The film begins with Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson)on her way home in the crowded city and at the last minute, she hurries back to the hat shop to get a beautiful hat that is probably more expensive than she should allow herself to purchase. At the same time, her husband (Walter Pidgeon) is buying a newer, faster car. We understand this family isn’t high class or wealthy, but hasn’t everyone treated themselves to a little more than they should? Also, kind Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers) who works at the train station wants to enter a beautiful rose in the Garden contest, one that is usually reserved for the snooty high class women who would be appalled to lose to such a humble man.
The story follows the Miniver family during the beginning of WWII. Mrs. Miniver has a husband, two small children and a son who’s just returned from Oxford. Her son, Vin (Richard Ney), is an idealistic boy who has an awful lot to say about the class system in their country, so it comes at no surprise that he starts seeing a high society girl, Carol (Teresa Wright). When the war begins, Vin joins the army and becomes a pilot. The whole family is proud and frightened for him, especially his mother. As the war escalates and the bombings start, the war can seem right in your own yard, no one is safe and everyone, regardless of age or class, must face grim losses.
Now, let’s add all the above together. You see, class has a lot to do with this film. It’s the obstacle between Vin and Carol, why Mr. Ballard is discouraged from entering his rose in the contest and what makes buying a hat seem so ridiculous. The war being dangerously close to home is what makes all the difference and makes class becomes less distinct. Without it, Mr. Ballard probably would’ve been chased out of the flower contest and Vin would still be a boy complaining about class rather than becoming a brave pilot breaking his social ranks. When war strikes, how much difference does class make anymore? When that air raid siren wails everyone’s on the same level. Rich or poor, they can drop a bomb on you just the same.
I want to share the bomb shelter scene with you. Mr. and Mrs. Miniver are in a tiny shelter with their two young children and have just finished reading them some of Alice in Wonderland before bed. The parents share some fond memories of the book; it seems to be the only thing that can preserve their childhood while bombs whistle and drop all around them. The children sleep through it for a while, but the bombs grow closer. With every whistle the anticipation of the boom is terrifying and we wonder if the whole family will die in a crater outside their house. Soon, the whole shelter is shaking, the children wake up crying and all the parents can do is hold them. I had never felt so sad and scared for a group of characters in my life, not even Alice can undo that trauma.
Let’s sum up the awards: twelve nominations total, six of them won. Of those twelve, five were acting nominations, Greer Garson and Teresa Wright took actresses. Add in the wins for best writing, cinematography, directing and picture, it’s pretty hard to compete.
And now a rant: Really, how could they nominate Wake Island next to Mrs. Miniver? Ok, they’re both war films, but they’re approached from such different views. Mrs. Miniver is heartfelt family life pulled and broken by the horrors of war. Not just the men are involved in the danger, but the women and children too. Wake Island is completely soldier (and explosion) based, they’re the only characters we have, and to be honest, they’re not interesting. I realize that this is 1942 and the biggest thing going on is WWII, so why not make hundreds of films on it? I get it. But to stand crummy, thrown together Wake Island next to a masterpiece like Mrs. Miniver just doesn’t feel right. Imagine that at a few years ago the Academy Awards decided that two of the nominees were Juno and Knocked Up. Similar subject, entirely different viewpoints, stories, ideas and caliber of excellence. Alright, it’s probably not the best example, I don’t want to push Wake Island down to Seth Rogan level but lets not build him up to best picture quality either.
The bottom line is by the end of Mrs. Miniver, our hearts are completely invested in the Miniver family and their friends. We feel their loss, we rally with them and soak up every word in that last sermon. They’re hurting but keep optimistic, that’s a story we can hold dear for generations.
***Yes, Mrs. Miniver is completely deserving of 1942. Pride of the Yankees was the only real competition.***