Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 1944. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Screenplay by Robert Thoeren, Polly James, based on the novel by Louis Bromfield. Cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg. Produced by Leon Gordon. Music by Bronislau Kaper. Production Design by Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons. Costume Design by Valles. Film Editing by George Boemler.
Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon star in the fourth of their eight pairings together, their easy chemistry capitalized on beautifully by a plot that rambles through a series of melodramatic conflicts with reckless abandon. She begins the film as an elderly woman overseeing a crisis in her family, her grandson-in-law (Edward Arnold) is being accused of defrauding the mining corporation that she remains primary stockholder of since the death of its founder, her late husband (Pidgeon).
Garson flashes back to when she was young and running a boarding house with her mother in a dusty frontier town (buying Garson as an American woman of the soil is much harder than buying her as a virginal teenager), swept off her feet by her future husband after his mine explodes and incurs a number of devastating casualties. Brought to live in the big house in New York, she is tutored in the skills of being a Great Lady by Pidgeon’s French aristocrat friend Agnes Moorehead (who is wonderful), the two of them becoming bosom buddies immediately, while winning over old-money New York society is much more challenging. Pidgeon’s brash, new money business manner is not something that the city’s aristocrats warm to easily and the couple are rejected from the start, which motivates her husband to financially ruin his peers one by one until Garson intervenes and appeals to his humanity.
The years pass and in their middle age their marriage suffers another crisis, when he runs off to Europe with a mistress and she, brought low by a personal loss at home, loses the courage to do anything about it until she is rallied back to her old self by Moorehead’s continued friendship.
In the present day, Garson debates whether or not to use her wealth to save both her relative and her family’s reputation, but she is held back by her memories of her husband and his belief in self-made Americans, for him there was nothing lower than people who live off inherited wealth and do nothing to earn it for themselves. The filmmakers accomplish an amazing trick on a public that would soon, in the coming years, treat all material bearing the slightest whiff of condemning the love of wealth with aggressive suspicion; here the criticism of capitalism that was more open in films like Holiday hides behind an appeal to the common working man to hate the lazy rich, quickly moving to speeches about love and fidelity and the societal importance of marriage any time things threaten to get too preachy.
As a result, the film is weighty without having much gravity and its characters are detailed and yet never hit deep, but the actors are all so terrific that you might enjoy being swept along by it anyway. It’s hard to resist Garson’s charms no matter what the material, her trying to play someone who had to learn to be a grand dame without having been born one is nonsense, but her trademark warmth is always on display. Her scenes with Moorehead are the film at its most compelling, these are two aces doing some of their best work, while Pidgeon, trying to break free from his usual constraint as the respectable husband, goes for tinges of Rhett Butler but can’t pull it off, easily forgiven for this thanks to his good-natured camaraderie with his co-star.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Actress (Greer Garson); Best Supporting Actress (Agnes Moorehead)
Golden Globe Award: Best Supporting Actress (Agnes Moorehead)