Worth Another Look: Greer Garson
Movie stars, particularly actresses, and the reactions they elicit from audiences, come in a variety flavors. There are those who are universally, unquestionably beloved, such as Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence is that rare celebrity who not only has legitimate talent, but has a genuinely likable personality that shines through in every interview. It is almost illegal to dislike her. Then there are those we love to hate precisely because of their success. Any of the Kardashians, for instance, or post-Iron Man Gwyneth Paltrow. I personally still like Paltrow very much as an actress, but I’d be lying if I said I’d wanted to be her friend or neighbor, but, since she isn’t, I am safe in re-watching Emma, Shakespeare in Love, and Sliding Doors guilt-free. Then there is the strangest category of all, the actress who is ostensibly popular and in high demand, but for some reason we are suspicious of liking, so we allow our conflicting feelings to manifest into irrational, raging hatred. Poor, poor Anne Hathaway, for whatever reason, elicited a backlash in the form the “Hatha-haters”, internet trolls who, in all their wisdom, gnash their teeth and gripe about her as though she’s the second coming of Stalin. I don't pretend to know the reason: maybe Hathaway is a touch too poised, a smidgen too snooty, maybe a tad too eager when it came time for her Oscar, but why do we hold that against her? Isn’t it enough that she’s talented and is in good films? I for one loved her in Les Miserables, and would have been miffed if she hadn't won. Actors such as Sean Penn and Robert Downey Jr. are forgiven for their outspoken, pompous behavior, so what is it about Hathaway that arouses everyone's ire?
One actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood who was easily the precursor to “Hatha-hatism” was one Eileen Evelyn Greer Garson, or simply Greer Garson, who was one of MGM most popular and highest-paid stars of the 1940s. Garson received seven Oscar nominations in her career, including an astonishing five consecutive nominations, winning for Best Actress for 1942’s Mrs. Miniver, which was one of the most popular films of its time (and said to be Winston Churchill’s favorite movie). She worked alongside the likes of Clark Gable, Ronald Colman, Elizabeth Taylor, Errol Flynn, and, most famously and frequently, Walter Pidgeon.
And yet critics back then sneered at her, as they do now. The most frequent criticisms are that she was “too proper”, “stiff”, or “mannered”. Some of the cattier critics mock her looks and age (she became a success in her late 30s, which, by Hollywood’s cruel standards, is considered mummified for actresses). In one of my favorite books about movie obsession, From Cyd Charisse to Psycho, Dale Thomajan complained that Garson received seven Oscar nominations while Cary Grant and Edward G. Robinson received none (a fair complaint, I guess, though hardly Garson’s fault). One critic, whose name escapes me, admitted that the only reason he didn’t care for Greer Garson was that he was leery of actresses that he couldn’t “picture in blue jeans”.
Hey, I said it was a reason, I never said it was a good one.
But I’m not here to play opinion-Nazi. Everyone has their preferences, and are more than entitled to their own views. It’s just that when a person is put on too high a pedestal, or, conversely, maligned at every turn, it makes me want to put them under a microscope and see if they’re really worthy of these popular opinions.
I happen think that Greer Garson was a fine actress with a lovely screen presence. In the league of the great actresses of the 1940s, she may not have had the ferocious versatility of Bette Davis, the vulnerable allure of Ingrid Bergman, or the blue collar charm of Barbara Stanwyck, but, good heavens, we could compare and contrast all day, and where would that get us? Of course Garson wasn’t like Davis, Bergman, or Stanwyck and I don’t want her to be. What I loved most about actresses back then is that they all had strikingly different acting styles. They were truly unique. Studios (especially MGM) tried to beautify their stars into homogenized oblivion, but what made a true star wasn’t her looks, but her own personality coming through.
