a vanished past.) The idea to keep much of the narration from Richard Llewellyn’s source novel, and play it over dialogue-free scenes, and use montage to cover a story with a long span, apparently came from studio head Darryl Zanuck. It’s an approach which could easily be disastrous if applied clumsily, since you lose firmly dramatic scenes which grip, and gain, if you’re lucky/skilled, a more ethereal, intangible quality, poetic rather than dramatic.

Looking at Searching for John Ford by Joseph McBride, I learn about William Wyler’s crucial involvement, casting much of the picture and overseeing the design of the village, an incredible setting. Wyler chose Roddy McDowall for the lead — screenwriter Philip Dunne called Roddy the true auteur of the picture, and said “This solves our length problem, because they’ll never forgive us if we let that boy grow up.” The film was set to be four hours long and the kid was supposed to mature into Tyrone Power. Imagine. Technicolor was also considered at an early stage, Zanuck envisioning an epic to rival GONE WITH THE WIND. And, after all, it’s How GREEN Was My Valley, right?

Same year as KANE — and note the ceilings.

It’s all wondrous to think of, since although the book is the reason there’s a film, the principle things that make it a great film are Ford’s use of McDowall and the b&w cinematography of Arthur C. Miller, which is exquisite. Miller mostly wasted his gifts on indifferent Fox fodder. The Malibu Hills are not the Welsh Valleys, but the movie conjures its own version of Wales, complete with a cast of assorted accents — Donald Crisp, a cockney who affected Scottishness in real life, like Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s Goliath, makes the most consistent effort to sound right — Rhys Williams, playing blind boxer Dai Bando, is one of very few actual Welsh actors.

Another thing I wondered is if this movie invented the highlights reel — a closing set of flashback memories to certain golden moments in the preceding movie. When “Seems Like Old Times” plays for a second time in ANNIE HALL and we get glimpses of earlier scenes, that kind of thing. Reminding the audience how much they enjoyed the film, hopefully — with an indifferent film it’s infuriating — this movie is all flashbacks anyway, from a largely unseen present tense, so it’s a bold and interesting choice to repeat certain flashes. I can’t think of an earlier example. Of course it’s a clever Hollywood device to diffuse the downbeat effects of a tragic ending. Go into the magic past and end on something happier. Those memories will never fade. Things may be bad now, and uncertain to get better, but happiness is real — the past is still here. We just can’t quite step into it. Time may be an illusion, as Einstein said, but it’s a very persistent one. So this kind of Hollywood illusion is bittersweet — we’re presented with a joyful image but with a little thinking we can see past it.

6 Responses to “Recalliery”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    According to Scotty Bowers, Roddy lost his virginity to his “How Green Was My Valley” co-star Walter Pigeon in 1946 when they did “Holiday in Mexico” The expression on his face in the still you’ve placed at the tope recalls the way he looks in one of his last films Randal Kleiser’s moving AIDS elegy “It’s My Party”

  2. Apparently the casting director advised Wyler he didn’t need to see that test because “the kid’s wall-eyed and not that pretty.” Fortunately Wyler got a glimpse and was intrigued.

    Clearly so did Pigeon.

  3. Mark E Fuller Says:

    It looks as if Donald Crisp’s Welsh mining family had the same housing budget as Kane, too……

  4. Orson Welles was on the record of loving every John Ford film EXCEPT “Grapes of Wrath” and “How Green Was My Valley”

    He told Peter Bogdanovich in the 70s

    “They’re the two I cannot stand. And I saw it again last year and I hated it again. I could’ve hit him again, seeing it, I hated it so. I think it’s an abominable picture. False, Hollywood-made, smelling of plaster and sprayguns and Donald Crisp, and every other unpleasant thing you could think of.”

    And yet you’re right, links are visible. Maybe both artists were driven by the same horses.

    Also maybe it’s like that thing where you know two people who are very alike, and you’re sure they’ll get along, but then they absolutely DETEST one another. Except here it’s Orson Welles, and a film

  5. jwarthen Says:

    My first teaching assignment included a course in which HOW GREEN was a staple. I disliked the book and that may have carried over to the film, with its hearty Ford-style horseplay. Much as I respect Crisp for his history with Keaton, he is the wrong kind of icon on film, an emblem of mossback patriarchy. Dave Kehr reveres this film, which I just don’t get.

  6. Welles is just wonderfully perverse in his tastes, and his filmmaking reflects that.

    Maybe he detected too much Zanuck, or thought he did.

    Of course most Ford films are Hollywood-made, and if they don’t seem false, they certainly employ much artifice, fantasy, idealism, sentiment, many things which are not reality but of course can be merged with poetic Truth, which was what Welles cared about. His “unreal but true” line about Jimmy Cagney puts everything I love about cinema into three words.

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