Greer Garson was one of the biggest actresses of the early 1940. She landed in Hollywodo in 1938, when she was 34 years old (in a town where starlets make their movie debuts at age 17, this is indeed a bit more mature, to put it mildly), made her debut in 1939, and by 1945, racked up 5 Oscar noms and half a dozen box office hits. It was glorious, for a time at least. Like everything, Greer's start started to dim after a few years - by 1950, she was hardly box office material any more, and she hoevered somewhere in the mid tier of actresses. She was not a complete unknown, but could hardly be counted to set the public aflame. In 1954, she made her last movie for her home studio, the mighty MGM. "Her Twelve Men" was that movie. 

We'll start with the flimy plot: Recently widowed and needing a change of pace, Jan Stewart (Greer Garson) takes a job as a schoolteacher at the Oaks, an elite boys' prep school. She is given charge of 12 rowdy students, including a sullen boy (Tim Considine) whose father (Barry Sullivan) is a vocal critic of Jan's teaching capabilities. Jan must prove to the skeptical headmaster (Robert Ryan) and everyone else that she's up to the task by winning over her students and becoming more than just a teacher to them.

. One reviewer, PlanktonRules, on IMDB, wrote very nicely the summary of this movie: 

This is a rather easy film to predict and it was pretty schmaltzy--having a very liberal helping of sentimentality thrown into the mix. However, despite this, the acting and script were so much fun that I still encourage you to give the film a look--especially since it's a lovely film that can be enjoyed by the entire family.

Amen to all of that. It's well written, well made, with great actors. It never goes out of line, it's neat, tidy and very touching in parts. It's no master piece but it fits the bill of a family friendly, cute little movie perfectly. 

Yet, it could have been much more. The director, Robert Z. Leonard, a seasoned professional, went for the simple, straightforward approach, a sure bet. this movie could have been a feminist milestone, a hard hitting, deeply felt drama about a lost woman and her striving to find her path in life. Part of the problem lies in the script that negates what I am about to write. The authoress, Louise Horton, was one of the old guard of ladies, who wanted her women shackled in the kitchen. It would have been a supreme touch of irony if Leonard turned this into a proto feminist propaganda, subtle enough not to be noticed but for those who know how to look. 

Jan Stewart, the heroine of her Twelve Men, is a prototype of the "lost woman", and hardly the only speciment of this kind. Hollywood rarely tackled with this problem, as it rarely tackled any real world problems. Jan is a woman born in 1910s, with  who went on to have a fine education, but did as many of her generation did - got married, dropped her degree and qualification to become a middle-class housewife. She enjoyed a secure, semi-happy existence and was seemingly content with her lot in life. Oh really?  

Now, 20+ years later, first separated and then widowed by her husband, in her late 40s, this woman is literary jammed into a unfavorable position. While well off and in no dire need to work or earn money, she is simply bored. Her dowager status in society isn't enough. She has never worked, has no experience and in this case, has no children to take care of (this is another topic the movie barely touched - the childless woman. But then again, it is a topic for another post). 

So, little woman, what to do now? Your husband is dead, you have nothing to fill your time with. Once brimming with fantasies and dreams, she is too dry and too hardened by her 40+ years on Earth to ever dream like this. But dreams are not her clout any more. In fact, Greer Garson's character has achieved everything that society expected her to do. She married well and stuck with her husband until he died. And then, there is nothing. No plans, no dreams, no aspirations. She is to live as she always did until she dies. 

This question - where to go, what to do - is a core, central question for women born , who were widowed too young. Was their sole purpose in life this? This sad existence, where she doted on her neighbor's children, lived a highly structured, egocentric life revolving over her daily schedule of tea parties and shopping trips, and perhaps a charity gathering thrown here and there?  

Her Twelve Men shows us just how such a woman can overcome the boundaries set by the restrictive society and rise above the mediocrity and the grey zone - by becoming an teacher. By having a proper job, by making her own money, by being truly independent for the first time in her life. Jan is better than that shallow existence her widowhood demands and she deserves more. This movie gets it right in casting Greer Garson, one of the most charming, warmest actresses ever to grace the silver screen. Her sincerity, her almost desperate striving, the bitter pills she has to swallow on the road to becoming a great teacher and ultimately, the subtle awards of being one such a teacher, are all made believable thanks to Greer's immense charisma. 

Robert Ryan, in a too low key role as Garson's love interest, is actually the perfect pair for such a woman - her is neither an alpha male, nor a weakling. He s passionate about his causes and wants to see Greer succeed. He is a kind of tough love man, a perfect platform that will catapult Garson over the rainbow. There is nothing meek about him, but there is nothing hard either - the middle road, the best one to take, is what Ryan is all about. Ryan, a great actor, only has one scene where he really shines, where he see the suppressed passion behind the stern teacher's facade - and what agreat scene it is. It's a wonderful study of a hot bed of emotions held under a placid facade. 

Of course, the movie deals with several other things worth exploring - emotionally damaged children, parents who don't give two cents about their offspring and ship them to boarding schools with thinking twice, and the proper methods to educate young boys. Due to the highly didactic theme, the movie is a bit patronizing in some regards, but nothing too much.  

In the end, what can I say - too bad about this movie. It's a pleasant, nice affair, but a forgettable one, just a dime a dozen.  Nothing leaps over the boundaries society set for the movies. Much like it's heroine, this move needs a good kick in the shin to look up and see the sunshine, and truly enjoy the day. 

Published by Stela Zoric