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In Her Twelve Men (1954), widow Jan Stewart (Greer Garson) is hired as the first female teacher at an exclusive boys' boarding school, in spite of her lack of experience. She has to overcome the curiosity and the resentment of her male colleagues, including Joe Hargrave (Robert Ryan), but she wins over the boys with her maternal warmth. She also attracts the romantic attentions of both Joe and the father of one of her students (Barry Sullivan). At the end of the school year, she must decide about her personal and professional future.
Greer Garson had been one of MGM's top stars of the 1940s, but by the early 1950s, her luster had dimmed, and Her Twelve Men, Garson's last film under her MGM contract, is a prime example of why. It's not a bad film; it's a lively story with good performances, and the superb production values that MGM was known for, including handsome color cinematography which shows off Garson's red-haired beauty, still vibrant at nearly 50. The problem was that for more than a decade, Garson had been playing what James Robert Parish and Ronald L. Bowers described in The MGM Stock Company (1973) as "the 1940s personification of the genteel, unneurotic woman who de-emphasized her sexuality in order to be the self-sacrificing, noble heroine of good causes in such films as Mrs. Miniver (1942)." Garson's role in Her Twelve Men was more of the same, and postwar audiences wanted something a little edgier. In fact, so did Garson. The previous year, Garson had desperately wanted to play the adulterous army wife in Columbia's film version of From Here to Eternity (1953), but neither Columbia executives nor Garson's MGM bosses believed that the public would accept her in such a role. So the part went to a newer model of the same type, Deborah Kerr, and gave Kerr's career a whole new direction.
Garson had also asked MGM to cast her as Caesar's wife Calpurnia in their prestige production of Julius Caesar (1953), even though it was little more than a cameo. The character may have been another noble wife, but at least it was Shakespeare, and a stretch. Satisfied, Garson requested Julius Caesar producer John Houseman for Her Twelve Men. Houseman was unenthusiastic about the film, calling the character "a female Chips," referring to Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), the film that started Garson's MGM career. To cut through the sentimentality, he hired Laura Z. Hobson to write the screenplay. Hobson, a novelist and former journalist, was best known for her novel about anti-Semitism Gentleman's Agreement (1943), which was made into an Oscar®-winning film in 1947. Her Twelve Men would be Hobson's only screenplay. But as Houseman wrote in his memoirs, "What astringency she might have given it was offset by the studio's selection of Robert Z. Leonard to direct it." The best Houseman could say for Leonard's effort was that "it was not a disaster." Houseman's next production at MGM was more to his liking: Executive Suite (1954).
Her Twelve Men did provide a change of pace for Garson's leading man. The part of teacher Joe Hargrave was one of Robert Ryan's rare good guy roles, after more than a decade of playing bigots, bullies, and murderous psychopaths. Off screen, Ryan was the polar opposite of the nasty characters he'd been playing. He was active in liberal politics, and a devoted family man married to a Quaker. Ryan and his wife had even founded a progressive private school in the San Fernando Valley that their children attended. Houseman had known Ryan since the late 1930s, when both worked with the Max Reinhardt Theatrical Workshop. The same year they made Her Twelve Men together, Ryan starred in Houseman's off-Broadway production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus (1954) at New York City's Phoenix Theater.
Like audiences, critics had grown tired of Garson's nobility. The vitriol in some reviews was excessive, and seemed unfairly aimed at Garson's image rather than at the quality of the film itself. Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, "The particular brand of golden sunshine that Greer Garson is called upon to shed in Her Twelve Men, a little M-G-M confection...is so obviously manufactured and falls on such artificial ground that it scorches rather than nurtures any blossoms in this choking hothouse dust....The extent of her evident contribution to the health and education of her kids is the doing of a few little favors and the casting about of her smile."
Garson survived these less than gallant attacks. She left MGM, did some stage work, television, and an occasional film, earning excellent reviews playing Eleanor Roosevelt in the film version of the play Sunrise at Campobello (1960). She returned one last time to MGM in 1966, as the mother superior in The Singing Nun. She retired for good in the early 1980s, and died in 1996, at the age of 92.
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Producer: John Houseman
Screenplay: William Roberts and Laura Z. Hobson, from the story "Miss Baker's Dozen," by Louise Baker
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editor: George Boemler
Costume Design: Helen Rose
Art Direction: Daniel B. Cathcart, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Greer Garson (Jan Stewart), Robert Ryan (Joe Hargrave), Barry Sullivan (Richard Y. Oliver, Sr.), Richard Haydn (Dr. Avord Barrett), Barbara Lawrence (Barbara Dunning), James Arness (Ralph Munsey).
C-91m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri