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How Green Was My Valley (1941)

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Article 2

John Ford called How Green Was My Valley his best work

By Jim Bawden, Toronto Star

The Toronto Star, January 23, 1993 page G8

"I'm the duffer who wrote the movie that knocked off Citizen Kane at the 1942 Academy Awards," smiled Philip Dunne. The movie he was talking about is How Green Was My Valley, which is coming back to video next month after an absence of almost a decade. Surveys indicate it is among the most requested films not presently available on video.

But the day I journeyed to Dunne's Malibu ranch hideaway back in 1989, the movie was being considered by 20th Century-Fox as a possible roadshow engagement to highlight its 50th anniversary.

"The movie's not as great as Citizen Kane," Dunne conceded, as he walked me around his impressive estate - the main house was constructed in the shape of a massive wood and glass cathedral. "At the time it was merely another John Ford picture. It was hardly taken for granted - it did win five Oscars - but has grown in popularity over the years. Even Welles had to admit he loved it."

Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century-Fox had paid the then record sum of $300,000 to nab the screen rights to Richard Llewellyn's saga of Welsh mining life. "Hollywood gasped," Dunne chuckled. "Remember Gone With The Wind had gone for $ 65,000."

Zanuck was drawn to the panoramic story of the coal-mining Morgan family living in Wales at the end of the last century, their trials and tribulations and how they stood together despite poverty and even tragedy, held together by a tough but tender patriarch and a belief in each other.

Zanuck assigned veteran writer Ernest Pascal to do a treatment which he promptly hated. Zanuck was searching for a romantic story but Pascal placed the scenes of striking miners up front.

"I get the impression we are trying to do an English Grapes Of Wrath!" Zanuck roared in one memo before replacing Pascal and the first assigned director William Wellman.

Zanuck then turned to Dunne, a young screenwriter with only a few credits and matched him with meticulous director William Wyler.

"Zanuck's one contribution was to ask the events be related through the eyes of young Huw as in the book - he wanted Tyrone Power to take over when Huw reached manhood. But Wyler was only available on loan from producer Samuel Goldwyn for 12 weeks. We went up to Arrowhead Lake and worked daily on the script. Eight weeks later we finished but there was no time left for Wyler to actually direct the picture."

What Wyler contributed, Dunne felt, was sheer professionalism. "The script was a very tight rewrite of Llewellyn. We eliminated six major characters because they held things up. The stuff about the strike, the whole social underpinning, it was cut out because Willie felt we could suggest it through the characters.

"He had already started casting it when we left. He found little Roddy McDowall, made the test of him, and Fox signed the 11-year old boy."

The sets were being built at Fox's Malibu ranch where the studio made its westerns. Supervisor Ben Wurtzel took 80 acres and constructed a completely functioning village, mine shaft and mine. He even insisted on inserting genuine veins of coal running underground and had to station guards to fend off poachers: coal was a valuable commodity in wartime California.

The village had just been completed when Zanuck marched in with Wyler's replacement - tough, irascible John Ford, who'd just won an Oscar for directing The Grapes Of Wrath.

Remembered Dunne, "He was a craggy, sentimental director. He really saw the story as being about Ireland although it is set in Wales. The cast was a real polyglot combination: Irish (Maureen O'Hara, Sara Algood [sic], Barry Fitzgerald), Canadian (Walter Pidgeon), English (Anna Lee, John Loder, McDowall) and one Welsh man (Rhys Williams)."

Ford came on to a project that was well underway and with a termination date already determined by Zanuck. "This combination - Wyler's fidelity to the book and Ford's sentimentality - produced the fine movie," Dunne believed. But Ford did hire the Welsh Eisteddfod Chorus to serenade the actors between scenes.

A few days after meeting Dunne, I was at the English-style cottage of veteran actress Anna Lee, now famous as the imperious matriarch on TV's General Hospital. Lee had come to Hollywood in 1939 and HGWMV was one of her first American movies. Unlike most of the cast, she'd been passed over by Wyler who'd wanted Greer Garson - but Ford looked at her test and hired her.

"At first he'd hiss 'Limey' under his breath," she told me recently. "He picked on somebody different every day. He'd have Maureen in hysterics. He was a real bully boy."

He often said he modeled the principals on his very own family. Mr. Morgan, proud and strong and a bit teary- eyed, was just like his own father and the three brothers were copied after his three brothers, Patrick, Francis and Eddie. "I wanted to please him so badly," Lee said. "I had a scene where I learn my husband has been killed. I wander back to my cottage, call out his name and fall down a flight of stairs. I never told Jack I was pregnant. I did it without a double and had a miscarriage. Jack never forgave himself for that, never."

Dunne remembers hearing Citizen Kane being booed by the audience; gossip columnist Louella Parsons had orchestrated a campaign against the movie, convinced it was a thinly veiled attack on the personal character of her boss, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

As a result of Parsons's lobbying, Citizen Kane won just one Oscar - for best original screenplay. Dunne became more excited as HGWMV racked up its Oscars list: best picture, director, supporting actor (Crisp), black and white photography (Arthur Miller), set decoration (Richard Day, Nathan Juran).

"But when it came to best screenplay the winners were Sidney Buchman, Seton Miller for Here Comes Mr. Jordan. I was so downcast until a few days later when Ford sent me his scroll from the New York Film Critics Awards with this written across the top, 'Here, Phil, you deserve this more than me!' "

© 1993 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.

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