Friday, March 10, 2017

The White Cliffs of Dover ( 1944 )

  I have loved England dearly and deeply, since that first morning, shining and pure, 
  The White Cliffs of Dover, I saw rising steeply, Out of the sea that once made her secure.
  I had no thought then of husband or lover, I was a traveler, the guest of a week.
  Yet when they pointed " the white cliffs of dover!", startled I found there were tears on my cheek.

It is with these poetic words that the film The White Cliffs of Dover begins. Based on the narrative poem by Alice Duer Miller, The White Cliffs of Dover tells the story of an American widow ( Irene Dunne ) who, in a war-torn London of the 1940s, reflects back on the life she found overseas and the husband she lost in the Great War. Spanning twenty-some years of her past, we follow Susan Dunn from the first day she arrives in England as a young woman travelling with her father ( Frank Morgan ), to her first ball and her chance encounter with a baron ( Alan Marshall ) who, instantly smitten with this Yankee, persuades her to extend her stay and spend a few weeks with his family. Thus begins a new life for Susan, a life filled with moments of happiness and later.... great sorrow.

The first time I saw this film, it was the story that appealed to me; now having seen it more recently it is the quality of the film that becomes its notable feature. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the grand lady of the great film studios and when it came to telling a tale of honor, patriotism, and self-sacrifice, she knew how to give the audiences the best she could give in entertainment. Hence, this film abounded with top-notch performances from MGM's roster of stars, beautiful sets, a well-written script, and, above all, that Louis B. Mayer trademark stamp of approval - class. Graced with a stellar cast including many of Hollywood's famed British "colony": Gladys Cooper, Roddy McDowall, Dame May Whitty, Sir C.Aubrey Smith, Peter Lawford and a very young ( and uncredited ) Elizabeth Taylor, this picture is indeed oozing with sophistication.

Ronald Colman had originally purchased the rights to Ms. Miller's poem and he may have possibly thought of starring in a production of it himself, but instead he sold the rights to Clarence Brown, who in turn sold it to MGM on the condition that he be the director of the picture. Clarence Brown had recently completed filming The Human Comedy, which became a personal favorite of Louis B.Mayer's and, like that film, The White Cliffs of Dover is a story of war, the soldiers who fought it, and the courage their loved ones at home had to muster to face a life without them. It was, understandably, a common theme at the time, and Mrs. Miniver ( 1942 ) - another MGM production - is probably the best example of that genre. 

Although The White Cliffs of Dover never won critical praise or garnered any awards like Mrs. Miniver, it nevertheless is a noteworthy production with a distinct charm of its own. Interestingly enough, the film's flag-waving message was written in such a way that you cannot help feeling patriotic about England and America at the same time. Our heroine was clearly not intending to spend her entire life in England and, when she first encounters the baron's family, their compliments on how "very un-American" she is hurts her. She is sorely tempted to return home. But her future husband persuades her to stay, and she comes to love his family and their England as "dearly and deeply" as a native. Still, throughout her life, she holds on to her American spirit and proudly has her infant son wave to the US soldiers as they march through London on their way to battle the foe overseas, reminding him that he is "half a Yankee!".
It is at the end of the film that the audience gets to share in the moral that she had to learn the hard way : having pride in being American, or in being English was not the issue at stake, but the important thing was to unite to fight the common enemy, the Axis forces, to pave the way for future peace. The White Cliffs of Dover was released in May, 1944...exactly one year before VE day.


  1. A wonderful look at a wonderful film.

    The last time I saw this was a few years ago at the laundromat. When I arrive, the owner switches the TV to TCM. There was a young woman who was not impressed with the B&W movie, but she started to watch and got caught up in it. What you said about the "class" of the production is so true because the young woman got teary-eyed and remarked of Irene Dunne that "she was a real lady".

    1. What a sweet story! Yes, MGM films are hard to resist, even to those who are unfamiliar with b/w pictures. It is indeed a very emotional need plenty of hankies on hand!