FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Corn is Green
Reviewed by Leonard Quart
Produced by Jack Chertok; directed by Irving Rapper; screenplay by Frank Cavett, Casey Robinson, and Emlyn Williams; music by Max Steiner; edited by Frederick Richards; cinematography by Sol Polito; sound by Robert B. Lee; art direction by Carl Jules Weyl; and set direction by Fred M. Maclean; starring Bette Davis, John Dall, Nigel Bruce, Rhys Williams, Joan Lorring, and Mildred Dunnock. DVD, B &W, 115 min., 1945. A Warner Archive release.
From Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth-century novel Pamela through the plays of George Bernard Shaw to Mike Leigh’s film Vera Drake (2004), the profound divisions and constraints that characterize Britain’s class system have always been one of the central subjects of its fiction, theater, and film. The Corn Is Green, a sentimental, respectful film adaptation of Emlyn Williams's semiautobiographical 1938 play—a long running Broadway hit with Ethel Barrymore in the lead role—exemplifies that theme. It’s directed in static, theatrical fashion—stage sets, lots of speechifying—by Irving Rapper (Now Voyager, 1942).
The film centers around a middle-aged, spinster teacher, Lily Cristobel Moffatt (Bette Davis) who arrives in a Welsh mining village determined to set up a school to educate its illiterate children and open them to the possibility of more rewarding lives. She has to overcome the opposition of the smug, dim Colonel Blimp-like Squire (Nigel Bruce), who owns the land and the mine, and is fearful that education will give the villagers ideas and that they will begin to rebel against his benign control of the local social order. The squire is clearly no more than a caricature, but a skillfully enacted one by Bruce.
At first, Miss Moffatt feels hopelessly defeated by all the practical problems of establishing the school, and dealing with the squire, whom she calls a “nincompoop.” But when she discovers a young, parentless, soot-covered, heavy-drinking, sullen Welsh coalminer, Morgan Evans (John Dall in his first film), who has innate intellectual and literary gifts, she rededicates herself to the school and Evans’s education.
The rest of the film deals with the vicissitudes of her attempt to lift the talented young man beyond the narrow confines of village and mine, into Oxford and a more fulfilling life in the larger world. The path he takes is filled with soap-operatic turns and Morgan’s own hesitation in pursuit of his goal. Miss Moffatt, however, is single-minded in her devotion to Morgan, spending two years teaching him, and, of course, at the end, he wins a scholarship to Oxford.
What gives the film distinction is Davis’s performance as the prickly, sharp-tongued, emotionally controlled Miss Moffatt. It’s Davis giving one of her more modulated, less theatrical performances, successfully embodying a tough-minded, caring teacher whose commitment to Morgan allows him to triumph. Miss Moffatt is dominating and indefatigable, enlisting as assistant teachers a genteel, fluttery spinster, Miss Ronberry (Mildred Dunnock), and a religious, right-thinking but warmhearted Welsh clerk, Mr. Owen (Rhys Williams). Neither character is more than superficially rendered. She also decides to charm the unseeing, egocentric squire by appealing to his pride and male chauvinism in order to elicit his support for the school.
Morgan and Miss Moffatt’s relationship has its bad moments. He is disturbed by the contempt of his fellow miners, who see him as a “teacher’s pet,” and also feels the pressure of constantly studying under her demanding tutelage. Consequently, he angrily takes leave from his studies, drinks, and unconvincingly falls into the clutches of Moffatt’s comic Cockney housekeeper’s callous tart of a daughter, Bessie (overplayed by Joan Lorring), with whom he eventually has a baby. Bessie is a one-dimensional, vulgar viper, an utterly selfish character whose presence in the narrative diminishes the film’s impact.
Of course, Morgan predictably returns to studying under Moffatt. There is also an inexplicable change of heart among his fellow miners who, instead of being threatened, now seem to cheer him on in his quest. In a similar story, Doris Lessing’s powerful England versus England, the conflict between an aspiring grammar-school-educated Oxford boy, Charlie, and the world of his miner father and family and their working-class community, leaves him so divided (he has two different vocabularies) that he ends up breaking down and seeing a psychiatrist. The Corn Is Green is not a work on Lessing’s order of complexity—any anxiety Morgan may feel breaking from his milieu is never really explored, though Moffatt clearly wants him to break his links with his background. The world of the Welsh village is sketchily and sentimentally depicted with stagy images of sheep being sheared, cows being milked, and the miners coming home from an oppressive day’s work, full-throatedly singing Welsh songs. Rapper’s images have none of the emotionally stirring and painterly imagery of John Ford’s depiction of singing Welsh miners returning from work in How Green Was My Valley. The film’s portrayal is all too decorative and sweet to capture the feeling of an impoverished, illiterate world.
The film is not interested in exploring the ethos of the miners as do superficially such inspirational Hollywood films as Stand and Deliver (1988) and Dangerous Minds(1995) that depict dedicated teachers saving their students from the perniciousness and violence of urban street culture. Miss Moffatt may save Morgan from a constricted life in the mines, but the film neither depicts his world as damaging, nor does it suggest that, though his winning a scholarship may provide inspiration and hope that the other villagers will follow him.
Dall’s performance as Morgan is nothing but broad—shifting from aggression and anger to diligence and commitment without a touch of nuance. It’s Davis who gives the film its flashes of intelligence and few moving moments. Her Miss Moffatt at first sees Morgan as a mind to develop, whose emotional life is a blank to her. She never submerges her ego, but Moffatt develops a deep emotional commitment (even sheds a tear or two) for Morgan—seeing him as having a duty to fulfill his great potential as a writer. One feels the subtext of Moffatt’s profound commitment lies in his hopefully realizing what she, limited by gender and her own psyche, cannot achieve. In a sense he’s her alter ego, and as he takes off in the world, she will live vicariously through him. One doesn’t want to overinterpret this sentimental, conventional film, but this is another dimension that is never articulated.
Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the fourth edition ofAmerican Film and Society since 1945(Praeger).
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Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.