[5 June 2014]
In the same year that Jennifer Jones starred in the rapturous and classy soaper Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, she appeared in another heart-tugging “A” picture: Good Morning, Miss Dove. Miss Dove is a spinster teacher who spends the entire movie as a grey, unsmiling, forbidding, formal, and above all unsentimental disciplinarian. She needs to be this way to keep the tidal waves of saccharine all about her at bay. Only in the final shot will Jones beam like she’s flashing back to The Song of Bernadette.
What we see of Miss Dove’s classroom performances isn’t impressive, as it consists of reading slowly aloud and assigning character-building torments. We learn in the first of many flashbacks that she became a geography teacher only to pay her late father’s debts, thus enacting a drama of repression and displacement that redeems her as the town heroine.
This burden of responsibility, taken upon herself to avoid the scandal of her bank-president daddy’s irregular “borrowings” from his institution (to do things like blow 200 bucks on a copy of Marco Polo), explains why she must renounce a proposal from a dull-looking Princeton archaeology major who wants to take her to Tibet.
As this scene is staged by director Henry Koster‘s four-square approach to Cinemascope (introduced by him in The Robe ), she bravely struts across the space, her back often to the camera, and bids her puzzled suitor a restrained adieu while Leigh Harline’s score nearly drowns them out by spilling syrup over the scene. The music expresses what she represses, which remains a feature for the entire movie. From this point, the once-chipper lass will never express any improper, or even friendly, emotion; her yearnings and frivolities have died, but the music gets louder.
One day, in the middle of detaining a boy for punishment, she finds herself unable to move. A presumably cancerous indisposition with her habitually stiff spine (the irony!) necessitates her being carried like a queen to the hospital in the entwined arms of religion (the town preacher) and science (Robert Stack as a brash young doctor). She’s like a statue being transported through the town square. Since it’s against hospital rules for a patient to be told anything about her malady, or even her temperature, Miss Dove must occupy her time with more flashbacks.
These explain why the whole burg waits anxiously to hear her fate. For example, we discover how she conveyed a sense of dignity and rectitude to a ragged boy who’d grow up to be the town cop (Chuck Connors looking uncomfortable, sometimes on purpose). When a Polish-Jewish refugee boy came to school, Miss Dove taught the other kids a lesson by taking them to his house so they could experience warm bustling stereotypes firsthand. That boy, who spoke no English, grew up to be played by Jerry Paris and write a Broadway play with distressing language. Next he’ll turn to screenplays.
Eleanore Griffin’s screenplay is based on Frances Gray Patton’s bestselling novel, sewn from three stories that ran in Ladies Home Journal. When I witness this species of teacher hagiography, I’m reminded of a line in Terence Rattigan’s antidote to same, The Browning Version, where the awkward, unpopular master’s wife contrasts her underperforming husband with the handsome young rival replacing him. She says you can bet that when that young man retires, “it’ll be tears and cheers and goodbye Mr. Chips”.
Here’s a movie in which a teacher described as “the terrible Miss Dove” inspires veneration without ever being anyone’s chum, like the ball-tossing principal (Richard Deacon) or the cackling colleague (Mary Wickes) with their modern chatty ways. It’s because Miss Dove is the last of a “genteel” respectability in a world that’s going to hell, although her generous spirit bends enough to endorse a repentant nurse (Peggy Knudsen) who erred in becoming an unwed mother and adopts a proper humility about it.
The sharp-eyed will notice that Miss Dove’s 1955 classroom is integrated, one year after Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Some states previously had different races in class, but this kind of detail calls attention to the era’s considerations in casting. Aside from this black kid placed in the foreground of a few scenes, there’s the uncomfortably gratuitous moment when an African-American man in the hospital crowd, who looks like he was bussed in from a farm, blurts out an affirmation of “Yes, sir!” to show he’s there.
This well-scrubbed, picturesque, movie backlot vision of a supposedly typical American town called Liberty Hill seemed moderately unreal in 1955. The positive New York Times review calls the picture “honest and entertaining” and its heroine “remarkable but believable” (“although she sounds like a character out of Dickens”), while admitting the “unashamedly sentimental” and “cliche-ridden” film has “mawkish situations straight out of a soap opera”.
Now, 60 years later, this movie’s vision barely seems to emanate from Earth, yet this incredibility gives it a highly watchable character. Some will say “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore” and usually mean it as a compliment. In fact, they still make sentimental heroic-teacher movies whose right-thinking optimism is the same; the differences are cosmetic. We still want to believe that teachers make a difference, that they are rewarded with memories and legacies, and that, to paraphrase another fantasy this movie resembles, it’s a wonderful life in a small town where everyone knows your business. This movie is the exact flipside of Peyton Place, and even that looked strangely appealing.
On this made-on-demand disc from Fox Cinema Archives, the full widescreen image is preserved within a central 4:3 presentation, which means you must adjust the image on your remote (on my TV, it’s “Widescreen 2”) to fill the 16:9 TV in the proper aspect ratio. Then you see a clean, clear image in vivid color. The folks may seem stuffy, but Leon Shamroy’s photography is shiny as fresh air. This presentation is crucial to appreciating the film as mid-‘50s studio craftsmanship and design, for that’s the most seductive aspect of the movie’s unreality. One thing about the cinematic art is that, to a significant extent, when a movie looks good, it is good.