By Niall McArdle
For a generation of moviegoers, Greer Garson epitomised the ideas of Noble Suffering and Elegant Motherhood. No other woman could so sturdily endure the Blitz or campaign for orphan ragamuffins with a mixture of high-born grace and unruffled, ‘lady-like’, stubborn determination as she did in Mrs Miniver and Blossoms in the Dust. With her clipped tones she summed up for moviegoers what it meant to be flawlessly, brilliantly English. Women admired her for her genteel bearing and impeccable manners. For patrician forbearance, few other actresses of the time could match her; perhaps Deborah Kerr or Ingrid Bergman (Bergman, that is, before she ruined her image by having an affair and a baby with Roberto Rosselini). No actress since has ever attempted her sort of entitled gentlewoman shtick, except possibly Nicole Kidman
At her peak she was invincible, charming, wise and supportive: the ideal wife. Within only a few years she had ascended to Hollywood royalty, becoming a rival to the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Irene Dunne for roles in the “women’s pictures” that exploited dashed romance and terminal illness to wring tears out of the audience. She was marital bedrock: she could never be a threat to another marriage (which perhaps explains why she was not as popular with men.) She was nominated for an Oscar seven times and won once, and was consistently near the top of the lists of favourite actresses.
Critics have been less impressed. David Shipman was bewildered by her inconsistency as an actress, noting that she could be “as wily, as actressy and as self-consciously charming as it’s possible to be, and the next minute she’ll take your breath away – effortless, sincere and dead right.” Pauline Kael abhorred her; she thought she was “an actress who turns restraint into a cover for obscene self-assurance.” In Random Harvest Ronald Colman suffers amnesia and forgets her; Kael thought “he must be the only person lucky enough to forget that sticky, arch great lady of the screen.”
She was born Eileen Evelyn Garson in 1904 in London of Scotch-Irish Presbyterian stock (Greer is a contraction of MacGregor, her mother’s family name) but spent most of her childhood in Castlewellan, Co. Down. She attended university in London with an idea of being a teacher, but found herself drawn to the stage. Within a few years of graduating, she was in plays with Olivier (she was Juliet to his Romeo) and was feted as a West End ingenue. Louis Mayer saw her on stage in 1938 and offered her a contract at MGM. She earned $500 a week even though she wasn’t offered any roles. She was about to return to London and the stage when she was finally offered a part, as Robert Donat’s wife in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Initially she refused, thinking that the role was too small (she dies young.) In the end, she took the part and it made her a star.
Watching the film, it’s easy to see why. In a story as shamefully sentimental as this, graced with Donat being so effortlessly endearing and with such a lightness of touch that you’d think a strong wind would blow him away, it’s perfectly plausible that the romantic Garson would fall in love with the shy schoolteacher, and that he would be smitten by her when they first meet on holiday in the Alps. It’s obvious that Donat is most likely a virgin and Garson the more experienced in matters of the heart. Garson was cast in the comely wife-mother role she played for most of the rest of her career.
She still got a little romance, though. She was reunited with Olivier in Pride and Prejudice, after Norma Shearer and Clark Gable had turned it down. The MGM version of Jane Austen’s novel about the romantic pursuits of the Bennett sisters was a huge success, and set the tone for Hollywood’s productions of literary classics for years to come: when in doubt, add crinoline and a bonnet. The script was by Aldous Huxley; the cast was filled with MGM stalwarts like Ann Rutherford and Melville Cooper. It had an aura of refinement, and it allowed Garson to show more range; her Elizabeth is sharp and witty, and her exchanges with Olivier are highly enjoyable. Leslie Halliwell judged it her best performance. The publicity for the film squealed, “the gayest, merriest manhunt that ever snared a bewildered bachelor! Girls, take a lesson from these husband hunters!”
By this point she was nipping at Joan Crawford’s heels for supremacy on the MGM lot. The two appeared together in a romantic comedy, When Ladies Meet, that’s all but forgotten; no matter, before it Garson made Blossoms in the Dust, and after it she made Mrs. Miniver, and her popularity and status were assured.
Blossoms in the Dust is a true-life tale of a Edna Gladney, who lost her husband and child and founded a state orphanage, battling for the kids against the political machine. In many ways it’s Boys’ Town but with Garson in the Spencer Tracy role. It was a popular tearjerker; Kael thought Garson was “sickeningly prissy” in it.
Blossoms in the Dust was the first of eight films that Garson made with Walter Pidgeon, and their next film, Mrs. Miniver, is probably their best together. To an America just entering the war, Mrs. Miniver brought home the reality of life at the home front more than any newsreel footage. The film showed how the war at home could be won with genteel pluck, and Greer stands for solidly English values that Jerry will simply never defeat; she and the rest of the cast sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in a bombed-out church. Time declared it “that almost impossible feat, a war picture that photographs the inner meaning, instead of the outward realism of the war.” The film, including Garson’s performance, was showered with Oscars.
This being Hollywood, Garson, not yet thirty, had to play older than her years. On the set she fell in love with the actor playing her son, Richard Ney, and, this being Hollywood, the studio persuaded them to postpone getting married until well after the film’s release.
She was now assured of “quality” pictures, and they came in quick succession. She is the faithful wife of amnesiac Ronald Colman in Random Harvest. He falls in love with her, forgetting that they’re already married. It was a monstrous hit, due no doubt to the coupling of noble Garson and Colman, the man who had what many consider the most beautiful speaking voice in cinema history.
She isolates radium and dies in Madame Curie. One critic wrote “the time has come to recognise Greer Garson as the next best film actress to Bette Davis.”
In Mrs Parkington she was a social climber; she has an affair with the Prince of Wales, but they shot an alternate version for British prints, in which the romance is with an anonymous European king.
She got to be Irish in the ridiculously-titled The Valley of Decision: she’s a maid who marries the son of the house. Next came Adventure with Clark Gable. Gable had served in the army in the war, and this was his first film as a civilian. He didn’t like Garson (as Shipman pointed out, Gable was a man’s man, and he distrusted clever women). The publicity screamed “Gable’s back and Greer’s got him!” One critic added “and they deserve each other.”
Garson then starred with Robert Mitchum in a melodrama, Desire Me, that was her first real flop. No wonder, with a plot that goes like this: the wife of a Normandy villager falls in love with the man who tells her that her husband died in a concentration camp. The messenger is in fact a psycopath who left the husband for dead; he isn’t. The film was derided by audiences (who were not as stupid as studios thought) and critics. Monthly Film Bulletin wrote “the supporting cast includes a number of characters who give the appearance of having come out of a dusty cupboard marked ‘French Types – Assorted’.”
The film is notable in cinema history, though, for marking the moment that Robert Mitchum realised he shouldn’t take Hollywood seriously: Garson took 125 takes to say “No”. For that we should be grateful; Mithcum taking things seriously doesn’t bear thinking about.
A couple of other unsuccessful films followed before Garson recovered her audience by pairing with Errol Flynn for some Edwardian stuffiness in That Forsyte Woman.
She had a cameo in the Brando-Gielgud Julius Caesar. She left MGM and eventually found her way to television and back to the stage; she replaced Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame on Broadway. She received her final Oscar nomination for playing Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello, before appearing in The Singing Nun and Disney’s The Happiest Millionaire.
Greer Garson died in 1996.