Unabashed sentimentality isn’t a negative where a movie’s concerned. So often, it’s the sincerity and earnest belief in a happy ending that separates the Golden Era of films from the movies of today. The problem is turning said sentimentality into a film worth watching. Despite the star presence of Jennifer Jones, Good Morning, Miss Dove is so obsessed with its old-World nostalgia it forgets to provide any compelling reason to embrace it.Miss. Dove (Jennifer Jones) is a strict teacher instilling in her students a sense of pride throughout the decades. When she’s plagued by health problems requiring surgery, it causes her students to return to town, rousing her spirit with their good memories of her.
Based on the novel by Frances Gray Patton, Good Morning, Miss Dove is in the vein of similar “inspiring teacher” films like To Sir, With Love and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (hmm, those sound eerily similar). The audience is first introduced to the various residents of this Norman Rockwell town worrying about the “terrible” Miss. Dove, a woman highly regimented and set in her ways, implying the “terrible” moniker is all in fun. The townsfolk all defer to her, regardless of their personal thoughts, leading to the movie’s title coming from everyone’s morning greetings to her. Miss. Dove demands excellence, and her clipped, curt tone asserts it. Jennifer Jones, in rather unconvincing hair dye and old-age makeup, is effective as the staunch disciplinarian. The multitude of stories told by her students show her as a caring woman unwilling to be vulnerable, but who cares about her students as if they were her own children. The driving force of the movie isn’t watching Miss. Dove reflect on her life’s failings – never marrying, having children, and possibly saddled with a job she hates – but realizing she’s beloved by others, and they, in turn, are beloved to her.
There’s a solitary scene of Miss. Dove as a young woman, driven into teaching to pay off her father’s debts, and Jones could have sailed through this with ease if the movie was willing to focus on it. Screenwriter Eleanore Griffin is a mistress of sentimentality and melodrama as evidenced by her past work: Tenth Avenue Angel and Lana Turner’s Imitation of Life. She’s certainly adept at tugging on the heartstrings, but, based on my viewing of Tenth Avenue Angel, isn’t good at working out the mechanics of a story. I’m hoping to watch Imitation of Life to confirm or deny.
The biggest frustration comes in seeing director Henry Koster’s name. He’s fantastic at tugging on heartstrings while simultaneously creating a compelling narrative. Take a gander at The Bishop’s Wife, Come to the Stable, and Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation as proof. Any journeyman director could have helmed this for all the work Koster does behind the camera. The entire movie is done in long shots, predominately with Miss. Dove in profile on a hospital bed. I understand an unwillingness to overuse close-ups, but the camera doesn’t change at all. With a static camera, the audience is always at a distance from events. I felt absolutely no connection to Miss. Dove, her students, or the town, when that’s the entire point. All the power of the movie is placed on Griffin’s script, and it’s all sentimentality without any effort.
Complicating matters, and contributing to the laziness of Griffin’s script, is questions of whose story this is. Is this Miss. Dove’s story? Or is it the students’ perception of Miss. Dove? The script wants to have its cake and eat it too, starting with an omniscient unknown male narrator discussing the town and Miss. Dove. This male narrator is never heard from again, and we hear Miss. Dove talk briefly about herself, seguing into the sequence about her past. After that, we never hear Miss. Dove’s inner monologue again, and the focus shifts to stories about her individual students and how she helped them. The students are all rather one-note, ranging from the town surgeon (Robert Stack) to a nurse whose had a child out-of-wedlock (Peggy Knudsen). Because their stories are so generic, and are interchangeable, it’s hard to engage with any one character, outside of Stack, the biggest name aside from Jones. Jones herself is given some fun material to work with, and a few of her verbal quips gave me “English major” chuckles: “‘We’ implies you’ll be taking your clothes off, too.” Unfortunately, because the script can’t figure out where she fits in, she’s constantly an outsider observing events about herself.
If you’re a fan of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, by all means give Good Morning, Miss Dove a try. Jennifer Jones plays a different type of character than I’ve previously seen, and the side performances are decent. It just lacks any worthwhile momentum to sustain two-hours of screen time.
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