She was the first lady of MGM. Discovered on the London stage, Irish-born Greer Garson was signed by Louis B. Mayer, and her arrival on movie screens was as impeccably timed as her subsequent career during the war years.
Her very first film, "Goodbye Mr. Chips" released in 1939, landed her an Oscar nomination. She then was nominated in five consecutive years from 1941 to 1945, when she filled the void at MGM left by the declining popularity and retirements of Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo in the early 1940s.
Often her characters had a nobility to them which typecast her, yet audiences loved this moral fortitude on screen. Had she made little more beyond "Mrs. Miniver," the role that will forever define her career, she would continue to be well-loved.
But let's start with a film that people sometimes forget about, the 1940 version of "Pride and Prejudice." Garson plays Elizabeth Bennet opposite Laurence Olivier's Mr. Darcy (at left). Some may think her to be a bit too mature (she was all of 31 when the film was released), and it has the usual MGM gloss. But these are minor points when compared to the enjoyment derived from the film.
In 1941 came "Blossoms in the Dust," a film in which she played real-life Edna Gladney, a Texas woman who fought to give orphaned and illegitimate children a home and remove the stigma from their situations. The film's nobility is almost stifling, but Garson boosts the story with her fighting spirit. The film is also notable as Garson's first on-screen pairing with Walter Pidgeon, who played Sam Gladney, Edna's husband. The chemistry between Garson and Pidgeon worked so well that they would be co-stars in a total of eight films.
For Garson, 1942 was a banner year. First came what should be a piece of hokum, "Random Harvest," in which she plays a music hall girl who falls for amnesiac World War I vet Ronald Coleman, only to lose him when he remembers who he is and forgets who she is. Sounds crazy, but this romance works, thanks to the terrific pairing of stars and some genuinely touching moments. Once you see it, you realize why audiences cried at the end.
Garson's other film from 1942 is "Mrs. Miniver," with Pidgeon playing her husband. Few films can rival the popularity of "Mrs. Miniver" during the WWII era, and this look at the English homefront (at least Hollywood's version of it) under fire by the Germans helped rally Americans behind the war effort and support the English. The film itself is episodic, showing the life of the Minivers before the war and after it through a series of stories -- the flower show, the romance of their son, the impending war, the secret mission. Pidgeon may be playing the head of the household, but it's Garson who continually holds the family and the community of friends together.
In one of the film's most amazing scenes, Garson and Pidgeon retreat with their children to their bomb shelter (above), trying to maintain an air of normalcy -- until the bombs start to fall. Even today this scene is frightening, with director William Wyler contrasting the serenity against the horrors of the war, using the sound of the bombs and the fear in these brave people's eyes to unnerve the audience.
Garson is Mrs. Miniver and vice versa, and the film was immensely popular. She won an Oscar, as did the film, and audiences will forever remember her for it. It has become urban legend that her Oscar acceptance speech lasted 40 minutes. In the excellent book "Inside Oscar," the authors more accurately pinpoint the speech at around six minutes, coming at the end of the ceremony (yes, there were some years when best picture was not the last Oscar awarded during the evening) at nearly midnight. Six minutes can seem like 40 to people who want to go home.
Anyway, her double success in 1942 thrust her onto the list of top box office stars, and she continued to turn out hits, some of them unlikely -- for example, "Madame Curie," again opposite Pidgeon, released in 1943. You may not think the discovery of radium would make for exciting onscreen fare, but this capable biopic benefits from the star power, with Garson again lending an air of nobility to the proceedings -- and earning another Oscar nod for her work.
Successive nominations came in 1944 for "Mrs. Parkington," a sweeping saga told in flashbacks about Pidgeon (again) marrying Western woman Garson and moving her to New York and high society, where things don't always go well, and in 1945 for "The Valley of Decision," opposite Gregory Peck.
For some reason, her popularity faded after the end of World War II. It didn't help that she married Richard Ney, the actor who played her son (yes, you read that correctly) in "Mrs. Miniver" (it didn't last). Her filmwork dropped off sharply during the 1950s, and sometimes I wish her career had a bit more variety to it.
Nonetheless, she is memorable in so many of her films, and several of them classics of their era. This true leading lady is one to remember.