at the Orson Welles Thursday, 4 p.m. and midnight
FORD'S LAST pre-war film shows the disintegration of a family and a way of life in coal-mining Wales. It also represents the passing of an art. In How Green Was My Valley a certain type of American film reached its height--only to end. Ford's most intense melodrama brought the art of Griffith to an indescribable climax. Ford made many great films after World War II, but they are less intimate in subject, broader in pacing and lighting.
Ford's films of the 'thirties forcefully present the emotions of individuals. Lighting idealizes the actors' faces and bodies to yield the essence of a sentiment. Different kinds of shots (dynamic severely-lit low-angle, balanced light-flooded eye-level) are used moment by moment to change the film's emotional emphasis. As in Birth of a Nation, even single shots are given several emotional directions by the placement and movement of the several characters. The subject of this drama is individual sentiment; its type, melodrama, whether historical (Mary of Scotland), social (Tobacco Road), or familial (How Green). Society exists only as the sum of individuals' actions and sentiments.
The rapid montage of sentiment in How Green Was My Valley threatens society's solidity each moment that these sentiments create society. In one scene a Morgan boy leads other townsfolk in song. Singing scenes, like fight and dance scenes, in Ford show group activity in which each person's behavior is laid down by tradition. A fight scene in The Searchers (1956), for example, gives participants and spectators secure roles. The tension generated when one man picks up a stick of wood turns into warmth and humor when he sets it as a boundary marker. No such security comes from the sequence in How Green: Ford cuts from one face to another, showing his characters straining to create song as if for the first time. All the film's shots of masses of men have a specific emotional direction. Lines of men coming from the mines are friendly or angry (one such scene ends in a rock thrown through the Morgan's window). Whereas in The Searchers such scenes take time off from the plot to affirm society's unity, How Green's group sequences furthers the progress of the film.
THIS PROGRESS is the breaking-down of a certain society. We do not even see most of its dearest rituals until they are challenged. When Mr. Evans, the mine-owner, comes to ask Mr. Morgan for his daughter's hand, the class difference between them gives the scene a sort of tension and humor different from those in later Ford. The humor is directed at the awkwardness of persons, not at customs. The tension comes from their insecure situation, the failure of traditional behavior in a new situation. Indeed, every character's place in How Green is tenuous.
This tension comes partly from the changing economic situation of Wales, the decline of labor in coal-mining. Partly, too, change and newness come from the story's being told through the eyes of a small boy, to whom everything is new and personal. But the film's simultaneous fragility and dynamism work only because Ford's method so perfectly integrates these sources of tension. The way he stylizes his characters through their sentiments. That Ford manages to create a society from action so charged with individual character, so devoid of fixed habit, and that he manages t make a film whose continual growth overcomes the wildly conflicting shots and emotions of which it is built, reveals his creative genius at the peak of its powers. MIKE PROKOSCH