Today is my son’s last day of seventh grade. One more year and he’ll be in high school. He’s over the moon about it (and about summer vacation, of course), but I’m not ready for this. My kid is growing up too fast. Wow. Wow. Wow.
In that spirit, I thought it would be cool to revisit what is, in my opinion, one of Jennifer Jones’s nicest movies, 1955’s Good Morning Miss Dove. A gentle story about a small-town geography teacher in Liberty Falls, a town that could be anywhere in the United states, it shows that even the people we think we know can surprise us. The film is done very simply. There aren’t any gimmicks or odd filming angles. It merely allows the story to be told and doesn’t try to be anything other than a frame for its protagonist.
Miss Dove (Jennifer Jones) is precise to a fault. She leaves her house at exactly the same time to go to school, and the towspeople can set their watches by her. She knows everything about everything but she’s not obnoxious about it and commands tremendous respect among the people, most of whom were her students at one time. Miss Dove turned down a proposal and became a teacher when her dad was found to owe massive amounts of money to the bank, and she’s been doing it ever since.
Every day students file into her immaculate classroom, handkerchiefs pinned to their shirts and dresses. Miss Dove rings a bell, the kids snap to attention, and then she begins the lesson, using the same books she’s probably used her entire teaching career. She doesn’t really smile or joke around. She just does her job.
One day Miss Dove is presiding over a student who in detention for swearing when she feels massive pain in the base of her spine. She sends him to get his dad to come help her, and the boy comes back with not only Dad, the Reverend Alex Burnham (Biff Edwards) but a new doctor, Tommy Burns (Robert Stack). Miss Dove is skeptical, but she doesn’t have much choice but to accept his help.
Tommy doesn’t want to drive Miss Dove to the hospital because he thinks it will jar her too much, so he and Alexander make a chair with their hands and carry her there. Once Miss Dove is safely on a hospital bed, there’s nothing to do but wait. She’s got to wait to be tested, then wait for the tests to come back, and then wait for surgery that she may or may not wake up from. Miss Dove has a private room with her own personal nurse, Billie Jean (Peggy Knudsen), who’s very motherly and funny. Her easy bedside manner is a little ruffling for Miss Dove at first, but the two of them get along famously.
In the meantime, she’s remembering her life and career. She remembers Bill Holloway, the little orphan boy who lives in a shack with his alcoholic grandmother and who just wants to go to school. Bill comes to depend on Miss Dove because she’s a stable figure in his life. When he comes back to Liberty Falls after serving in the Marines during World War Two, the first thing he does is go see Miss Dove and tell her about his ambition to become a police officer.
Miss Dove remembers Maurice, a Russian Jewish boy who joins her first grade class as a fifth grader to help him learn English and who soaks up learning like a sponge. After seeing the other boys make fun of Maurice because he’s Jewish, she and Maurice’s parents organize a big Passover dinner for the whole class. Maurice goes on to be a resepected playwright in New York City.
Many of Miss Dove’s former students drop by to see her, including Virginia Baker (Kipp Hamilton), Tommy’s wife, who’s pregnant and past her due date. She’s been checked into the hospital because she’s waiting to have labor induced. Miss Dove remembers her as she was a couple of years previously, when she was despairing over a guy who broke up with her via telegram.
Outside the hospital, the townspeople are on pins and needles waiting for news of Miss Dove. They send her so many bouquets that her room looks like the Conservatory of the Flowers and she dispatches Billie Jean to distribute most of them around the different wards. The school suspends classes on the Friday of Miss Dove’s surgery because everyone is too distracted. They know Miss Dove wouldn’t approve of school being closed, but school just isn’t the same without her.
In 1955 the film was sometimes regarded as hokey and like a soap opera by some jaded critics, but it was hugely successful, although exact box office numbers are hard to find. The studios played up how relatable the movie was, using the tagline, “a picture of everybody for everybody!”
What I like about it is that it’s a very satisfying character study of a woman who talks as if the Victorian Era never ended, who doesn’t cut up or even smile, and who is as inscrutably inaccessible as Kilimanjaro, but who is one of the nicest and most conscientious members of the community. She’s Liberty Hill’s beloved dark horse. Since she is so remote and seemingly severe, Miss Dove thinks people fear her rather than love her. As she sees the flowers pile up in her hospital room and the visitors in constant attendance, not to mention Billie Jean’s aspiration to be genteel like she is, her view begins to change. She might even have a smile for us.
There’s unexpected humor in it as well. When Tommy and Alexander carry Miss Dove through town, they start discussing among themselves how Miss Dove has to keep absolutely still. The patient pipes up, “Being neither absent nor deaf, and in complete command of my faculties, I should prefer not to be discussed in the third person.”
Point taken, Miss Dove.
Everyone knows how much school has changed in the last century, even just since the 1950s. Kids don’t pin handkerchiefs to their clothes anymore, at least not in America. They sure don’t have to wash their mouths out with soap if they’re caught chewing gum in class. Many teachers try to be relateable these days instead of hardline disciplinarians, sometimes playing Kahoot with their students instead of sticking always to lessons.
The reason Good Morning, Miss Dove still works is that some things haven’t changed. Pretty much everyone has teachers who made a big impression on them, whether they were inspiring or annoying. Plenty of people also have stories of teachers kids have played up as being tyrants or slavedrivers, but who turn out to be the best teachers in the school. We can still recognize those teachers in Miss Dove, and that’s a comforting feeling.
All righty, everyone, hope everyone has a great weekend and a great Memorial Day. Thanks for reading, and see you again soon…
Good Morning, Miss Dove is available on DVD from Amazon.