Saturday, December 19, 2009

Good Morning, Miss Dove

Thinking about Jennifer Jones made me think about Good Morning, Miss Dove and how a sappy, mediocre movie can become memorable thanks to one actor's performance (in this case, the luminescent Jennifer Jones as school teacher Miss Dove).

Good Morning, Miss Dove is a pure 1950s film, folks. Sappy sentimentality thickly drips off every scene. School teacher Miss Dove is seriously ill. Her life depends on the expert surgical hands of one of her former students. Without Miss Dove's guidance, he probably wouldn't have become a surgeon. Without Miss Dove, half the population of this little town would probably have fallen off a cliff, literally or metaphorically. The only thing unsentimental about this film is Jennifer Jone's portrayal. She doesn't ooze love. She's didactic, stiff, morally uptight, rigid. When one of her former students comes to her with a broken heart, blubbering about how this filthy rich man dumped her — "Oh, what should I do? What should I do, Miss Dove?" — Miss Dove coolly tells her to get down on her knees and thank God she was dumped. And it works out, because the dumped girl runs into the surgeon outside Miss Dove's classroom and they get married, living happily ever after in Small Town Ville. Yeah, Miss Dove!

About the only time you see Miss Dove smile is in a flashback of her youth. She's a lively, romantic young girl who's just gotten engaged to a hunky, sweet geologist. All her dreams are coming true. You see, Miss Dove dreams of exploring the world — she has a passion for adventure and knows everything there is to know about every part of the planet. The geologist is going to sweep her off to exotic lands, he digging for rocks, she exploring and savoring culture. But then her dad dies and her dad has left behind a mountain-sized debt. She has two choices: she can run off with her geologist hunk as advised by the family friends who are also the bankers, or she can stay behind and spend the rest of her life paying off her dad's debt. She chooses the latter. And she's so honorable, she doesn't even tell the geologist why she's calling off the engagement, lest he uses his own money to bail her out.

That's how she becomes a geography teacher, talking about lands she'll never see.

It's heartbreaking, watching her make that decision. Watching her kill off the center of her happiness. Her life has become sacrifice, a sacrifice to honor, debt. Not that she plunges into self-pity or becomes angry. She's just dead. Of course the movie doesn't allow for that. We watch as she becomes an excellent teacher, redirecting her children's negative energies to positive ones, from bullies to appreciators, would-be criminals to productive members of society. Teaching isn't really about geography but the fine-honing of pre-adults. Yes, yes, but what about Miss Dove? You can see it in Jennifer Jone's eyes, the aloofness of her presence, how she never firmly attaches to any one of her pupils. She cut all that off the moment she decided obligation over life. And that's what makes the movie more haunting than it was probably intended to be. All because of Jennifer Jones.

The final scene shows Miss Dove recovering. The surgery was a success. She, as a teacher, was a success. But we see the toll of dedication: when the surgeon and his wife tell her they are expecting a child, she murmurs about how she's going to have to get better just so that she'll be able to teach this child. Out of love? No, out of exasperation. She thinks the surgeon and his wife are pretty silly, and the product of such silliness is going to need all the help she can give it. Well, I guess that's one reason to keep on living. And God knows, we all need a reason.

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