By John P. Walsh
“Good Morning, Miss Dove!” is Frances Gray Patton’s tale of a middle-aged spinster elementary school geography teacher who is suddenly taken ill and the entire small town of Liberty Hill rallies to her. While a mythical period piece from the mid 1950’s of an unchanging town with students who obey a beloved teacher and directed by Henry Koster in a stagy way, it had progressive casting depicting a newly-integrated American public school classroom and all of it in grand Cinemascope and De Luxe color. Film-going audiences in 1955 loved it. Awaiting a risky operation, Miss Dove thinks back on her life and those of her prized grown-up former students which 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. It is the same year in which she starred in the classic soap opera “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” that Academy-Award winner Jennifer Jones stars as Miss Dove, a type of mid-20th century suburban American Mary Poppins nine years before Walt Disney’s proper English nanny. In the mid 1950’s as America settled into the Eisenhower years “Good Morning, Miss Dove!” allowed for an ever more staunch lead character – the “terrible” Miss Dove, unflinching disciplinarian – who became a popular nostalgic icon in American culture at a time when public education was undergoing copious change.
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 a supposedly 55-year-old Miss Dove) and by flashbacks the film dramatizes her youth when she is about to marry, but her father dies suddenly and she learns he has debts. To pay them back, she steels herself to not marry and takes a teaching post. Her chilly veneer after that is the surface of her honor to do the proper thing as well as a sober accommodation to life’s unexpected 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 many students judged her differently. Beyond any possibly wider cultural meaning, the film presents a unique person who by the logic of her experience (or, the experience of her logic) enters into a series of social interactions that are amusing and honest including a penultimate scene on her sick bed where Miss Dove tells her pastor 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 various sides of the political or cultural spectrum they are easily enjoyed as an expression of one woman’s life perfectly dedicated to her students. Stay for the end (it starts around 1:39:00) which, while a sentimental tribute to Miss Dove (accompanied by the tuneful strains of Leigh Harline’s memorable soundtrack), transcends to all lives based on nothing other than good character. (1:47:16).
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