Our reviews of Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Romance (published April 17th, 2013), Mrs. Miniver (Blu-ray) (published January 28th, 2013), and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Best Picture Winners (published February 19th, 2009) are also available.
The wartime classic of a nation's darkest—yet finest—hour.
Winner of six Academy Awards in 1942, including Best Picture and Best Director (William Wyler), the classic WWII drama Mrs. Miniver fights the good fight on DVD with a top-notch Warner Brothers Home Video release.
Facts of the Case
Mrs. Miniver is one of the rare wartime films that don't feature any actual warfare. The focus instead is on the effect of the Second World War at home, on those whose mission was to stay alive and preserve the homes that the soldiers were off fighting to protect. Our heroine, Mrs. Kay Miniver (a glowingly beautiful Greer Garson), is a middle-class Englishwoman whose tranquil domestic existence is torn to shreds by the winds of war. As eldest son Vin (Henry Wilcoxon) flies off to join the battle with the RAF, and husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) disappears on a secret volunteer mission to Dunkirk, it's up to Mrs. Miniver to protect the home front and keep house and family together during the dark times ahead.
Mrs. Miniver is an unabashedly propagandistic work; though released after Pearl Harbor, the film did much to bolster American public sentiment in support of the war, and Winston Churchill praised it as having done more for the war effort than a flotilla of destroyers. This might give the impression that the film is merely a jingoistic melodrama, but there's much more to Mrs. Miniver, thanks to outstanding performances by Garson and Pidgeon and admirably restrained direction by William Wyler. Make no mistake, by today's standards the film is indeed quite sentimental, even mawkish; pre-war daily life in the Minivers' country village is depicted with gauzy affection, and there's a treacly subplot involving a local flower show that makes one half-expect Dick Van Dyke to show up with his 'orrible Cockney accent (instead, we get the next best thing: Henry Travers, It's a Wonderful Life's Clarence). But when war finally shows up on the Minivers' doorstep, the film takes a sharp turn for the darker; discussions about fancy hats and new cars give way to the simple need to survive and gratitude for every new day that finds the family together and safe.
A lesser director might have attempted to widen the focus of the film for dramatic effect—showing us Vin at war, for instance, or the unseen mission that Clem embarks upon—but Wyler keeps the focus squarely on Mrs. Miniver and her village. As such, the strength of the human drama derives from such small but unforgettable moments as Mr. and Mrs. Miniver sitting in a bomb shelter, reading from Alice in Wonderland, and reminiscing about the simple joys of childhood, and in unremarked but powerful images like the village church, which by the end of the film is a bombed-out husk. It's a strikingly effective reminder—aimed squarely at the average American—that, unlike in wars past, the front lines of WWII were the homes and towns of British civilians (and, quite possibly, those of Americans as well).
Warner's presentation of Mrs. Miniver is a solid one, with a full frame (original aspect ratio) transfer that looks and sounds terrific. The print is of excellent quality, featuring a sharp, nearly flawless image that presents its black and white color palette quite nicely. Audio is presented in English and French monaural tracks, and the sound is clear and rich.
The main extras on the disc are a pair of amusing wartime short films. "Mr. Blabbermouth" is sort of a live-action propaganda poster, featuring the titular loudmouth in various situations spreading a lot of defeatist malarkey about America's chances in the war and bringing down everyone's morale. An ominous alternate-history map showing the United States being divided up between the Axis powers makes clear what the outcome will be unless someone shuts up Mr. Blabbermouth with a good pop on the kisser. The second short, "For the Common Defense," is a mini-film involving an American gangster smuggling Axis-provided counterfeit money through South America—with a pair of American agents on hand to save the day. These short films are quite dated, and ripe for a fair bit of MST3K-style ribbing. They're also laden with plenty of racist slurs and caricatures, which makes their appearance on the disc surprising—one wouldn't think that Warner Bros. would put such un-P.C. material on home video—but Warner is to be commended for including this material. Shocking though it may be to today's sensibilities, it's nevertheless an important slice of history.
Rounding out the extras are a gallery of stills and a brief snippet of newsreel footage from Greer Garson's Oscar acceptance speech. Since Garson's speech is infamous for its record-setting length (over five minutes), it's unfortunate that only a few seconds of it is shown here (it looks as if more was available, so I'm not sure why Warner decided to cut it down so drastically).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though Mrs. Miniver isn't as shamelessly preachy as it could have been, it's nonetheless likely to come across as a bit melodramatic and obvious to modern viewers (who will see the outcome of the flower show subplot a mile away). It's restrained, but subtle it's not, especially in underlining its central theme of patriotism and shared sacrifice cutting through England's class system to bring the entire populace together for mutual support. Mrs. Miniver's populism rings a little false, as well; it's difficult to hold the Minivers up as paragons of small-town, middle-class values when they're clearly wealthy by any standard (the husband is an architect who apparently makes enough money to buy a new car on a whim—even if he does get in trouble for it later) and treat their household staff and the lower classes with a benign condescension that, while admirable, isn't quite as egalitarian as the film would have us believe. Still, the film's heart is in the right place, and there's no denying the power of the story or the performances, which rarely hit a false or dishonest note.
It's not surprising that, in the atmosphere of heightened anxiety in wartime America, this simple, yet well-told, story became a huge success. Mrs. Miniver is a film that embodies hope, strength, dignity, and the pleasures of the small moments in life. It's a war movie, but an understated, character-based drama, not a sprawling epic. It's patriotic, but not in a dull, polished-marble sort of way; in fact, it's imbued with a wry, rather cheeky sense of humor that hasn't aged a day since 1942. If you've skipped over this fine drama on cable TV, now's your chance to become acquainted with one of the finest films of Hollywood's Golden Age.
If Mrs. Miniver is not immediately acquitted of all charges, then the terrorists—I mean, the Nazis—have already won.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Greer Garson Academy Awards Footage
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