By John P. Walsh
Good Morning, Miss Dove! is Frances Gray Patton’s contemporary tale of a middle-aged spinster elementary school geography teacher in Liberty Hill who, when suddenly taken ill, sees the entire small town rally to her side. While a mythical period piece from the mid1950’s of an unchanging town with students who obey their beloved teacher as well as being directed by Henry Koster in a stagey way, it boasted progressive casting depicting a newly-integrated (1954) American public school classroom in grand Cinemascope and De Luxe color. Film-going audiences in 1955 loved the film. Awaiting a risky operation, Miss Dove (Jennifer Jones) thinks back on her life and those of her prized grown-up former students who included Robert Stack (a surgeon), Chuck Connors (a policeman), and Jerry Paris (a playwright). All of these students overcame difficult childhoods and found worldly achievement with the help of Miss Dove. Patton’s novel had already enjoyed success in 1954 as a Book of the Month Club and Reader’s Digest selection and its release as a major motion picture by 20th Century-Fox continued the heroine’s popularity. The release of the film during Thanksgiving weekend 1955 was in the same year that Jennifer Jones starred in another Deluxe color film, the American drama-romance Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. For the Academy-Award winning actress to play an elderly spinster (many early scenes feature a naturally beautiful Miss Jones), she plays beyond type for a dark young beauty as well as foreshadowing a sort of mid-20th century American Mary Poppins nearly a decade before the appearance of Walt Disney’s proper English nanny. In the mid1950’s as America settled into the Eisenhower years, Good Morning, Miss Dove! allowed for a lead character – the “terrible” Miss Dove played by Jones – who is an unflinching and beloved disciplinarian when in fact the American public education system was undergoing copious and more difficult change. In that way, the character of Miss Dove is further complicated by becoming a popular icon in the American culture by being mostly a nostalgic figure.
The audience meets the elder Miss Dove at the movie’s start—make-up artist Ben Nye transformed the 35-year-old Jennifer Jones into the 55-year-old Miss Dove—and by flashbacks the film dramatizes her youth as she is about to marry, but chooses not to because her father dies suddenly and she learns he has debts. To pay them back, she steels herself to remain single and take a teaching post. Her chilly veneer is part of her honor to do the proper thing along with the sober accommodation to life’s necessary sacrifices. While those who did not know Miss Dove mocked her behind her back and said she couldn’t have had much of a life—never married, no family, no kids, never went anywhere—her army of students judged her differently. Beyond any possibly wider cultural meaning, the film presents a unique person who by the logic of her experience or, conversely, the experience of her logic enters into a series of social interactions that are both amusing and honest. This includes the penultimate scene on her sick bed where Miss Dove tells her pastor Reverend Burnham (Biff Elliot) blankly: “Life, whatever others may think, has been for me…I have been happy. I have made many mistakes. Perhaps even sinned. I admit my human limitations but I do not in all honesty find the burden of my sins intolerable. Nor have I strayed like a sheep. I have never been AWOL. I have never spoken hypocrisy to my Maker and now is scarcely a propitious moment to begin.” While her conscientious thoughts may be read from varied sides of the political and cultural spectrum they are enjoined to the expression of one woman’s life perfectly dedicated to her students. The film’s denouement starting at around 1:39:00 is powerful. Accompanied by the tuneful strains of Leigh Harline’s memorable soundtrack, it is a sentimental tribute to Miss Dove’s life which benefited many different people through the years because of no more than her good character. (1:47:16).
The costume designer for Good Morning, Miss Dove! (1955) is Mary Wills (1914-1997). She worked mainly for Samuel Goldwyn productions and Twentieth Century-Fox, breaking into the movie business as a sketch artist for Gone With The Wind (1939). In her nearly 40-year career Mary Wills was nominated for an Oscar seven times and won the Academy Award in 1962 for her colorful designs for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. Born in Prescott, Arizona, she moved to Los Angeles after receiving her Master’s degree from the Yale Art and Drama School where she was the first woman admitted into that program. She started designing costumes in 1944 at RKO with Belle of the Yukon and soon after designed costumes for Disney’s Song of the South (1946). Mary started working for Samuel Goldwyn in 1948 where she designed costumes for Enchantment. For the next six years at Goldwyn Studio Mary was referred to as “The Fabulous Miss Wills.” She was regularly nominated for her costume design in the 1950s when she designed the costumes for Good Morning, Miss Dove! including Hans Christian Anderson (1952), The Virgin Queen (1954), Teenage Rebel (1956), A Certain Smile (1958), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), The Passover Plot (1976) and the film for which, in 1962, she won the Academy Award. Mary Wills also designed the Rogers and Hammerstein musical film Carousel, from 1956. She demonstrated a special talent for designing historical costumes, especially after she moved to 20th-Century Fox in 1954 to make The Virgin Queen starring Bette Davis. Later she showed great aptitude for designing dance and folk costumes – a small collection of her original sketches are online at the Los Angeles County Museum – for live productions such as the Shipstad & Johnson Ice Follies founded in 1936 and now simply called the Ice Follies. Mary Wills worked on two major films that she did not get film credit for – namely, Camelot (1967) and Funny Girl (1968). For Funny Girl, she designed the Ziegfeld show-girl brides costumes as well as the costumes for Omar Sharif.
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