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December 20, 2014

The life and times of actress Greer Garson

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Dr John Wallace looks at the career of Academy Award-winner Greer Garson, star of Random Harvest, Mrs Miniver and the superb Goodbye Mr Chips.
Irish actors are much sought-after in Hollywood these days. Stars like Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Jonathan Rhys-Myers, Brendan Gleeson and the recent Golden Globe-winning Colin Farrell and Gabriel Byrne are just some of the Irish personalities that have just fought their way through Hollywood.


However, the Irish have played a major role in American cinema since the first silent movies in the early 1900s. These rudimentary, early films were made in primitive barns and studios in New York City.
By the late 1930s, Hollywood, on the west coast, was at the pinnacle of its golden age. Movie sound had now been perfected and the search for English-speaking talent continued, but now worldwide.
Louis B. Mayer, head of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, always knew what he wanted. And he wanted Irish actress Greer Garson. “Greer, you belong in Hollywood,” the studio mogul insisted, and he was used to having his way. Garson was a reluctant convert from stage to film. However, despite her initial hesitation, she went on to become one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars.
Eileen Greer Garson was born in 1904 in Co Down. While quite young, her father died suddenly and the family moved to London. She later graduated from London and Grenoble Universities.
Subsequently, jobless and broke, she headed back to London where she was be-friended by Laurence Olivier, who launched her stage career.
When she finally, and reluctantly, moved to Hollywood she was left to ‘cool her heels’ while Mayer tried to figure out what to do with her. But director Sam Wood knew immediately what she should do, though her name was not even on the screen-test list.
h4. Goodbye Mr Chips
Goodbye Mr Chips, directed by Wood, made Greer Garson a star. The film is about a shy teacher devoted to school life who only emerges from his shell when he meets Greer Garson, the future Mrs Chips. Though she turned down the part initially, Garson made cinema history by her depiction of a woman who draws out the scholarly title character, played by Robert Donat. She was hailed for her part in this 1939 adaptation of the James Hilton novel. The film earned her the first of seven Oscar nominations.
Her co-star Robert Donat, who played the long-lived Mr Chips, was an English, stage-trained actor of Polish origin. By 1935, he could have been a major international star, better known than Leslie Howard or Laurence Olivier.
However, he suffered from chronic asthma, a stammer and a ‘profound tentativeness’. Though elocution lessons helped him conquer his stammer, illness seriously restricted his acting career. He was preoccupied with doubts and obstacles and his asthma was a perpetual handicap.
In 25 years as a film actor, Donat made just 19 films. He won an Oscar for one in 1939, opposite Greer Garson, for his role in Goodbye, Mr Chips. Robert Donat later starred as a mandarin in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness with Ingrid Bergman, directed by Mark Robson. His part was real enough amid all the sentiment. But he was a dying man as he acted in this impressive film. This was his last part and as he acted, he had oxygen cylinders positioned just off-stage.
h4. Random Harvest
Greer Garson also starred in the highly implausible, but emotionally powerful, Random Harvest opposite Ronald Colman in 1942. Mervyn Le Roy directed.
Ronald Colman played Smithy, a shell-shocked officer suffering from amnesia, who was found in the trenches in WWII. He is subsequently rescued from an asylum by Greer Garson’s character.
His psychiatrist at the hospital is portrayed as impeccably mannered, always in formal evening-wear and, naturally, with a slight Austrian intonation.
Later, knocked down on the street, Colman’s immediate memory of the impoverished Garson vanishes and his old, lost memory of his wealthy pre-war life returns. However, Garson waits patently for his whole memory to return, including his recollection of her. Few women would make such a sacrifice.
The film, also based on a novel by James Hilton, was a huge MGM box-office success. James Hilton, a Cambridge graduate, went on to become a major Hollywood scriptwriter in 1940s. He died, aged 54, in California in 1954.
h4. Romantic hero
Greer Garson’s career had not been inhibited by the advent of colour. Equally, Garson’s co-star in Random Harvest, Ronald Colman, had not been troubled by the coming of sound. In fact, his aura of class gained from it. When he spoke, he revealed himself as urbane and sympathetic. His ‘Englishness’ and his manners cast him perfectly as the amused, romantic hero.
Ronald Colman was not a searching actor, but he learned how important consistent underplaying could be. He did not work as often as other stars. Like Daniel Day-Lewis, he hesitated before accepting parts. Scarcity of film roles added to his ‘gentlemanly distinction’. He was an excellent Sidney Carton at MGM in A Tale of Two Cities in 1935. Ronald Colman won an Oscar for A Double Life directed by George Cuckor in 1947. He retired from acting two years later.
h4. Mrs Miniver
It was as Mrs Miniver, in the film of the same name, that Greer Garson really emerged as the heroic, self-sacrificing icon of WWII. In this 1942 film, she played a brave housewife who holds her family together during the Blitz.
She achieved phenomenal popularity in this idealised version of wartime England, opposite her long-serving leading man, the stolid Walter Pidgeon.
In this film, she mediated between the social classes with an emotional strength that was suited to wartime. She was the epitome of middle-class respectability and the quiet virtues of endurance, self-possession and humility.
Her mature, conservative romance with Pidgeon in the film was elevated by the war. She came across as poised, graceful and self-contained, and her performance won her the Oscar for best actress.
But she was never happy with the dutiful, silently-suffering, dedicated-wife roles. Mayer had to ‘call in the marines’ to get her to do Mrs Miniver. One of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood, she was tired of playing 48-year-old matrons. It was a role she frequently and loudly rebelled against. She really wanted to be Bette Davis, shooting her numerous lovers.
h4. Leading actors
After the war, suitable film parts became rare. Garson had made 25 films before meeting and marrying an oil tycoon. She now preferred to spend her time watching the oil fields, waiting for a gusher to come in.
Regarding her tough early upbringing and subsequent success, asked if she would have had it any other way, she said that, definitely, ‘she would have had it some other way’. Garson had a refined acting style, but also intelligence and ability. She starred opposite the leading actors of her day. Eileen Garson died of heart failure April 6, 1996 in Dallas, Texas, far from her native Co Down.
* Goodbye Mr Chips starring Greer Garson is available on DVD. Emeralds in Tinseltown by S. Brennon and B. O’Neill is published by Appletown Press
* John Wallace is a medical doctor with an interest in biography.