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Based on a long narrative poem by Alice Duer Miller, The White Cliffs of Dover (1944) is the story of an Anglophile American woman, played by Irene Dunne, who goes to England in 1914, falls in love with titled Englishman Alan Marshal, marries him and loses him in World War I. She raises her son in England, only to see him go off to fight when World War II breaks out.
MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, an Anglophile himself, had been delighted by the huge success of Mrs. Miniver (1942), which won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director and Actress. He wanted another paean to the indomitable British spirit, so when producer Sidney Franklin read The White Cliffs of Dover, he thought it could equal the success of Mrs. Miniver, and took it to Mayer. Franklin had been one of MGM's top directors up to the time of Irving Thalberg's death after which he moved into managing the studio's prestige projects. Both as director and producer, Franklin had an affinity for British-themed films, like Noel Coward's Private Lives (1931), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), and Waterloo Bridge (1940).
Franklin and Director Clarence Brown had both worked in films for about 30 years, and were very close friends, but had not worked together until The White Cliffs of Dover. Brown was one of MGM's most accomplished visual stylists, and known for his ability to win the trust of the studio's top divas, Garbo, Shearer and Crawford. The White Cliffs of Dover, with additional stanzas by poet and novelist Robert Nathan (Portrait of Jennie, 1948), top talents like Franklin and Brown behind the camera, and the classy and elegant Irene Dunne in front of it, was obviously slated to be one of 1944's most prestigious films.
The production was not easy for Dunne. She had been working on A Guy Named Joe (1943), but co-star Van Johnson was injured in an accident, and that film was put on hold until he recovered. So Dunne began working on The White Cliffs of Dover, but Johnson's recovery was quicker than anticipated, and she ended up working on both films simultaneously. Van Johnson, in fact, has a supporting role in The White Cliffs of Dover as Dunne's American suitor.
Also in supporting roles are Roddy McDowall as Dunne's sixteen-year-old son, John, and Peter Lawford, who plays him at the age of twenty-four. In a small part as McDowall's childhood sweetheart is a very young Elizabeth Taylor. It was her fourth film role, just prior to her breakout performance in National Velvet (1944), also directed by Clarence Brown. Taylor's grown-up counterpart is played by June Lockhart.
Some critics felt that The White Cliffs of Dover was too fawning toward all things English. "This sterling-silver picture...is such a tribute to English gentility as only an American studio would dare to make," sneered Bosley Crowther in the New York Times. "Like drinking tepid orange pekoe at a rained-out garden party staged by some deep-provincial local of the English-speaking Union," sniffed James Agee. But there was also praise for the excellent performances, superb production values, and the sincerity of its wartime message. Philip Hartung wrote in Commonweal, "The film does succeed in spite of its confused satire and outmoded attitudes, in pointing up a moral: that the English and Americans cannot break faith with their dead again; they must build together for a permanent peace." And The White Cliffs of Dover did have resonance for a war-weary public. Though not the blockbuster that Mrs. Miniver had been, it did very well at the box office both in the U.S. and Great Britain.
Director: Clarence Brown
Producer: Sidney Franklin
Screenplay: Claudine West, Jan Lustig, George Froeschel, based on the poem by Alice Duer Miller, additional poetry by Robert Nathan
Editor: Robert J. Kern
Cinematography: George Folsey
Costume Design: Irene
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Randall Duell; Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis, Jacques Mersereau
Music: Herbert Stothart
Principal Cast: Irene Dunne (Susan Dunn Ashwood), Alan Marshal (Sir John Ashwood), Frank Morgan (Hiram Porter Dunn), Roddy McDowall (John Ashwood II as a boy), Peter Lawford (John Ashwood II at 24), Dame May Whitty (Nanny), C. Aubrey Smith (Colonel), Gladys Cooper (Lady Jean Ashwood).
BW-127m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri