Tropes of Women in Film: Teresa Wright in The Best Years of Our Lives and Mrs. Miniver

While at this point, it is probably fairly obvious, but these posts are merely my opinions. My opinions are based in research and study, especially on the topics I write about extensively (Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Buster Keaton, women in film, war on film), but these are still blog posts. Blogging, I feel, is somewhat less than a scholarly paper. I can adopt a less formal tone, and I can speak my mind a little more freely. I may go on a few rants, but hey, it’s my blog. I suppose the point I am making is that this series on women in film, especially, deserves much more than a blog post and my opinions in 2,000 words or less, to do the subject justice. And I know that, and I don’t try to pass these posts off as any more than my opinions. Sometimes my opinions are just right. (Ha.)

Teresa Wright, then. Teresa was born in New Jerseyand after moving to New York, was almost immediately successful on Broadway. She began as an understudy for the lead in Our Town, taking over the role when Martha Scott went to Hollywood to make the film version. She was then cast in the Broadway premiere of Life with Father (later an award-winning movie with William Powell). Samuel Goldwyn signed her after seeing Life with Father, and she debuted in The Little Foxes, as Bette Davis’ daughter. She also played opposite Gary Cooper in The Pride of the Yankees, Joseph Cotton in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver, and Dana Andrews in The Best Years of Our Lives. The Best Years of Our Lives was part of my PTSD on Film series, and I mention it here again to describe the role of Teresa Wright, less to discuss the issue of war in this film. Although I will say this, Teresa played a very similar role in The Men with Marlon Brando as a paraplegic veteran. (in which she “conveyed grit, shining as the steadfast girlfriend,” her major roles in a nutshell)

Teresa was the epitomy of the girl-next-door. Bouncy hair, soft eyes, and a bright, sunny smile. “Fetchingly unpretentious… actress of breathless, bright-eyed rapture,” her obituary read. She was sweet and caring, and even though she played a wannabe homewrecker in The Best Years of Our Lives, she had an altruistic reason. The girl-next-door trope was shaped in part by Teresa’s various roles. In Shadow of a Doubt, she is named after her uncle, and while still her pretty self, is rather boyish. She is close to her uncle, and they are alike in thinking and mannerisms. Point one of girl-next-door: can relate to the boys. In The Little Foxes she is naïve and a little pouty. Point two: sweet and naïve. And in The Best Years of Our Lives, she is a woman who wants to take care of her man. Point three: marriage-ability. Teresa was admired, particularly by Hitchcock for her “especially her thorough preparation and quiet professionalism, and their mutual admiration society lasted until his death.” Her performances were “truthful and compassionate,” above all. Combined with her fresh, young looks, she was the embodiment of the good qualities of her roles.

Her altruistic home-wrecking in The Best Years of Our Lives involves returning vet played by Dana Andrews, whom she meets through her father, also a returning vet. Fred (Andrews) has a horrible, materialistic wife, which he doesn’t realize until he is home from the war; they were married right before he shipped out. Discontented with his wife and his dead-end job, Fred falls for the pretty and caring Peggy (Wright). Their first night home, Fred and Al (Fredric March, playing Teresa’s father) both find their way to the same bar. Al has brought along his wife and daughter, who hits it off with Fred. Fred, still searching for his errant wife, decides to get good and drunk. Al does the same. As Myrna Loy, playing Al’s wife Milly, puts Al to bed, Peggy puts Fred to bed in her own room. She graciously takes the couch. When Fred cries out in the night from a nightmare, Peggy instantly gets up and goes to him. She holds him and soothes him. He is embarrassed, but this is what he wants: a woman who loves him and will take care of him.

Fred is kicked around by his wife, once he finds her, because he can no longer financially provide enough for her. He has a job in a drug store, but his wife wants more. He runs into Peggy one day, and they have lunch. On the way out, they kiss. In order to “get over him,” Peggy invites Fred and his wife on a double date with her and boy she doesn’t like. She spends the whole time with Fred. She declares to her parents that she wants to break up Fred’s marriage, that she isn’t over him. Her mother is gentle, but tries to talk her down. Eventually, Peggy decides to do the right thing, and back off. She accepts that Fred is married and that she can’t see him anymore. The dutiful wife, and she isn’t even married. When she runs into Fred at Homer’s wedding, and Fred is divorced, thing are different, and there is a happy ending. But, Peggy isn’t just a homewrecking vamp (another trope). She wants to take care of Fred and be a good wife. On the other hand, she isn’t soppy. She’s no spineless jellyfish. While she cares for Fred, she is willing to fight for her man. She will stand up to him and his wife. While not the right choice, it would have been a strong choice. She displays her “latent moral strength” in choices like this, which the audience sympathizes with.

In Mrs. Miniver, Teresa  literally was the girl next door. She plays Carol Beldon, the granddaughter of local aristocrat, Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty). Carol visits her neighbors, the Minivers (Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon), to ask for their help in keeping the local stationmaster from entering Lady Beldon’s annual flower show. Lady Beldon always wins for her roses, and when a lower class man enters his rose, named after Mrs. Miniver, Carol is afraid her grandmother will be upset at having competition. Vin Miniver (Richard Ney), just home from Cambridge, is incensed that Carol would ask such a thing. His parents are shocked at his manners and immediately begin apologizing for him. Carol agrees that he is right; just because Lady Beldon has better “breeding” doesn’t mean she is better or that it’s fair to rig the contest. She then asks Vin what he is doing about class injustices like these. He stammers and stumbles while Carol tells him about her volunteer work in the slums of London. She challenges him, and he is flustered. So flustered that he asks her to dance at the ball that evening. She leaves on a vacation, and the two continue their courtship through letters. When Vin is home on his first leave (he joined the RAF at the outbreak of WWII), he proposes to Carol (with the help of his brother, 4-year-old Toby). Carol, while the submissive, stay-at-home girlfriend and wife, is nonetheless smart, caring, and pro-active. She volunteers, gives to those less fortunate, and can match her husband’s intelligence. How she challenges Vin is so important to her character. She may be sweet and docile, but she is an intelligent woman, not to be walked on.

Teresa Wright is the girl-next-door, she isn’t too sappy or too pushy; she grows up to be just the right wife. But what happens when the perfect wife goes a little too far in the mousy direction?

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