Garson’s story of success was, like most, a matter of timing and luck. A London stage actress, she was signed onto MGM in 1937 after Louis B. Mayer became enamored with her after seeing her perform. Though she had the goods to become a film star, Garson had a few strikes against her. Aside from the fact that she was unknown, she was 33 years old, too old to be an ingenue, too young to be a grande dame. Oh, there were stars in her age range, but they’d had years to build their success, while Garson, by comparison, had to start from scratch. Fortune beamed on her, though, when she played the small but memorable role of Kathy Ellis in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which was released in that magical year of 1939, quite possibly the greatest year for cinematic releases. Not that the release date was all that mattered, for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, while shamelessly sentimental, is still big-hearted, grand entertainment. Robert Donat is a delight as our title character (it won him the Best Actor Oscar), but it's Garson who makes the greatest impact as the lively, forward-thinking Kathy, whose introduction should be ranked alongside Judy Garland entering the Technicolor world of Oz for the first time as one of the great, star-making moments. Our middle-aged hero (Donat), while (rather stupidly) climbing the mountains in Austria without the assistance of a guide or a cane, believes a woman to be in distress, calls to her, and then, offscreen, we hear Garson’s famously breathy, yet elegant, voice say, “Here I am”. The mountain mists part, and we see her beatific face for the first time, as she smiles and greets her would-be rescuer.
Tiresome Rant for the Day: If nothing else, this scene should serve as a lesson in screenwriting: in mere moments, we are shown that Kathy is an adventurous, independent woman, and that she’s worthy of our protagonist’s love. We aren't pummeled with her virtues and how awesome she is. Michael Bay, are you reading this?
Of all the manufactured onscreen "images" that were carved out for Hollywood stars during the studio, Garson's is the most misunderstood. Her persona was the dignified, gracious, true blue woman. In short, a lady. This tends to read as “stuffy” or “boring” to most people, but they are mistaken. Stuffy and boring was Margaret Dumont; Garson, on the other hand, was quietly mischievous, vivacious, and her high spirits were just barely concealed under her regal bearing. She was the type of woman with beautiful manners and enviable poise, but could still cut a rug and crack a joke, as well as take one. Had she been allowed to engage in more physical, screwball comedy, Garson might have been the British version of Myrna Loy.
One scene that I think perfectly encapsulates Garson's true onscreen persona can be found in 1940s Pride and Prejudice. In a wonderful scene that’s not in the book, Mr. Darcy (played here by an impossibly young and handsome Laurence Olivier) calmly instructs our heroine Elizabeth Bennett (Garson) on archery while they’re at a garden party. Elizabeth listens, with all the patience and suppressed bemusement of a gifted child being taught something she already knows. She then readies her bow and arrow, and proceeds to fire a perfect bullseye. She is visibly pleased with her triumph, while Mr. Darcy tries to hide his astonishment by saying, “Thank you for the lesson!” Garson’s subtle facial expressions and her lovely eyes gleaming with mischief make this scene of character development and sly flirtation a sheer delight.
Yet Another Tiresome Rant: This adaptation is rightly controversial for Jane Austen fans, for it was released on the heels of the massively successful Gone with the Wind. That's when a number of filmmakers decided that hoop skirts were the key to Gone with the Wind’s popularity (instead of, you know, a good screenplay), so Austen’s Regency Era story is moved up to the 1860s, and plays like a parody of the typical, post-Irving Thalberg MGM film. There is an overly saccharine score, a cavalcade of fussy, frou-frou costumes (the financially strapped Bennett ladies never wear the same thing twice) and the lighthearted tone is cranked up to insufferable levels, to the point where the stakes feel too low for us to care about. Yet if there is one reason to check out the film, it is for Garson’s portrayal of Elizabeth (that, and, of course, the impossibly young and handsome Laurence Olivier). Once you get past the fact that she’s 15 years too old for the part (again, not her fault), Garson gives a sparkling, quick-witted performance that’s also tinged with classic femininity and romanticism. Like Jennifer Ehle in the 1995 miniseries and Keira Knightley in the 2005 feature film, Garson gets Elizabeth. She’s an English rose, not a shrinking violet.
When Ladies Meet, one of Garson's somewhat lesser-known works, has a quirky prescience to her future detractors, sneakily mocking the preconceived attitude that she's a prim dullard not worth a second look. It tells the story of romance novelist Mary (Joan Crawford)'s dalliance with a married man (Herbert Marshall) and the lack of remorse she feels, for he has convinced her that his wife is a boring cold fish he no longer loves. One day, Mary meets a lovely lady named Claire (Garson), who is a cultured, witty, delightful conversationalist who any woman would want to be friends with, and any man would want to marry. Oh, but of course Claire is married! What dope wouldn't want to be married to her?
