“How Green Was My Valley” won five Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor Donald Crisp, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction.
Originally planned as 20th Century Fox's answer to "Gone With The Wind," Richard Llewellyn's 1939 best-seller was snapped up by the studio for a then-unheard of $300,000, and scheduled as a 4-hour Technicolor epic shot in Wales - until the Battle of Britain changed the situation. Delays prompted casting changes, and the loss of director William Wyler, who had already spent considerable time developing a screenplay with one of the studio's most respected scribes, Philip Dunne.
Enter John Ford, who proposed a $1 million production, condensing the script to a 2-hour film, to be shot at Fox's Malibu ranch - a utilitarian swathe of hills, fields and small mountains near the future coastal homes of famous stars. Producer Darryl Zanuck assigned veteran cinematographer Arthur C Miller (who also shot "Gentleman's Agreement") and composer Alfred Newman to the production, while Ford contributed members of his acting stock company, plus upcoming performers Maureen O'Hara (19, and radiant) and "Master" Roddy McDowall (giving one of the finest child performances on film).
Still a moving, exceptionally produced social study on family, Fox Home Video had the good sense to add Ford biographer Joseph McBride, who gives a warm, engaging, and superb lecture on the film that alone is worth the price of the disc. Co-writer (with Michael Wilmington) of the 1975 career overview "John Ford" and the massive tome "Searching For John Ford" in 2001, McBride treats Ford as a man and not untouchable genius, nor dissects the film using highbrow terminology which inherently ignores the average film fan; there's great insight regarding one of America's greatest directors, and his exhaustive research is well-used in pointing out common themes, autobiographical references, and placing cast/crew/story subjects in context with early and later film projects. McBride interviewed Ford for his first book, and managed to get some personal opinions from a filmmaker who pretty much eschewed any discussions about his craft. (One only need watch Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 documentary "Directed By John Ford," where the subject frustrates the younger director with monosyllabic replies between his habitual handkerchief munching.)
The commentary track is also bolstered by co-star Anna Lee Nathan - now in her very fragile nineties, but still filled with immense wit - who contributes several detailed (and sometimes hysterical) anecdotes. Complimenting McBride's factual accounts, Nathan's tightly edited explanations of the "Daughters of the Green Valley" tea party are a delight, plus Ford's dealings with pretty much every cast member (including Sarah Allgood, with whom he had disagreements over her portrayal of the family matriarch). Author McBride also adds colour to the John Ford legend via his no-nonsense dealings with actors and the studio bean counters (issues with the script, and too many extras, respectively), plus some rich background on Philip Dunne, who penned the pro-union screenplay that was effectively tempered by producer Zanuck. McBride and Nathan also make note of Dunne's own production accounts (recalled from his excellent autobiography, "Take Two," published in 1980) regarding Ford's script changes, and tonal alterations to specific scenes.
The included episode of a "Backstory" installment actually adds some material not covered in the commentary track, and includes interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, Ford's grandson Dan, historian Rudy Behlmer, the late Roddy McDowall (from 1995 and 1997 interviews), biographer Ronald Davis, actresses Anna Lee Nathan and the ageless Maureen O'Hara, and Oscar-winning set design Nathan Juran (interviewed before his death in 2002), who turned the Malibu ranch into an exquisite period company town. (Juran would later evolve into a director of colourful fantasy films, including "7th Voyage of Sinbad" and "First Men In The Moon.")
A trio of shopworn trailers are included, along with a lengthy still gallery that expands on the film's previous DVD release by adding production stills and many behind-the-scene snapshots of Ford and the crew at work.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan