Sunday, August 21, 2016

How Green Was My Valley (1941) vs. Citizen Kane (1941)

I've often remarked how the Oscars are a sham simply because Citizen Kane did not win Best Picture for 1941. Instead, How Green Was My Valley was the winner that year, and a few people have told me over the years that it won deservedly.... that How Green is actually the better movie. I had never seen How Green is My Valley so could never respond to this. Now I have.

I know it's been 75 years but as a public service, I'm here to tell you that opinion is crap. Citizen Kane should have totally won.

Let's first talk about How Green Was My Valley. It is not a bad movie. It's an okay movie. Not great, just okay. It's a fairly good movie with a lot of holes.

What best holds it up are the themes. Industrialization, unionization, forbidden love, the dream of a child having a better, more educated life than the parents. Many, many strong themes within this movie. And, in fact, I think it would have had more impact had it been in color. As a black-and-white movie, they had to overplay the smoke coming out of the coal mine to get the point across. Being told the valley was green and then it was not doesn't have the same impact as actually seeing it. Apparently that was in the cards -- filming in color in Wales itself -- but couldn't be done due to the war. It was filmed in B&W in LA.

I'm going to let loose on some spoilers now but I imagine 99.999% of you will never see this movie. I know this because Batman vs. Superman was a complete piece of garbage and still made $872 million at the box office. 

Where the movie isn't great is in the script and the acting.

First, as good as the themes are, there are too many themes being pushed into the movie. It's trying really hard to be an epic, and the time for character development suffers for it. Only Mr. Morgan is complex enough and really given enough screen-time to develop in the movie, but it falls short of doing so. He is never actually challenged in a way that forces him to change. Ultimately, he remains exactly as he is: working at the coal mine until he dies in an accident. And that's literally the end of the movie. Related and similar: Huw could be an interesting character. And the story is being told from Huw's perspective as an old man. But somehow we missed out on the other fifty years of his life, and the movie ends when his father dies. Though maybe that's the point, the other 50 years were nothing to him.

The other script aspect that's downright disturbing, but a norm for the time, is the need to put in whimsy. I feel like this was fairly common in the 30s, and it happens a few times in this movie. If you've watched any of that era's movies, you can probably picture it. In this movie, it's done at completely inappropriate times. Men were just killed in a coal mining accident -- including one of the main characters of the movie -- and as a rescue crew is being formed -- including the son of the main character -- one of the other characters whimsically says how he's a coward and will hold the jacket of another headed into the mine. Srsly, WTF?

As far as the acting goes, really only Walter Pidgeon shines as Mr. Gruffydd. He neither won nor was nominated for an Oscar -- Donald Crisp did for Mr. Morgan.

Citizen Kane.

Both of these movies are similar in that they share a life as told through flashback. Kane dies at the beginning mumbling something about Rosebud and a reporter tries to get to the bottom of it. Huw kicks us off reminiscing about the green valley he lived in and his life as a boy.

Except only one of these movies pays off and has meaningful character development along the way. Kane rises, falls, destroys lives, isolates himself. The real pay-off for Kane is that he dies embracing a moment that he alone has any knowledge of, and is lost forever when the sled is burned, the reporter not having discovered the meaning of "Rosebud". Kane would be remembered by the world for everything he had done in the decades after sledding, but the thing he cherished about his identity was that memory.

That's powerful. Now compare that to everything I just told you about How Green is my Valley. There is no payoff -- nothing for us to learn. Just lives and goings-on. It's okay, as I said... but not better.

Everything else is better with Kane as well. The acting is better, cinematography. Music is a toss-up, both were good.

The most stark difference: one of these movies was revolutionary. Kane is what movies ended up aspiring to be. How Green was my Valley was what movies once were.


I'm still left puzzled by why Kane only won one Oscar. Was it because John Ford? Some other politics? Or just because Welles was a newcomer, as was similar when Pulp Fiction should have won Best Picture in 1994 [another post for another time]?

But I'm not alone in this. Many articles have been written. Kane is not my favorite movie of all time, but I do think it's possibly the best film ever made, especially when you put it in the era in which it was made. (Although "why citizen kane" autocompletes on Google to "is so great" and "is so overrated")

JSS Rating:
 Citizen Kane: Best/Good movie (they tried to make a good movie and it was one of the best)

 How Green was My Valley: Good/Good movie (but not even remotely close to Kane)

ps - This is the second time on this blog I've reviewed a John Ford movie (the first was The Searchers), and I have to say, I must not be seeing the general appeal. I realize he was one of the most prolific and highly regarded directors of all time, but the movies of his I've watched just haven't been that great. I'll have to do "Grapes of Wrath" next.