Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: The Corn is Green

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Emlyn Williams’s play The Corn Is Green is nothing if not aptly titled. Williams has always been a minor writer, and when writing about his homeland, Wales, which is also my homeland, he has been particularly unimpressive. He writes for tourists – coy jokes, local colour, stereotypes, and carefully transposed cliches from melodrama. People outside Wales, knowing little or nothing about the place, are inevitably caught by the curiosity value of it all, not realising that what they are really responding to is the familiarity of all this Celtic strangeness. Williams’s cliches are commonplace ones, it’s just that the setting he finds for them seems strange. Viewing a production of The Corn Is Green, the uninformed will ask, Are the Welsh really like that? Answering yes, they can then add: How quaint! And how frightfully sweet! What the play chiefly offers on top of this topographical spice is a thundering leading role for any actress d’un certain age. Miss Moffat, the schoolmarm who discovers a genius amidst the unlettered and uncouth populace of a mining community, is a lady to outgrabe the meanest mome-roth who ever breathed, and Bette Davis did nobly by her in the 1945 movie. No less of a natural for the role is Katharine Hepburn, and I’ll bet she was the prime mover in getting this present made-for-TV movie version of the old warhorse onto the assembly line. Thank God, they roped in George Cukor to direct her. The whole of the enterprise is in the work of these two: had either failed, then surely the whole would have crumbled.

As it is, this version of The Corn Is Green is the most successful blood-from-stone exercise in years. Those (I’m one) who hold the previous Hepburn-Cukor TV collaboration, Love Among the Ruins, to be one of the major landmarks of either’s career will not find an equivalent aesthetic experience here; but they will find a triumph of sheer professional skill over the promise of banality. The effortless-seeming excellence of Cukor’s technique puts just about any TV director I can think of into the shade, from the careful but unemphasised symmetry of the zoom-in on a lone Hepburn arriving in the village at the start and the zoom-out which embraces her and the entire, united community at the end, to the delicious assurance with which a crucial scene between Hepburn and the local squire (Bill Fraser) is staged without the normally de rigueur TV closeups, both players being placed at the far end of a long room whose foreground is occupied by an absurd tiger rug with prominent teeth. More remarkable still is the sheer care and respect with which Cukor depicts Welsh working-class life. One doesn’t find this with British directors; practically every film with a Welsh setting I can recall has been utterly absurd, and if the surreal atmosphere of John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, filmed entirely in California, is understandable (though not forgivable), there’s really no excuse for something like Andrew Sinclair’s despicable film of Under Milk Wood, filmed partly in Wales with an almost wholly Welsh cast and yet a travesty of its source. Given that Emlyn Williams is also not the most accurate reporter of Welsh life, the detail of Cukor’s presentation is really admirable.

How refreshing to note the careful uniformity of the North Walian accents, the accuracy of turns of speech and local dialect, and the hefty and unexplained amounts of dialogue actually in Welsh; Ms. Hepburn herself ventures a line (“Good afternoon, children”) in the ancient tongue, and with a fair deal of vim, too. I’m bound to say that I doubt if any Welsh miners ever came up out of the pits singing, and certainly not as well as the miners do here; it is, further, ever-so-tinily nettling to note that the joyous rendering of “Men of Harlech” in Welsh at the end doesn’t actually extend past the first verse, sung twice. But this is nitpicking. More conventional Cukor virtues, such as the uniformly fine acting (not easy, as the characters are mostly cardboard) are no less striking for being expected. Toyah Wilcox (a punk-rock singer), playing the teenage tart who so nearly ruins the youthful genius’s chances, has an authentic hard sluttishness which quite overcomes Williams’s drippy and patronising conception of the role, whilst Artro Morris, as Hepburn’s lieutenant, comes very close to stealing the film from the star. Hepburn herself is here doing a Kate Hepburn number, and hard-core purists may feel that she exercises too little control over her aspirates when speaking quickly, and that subliminal movements of the head to signify emotional upset are overly indulged in. However, I’m not such a hard-core purist. I thought she was splendid.

© 1979 Pierre Greenfield

Direction: George Cukor. Screenplay: Ivan Davis, after the play by Emlyn Williams. Cinematography: Ted Scaife. Art direction: Carmen Dillon. Music: John Barry.
The players: Katharine Hepburn, Ian Saynor, Bill Fraser, Anna Massey, Artro Morris, Patricia Hayes, Toyah Wilcox.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.