No points for guessing who her husband is.
Despite it's rather frustrating plot twists and developments (Crawford ends up with the much nicer Robert Taylor, while poor Claire decides to stay with her louse of a husband), When Ladies Meet is worth checking out (imagine a kinder, gentler version of The Women) if only for Garson's effortless scene stealing from notorious diva Crawford. Still, I'll never figure out how any man could cheat on his red-haired, green-eyed, French-speaking, Irish-British goddess of a wife for Mommie Dearest, but I don't have the wherewithal to speculate.
Greer Garson first worked with Walter Pigeon in 1941's Blossoms in the Dust, and it was so successful they would work together in nine films, playing a married couple in seven of them. Seeing them in Mrs. Miniver and Madame Curie, it is apparent what makes them work as a screen couple: they look like they're married. That sounds terribly vague, but think about happily married couples you know: more often not, they have that unique chemistry that radiates from the inside out, so that anyone can tell immediately that they belong together. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had it, as did William Powell and Myrna Loy. Pigeon, who was never a "leading man" in the strictest sense, was a likable, unthreatening actor with a deep voice, TV-dad good looks, and an easy rapport with Garson. I haven't yet seen all their films, but Madame Curie is probably the best one of theirs I've seen so far. Garson, de-glammed as much as MGM would allow, is compelling as idealistic, brilliant budding scientist Marie Curie, while Pigeon is flustered and quirky, but loving and strong, as her husband Pierre. The movie is unusual for its time, with its portrayal of the real life married couple who discovered radium, but it was a success financially and critically, and it earned Garson another Oscar nomination.
And now, the elephant in the room: Mrs. Miniver. I had to get around to that sooner or later. Let's simply address that it is Garson's trademark film, and the one that, for good or ill, truly established the "Garson persona" forever. Garson’s Kay Miniver is an ordinary British housewife (with an endless supply of mink accessories, but, hey, it’s MGM) whose serene, suburban life is interrupted by war. A slice of life film more than anything else (had it been made in recent years, Mike Leigh would have directed it), we see Kay's son Vin (Richard Ney) enlist as a pilot while falling in love with and marrying their wealthy neighbor (the always wonderful Teresa Wright). Kay bravely handles other obstacles, whether it's an escaped German pilot invading their home, or reading bedtime stories to her children while hiding in the bomb shelter at the height of the Blitz. Through it all, Kay and her husband Clem (Pigeon) stick together and refuse to let the war crush their spirits.
About that Oscar win... did Garson deserve it? Goodness knows she had incredible competition that year: Katharine Hepburn for Woman of the Year, Rosalind Russell for My Sister Eileen, Teresa Wright for Pride of the Yankees, and Bette Davis for Now, Voyager. I feel mean (and, given the light of this article, hypocritical) saying Garson didn’t deserve the win for Mrs. Miniver, but... dang it, I love Bette Davis in Now, Voyager! It’s up there with All About Eve as my all-time favorite Davis performance, not to mention it’s the smartest “ugly duckling” story Hollywood ever made.
But it isn't fair to object to Garson's win for that reason, because her performance isn’t bad, far from it… it is, in fact, excellent in parts. Why do I say say "in parts"? It's because that, for a film called Mrs. Miniver, Mrs. Miniver herself is barely in it. At least that’s how it feels, given how much screen time is devoted to the young lovers. Garson is marvelous whenever she’s onscreen, but she isn’t onscreen nearly enough, and her role isn’t particularly challenging. And considering that Garson was nominated for Academy Awards for playing the likes of Marie Curie, Edna Gladney in Blossoms in the Dust, and Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello, Mrs. Miniver feels like small potatoes. But, there I go again, falling into the comparison trap. The thing that we should keep in mind is that Mrs. Miniver was the right movie at the right time. Back then, we needed a movie about an ordinary woman who didn’t crack even when war threatened to destroy her world. We needed the British stiff upper lip mentality to get us through the uncertain times. Mrs. Miniver may not be considered relevant now, but it was relevant then, just the medicine we needed for that time. Keeping that in mind makes it harder for me to fault Garson’s win. But I must again stress that Garson's performance in Mrs. Miniver is more than strong.
WARNING! SPOILER AHEAD!
In the scene where she cradles Teresa Wright’s body after an air raid, and realizes she has died as a result of being caught in the crossfire, there is a close-up of Garson's face, her eyes are stricken with grief and horror. It packs an emotional punch, and proves that Garson didn't get where she was on dumb luck. I be surprised if the Academy had awarded her for that one look alone.
I also won’t fault Garson for making the longest speech in Oscar history (for the record, it was five minutes, not “an hour” as popular legend has it). When you beat the odds the way Garson did, you’ve earned the right to be long-winded.
Tiresome Trivia for the Day: Garson made waves when she married Richard Ney, the actor who played her son in Mrs. Miniver. The marriage was ultimately an unhappy one, and they divorced in 1947 after four years of marriage. Ney became an investment counselor and died in 2004 at the age of 87.
But if I can recommend just one of Garson's films, the one that just might make someone out there a true believer, it would be my desert island Garson film: Random Harvest. Released in 1942, the same year as Mrs. Miniver, it was popular, though somewhat overshadowed by the latter film's success. Garson co-stars with another occasionally forgotten actor from the Golden Age, Ronald Colman (he of the gray temples and heart-melting brown eyes). They work magic onscreen, for they were talented, uniquely beautiful people blessed with mellifluous speaking voices, and together they rise above an admittedly soppy story involving amnesia, separation, and mistaken identity. It is a shame they never made another film together, because I feel that Colman, maybe even more so than Pigeon, is Garson's true onscreen soulmate.
Yet as spellbinding as they are together, it doesn't deter from the fact that Garson gives what is, in my opinion, her greatest performance ever. She plays a cheery actress who takes shell-shocked, amnesiac soldier Colman under her wing. They fall in love, marry, and even move into a flower-covered cottage. All is perfect, and then one day Colman is in accident, and his former memory returns, erasing his current one...
Throughout the film, Garson goes from happy-go-lucky newlywed to a woman who is older, sadder, and wiser due to experiencing true loss, pain, and loneliness. Garson infuses the rather absurd plot with a very real pathos, and you feel for her and root for her every step of the way, right until the ending, which I won't give away, except that I dare you not to have a fist-sized lump in your throat by the time the credits roll.
If nothing else, Random Harvest displays Garson's overlooked musical skills. She gets to sing "She's Ma' Daisy" in a charming Scottish brogue and a short kilt that shows off her most unsung asset: her dancer's legs, which she puts to good use in this innocently cheeky musical number. In fact, Garson is so comfortable singing and dancing, you wonder why she didn't make more musicals, considering her home studio cranked them out by the dozen.
Garson also made numerous TV appearances late in her career, such as What's My Line, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The Love Boat. She even put her distinctive voice to good use in the 1968 Rankin-Bass Christmas special The Little Drummer Boy. Among her other achievements, she also funded the Greer Garson Theatre facility, which is located at both Southern Methodist University and the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Garson continued to act until 1982, and lived in happy retirement in Texas with her husband E.E. "Buddy" Fogelson until his death in 1987. Garson died of heart failure in 1996 at the age of 91.
As for her movies, thank goodness for DVDs, streaming, and Turner Classic Movies. Don't let preconceived notions prevent you checking out this classy dame's work. She might surprise you.
What Other Had to Say about Greer Garson:
"Greer Garson was the first actress I worked with who was fun."~ Errol Flynn
"Very bright. Fantastically beautiful. Very much the lady. She was a great Irish wit. There are actors who work in movies. And then there are movie stars. She was a movie star."~ Teresa Wright
"I remember her as gracious and beautiful. She had stature, but it didn't make her inaccessible. She wasn't somebody you'd poke and tell a dirty joke to, but she gave off a real feeling of warmth"~ Eve Plumb
"One brief look at the signature of Greer Garson is a gleeful invitation to the pulse of her nature: bold, original, generous, opulently romantic, and perky. She is a rare one!"~ Roddy McDowall
Keith Carradine Greer Garson TCM Promo
A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson, Michael Troyan, The University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
The Star Machine, Jeanine Basinger, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
From Cyd Charisse to Psycho: A Book of Movie Bests, Dale Thomajan, Walker Publishing Company, 1992.