A cordially engrossing melodrama with its backbone firmly rooted in social issues, Tay Garnett's The Valley of Decision (1945) is a compelling human saga set against the tempestuous backdrop of American enterprise; in this case, the sooty steel mills of Pittsburgh. Based on the sweeping novel by Marcia Davenport, the film stars Greer Garson as Mary Rafferty; a young Irish lass living in the slum shadows of the great mills with her crippled father, Pat (Lionel Barrymore) and widowed sister, Kate Shannon (Geraldine Wall).
Pat is a bitter old man, driven to hatred of William Scott (Donald Crisp); the wealthy mill owner, even though it is revealed early on that the accident that deprived Pat of the use of his legs was just that - an accident - that Scott dutifully continues to compensate him for with wages. Friend of the family, Jim Brennan (Preston Foster) is a stabilizing force for the family, particularly as mediator during the frequent heated disagreements Mary and her father have regarding the Scott family.
Learning of a job as a house maid in the Scott mansion, Mary applies for the position and is readily welcomed with open arms into their home. In fact, Mrs. Clarissa Scott (Gladys Cooper) is a warm-hearted matriarch who appreciates Mary for both her forthrightness and her honesty. The family tree also includes sons, Will Jr. (Dan Duryea), playboy Ted (Marshall Thompson), eldest Paul (Gregory Peck) and impetuous 'man crazy' daughter, Constance (Marsha Hunt). Mary meets everyone in short order, including Paul's girlfriend, Louise Kane (Jessica Tandy, and although she gets off to a firm but rough start with Constance, the two eventually become quite close.
For all their wealth, the Scotts are a respectful family who take Mary to their bosom as a trusted edition. After Mary thwarts what might have been a disastrous midnight rendezvous between Constance and one of her suitors, Mrs. Scott decides that she should accompany the family to Boston for Will Jr.'s wedding. On the boat, Paul - who has admired Mary from afar - makes romantic overtures. Despite Mary's obvious reciprocation of his affections, she denies herself the luxury of falling in love with him.
Upon returning to Pittsburgh, Constance elopes with Giles (John Warburton); an English Lord. Incurring the brief wrath of her father, Constance quickly gains the family's consent. Better still, Mrs. Scott makes Constance a present of Mary's services. Reluctantly, Mary accepts her new post as Constance's lady in waiting. They move to Giles' great castle in England where Paul writes to Mary most every week. Mary does not return Paul's letters, despite Constance's insistence that she should.
In the meantime, a strike looms large over the mills, instigated by Pat's vengeful campaign to spread distrust and bitterness amongst the workers and by Jim's insistence that William Scott recognize their need for a union. Will challenges Paul to marry Kate, whereupon Paul explains to his father that he cannot oblige since he is already in love with someone else. Mrs. Scott explains to her husband the great sacrifice that Mary has made for the sake of propriety and her continuing loyalty to the Scott family and Will, humbled by this revelation, sends for her immediately.
Mary returns to Pittsburgh to find the atmosphere of dissention at the mills growing. Paul's love for her, however, has not changed and after Will and Mrs. Scott give their approval, Mary and Paul become engaged. Their happiness is short lived.
A worker's strike forces Mr. Scott to consider Will Jr.'s proposal that he hire strike busters from Detroit to get the mills back up and running. Mr. Scott reluctantly agrees and tells his son to proceed with the plan. In the meantime, Mary intercedes on the family's behalf, encouraging Mr. Scott and Jim to meet each other half way in their demands. Both men agree to this truce and Mr. Scott sends Ted to the depot with a message to pay off the strike busters and send them back to Detroit. Unfortunately, Ted's drinking gets the better of him and he misses his rendezvous at the train depot. The strike busters arrive at the mill at precisely the moment Mr. Scott and his workers have agreed to recognize the union and go back to work.
Assuming that Mr. Scott has lied to them, Pat insights the workers to riot. In the resulting mayhem and violence, Pat murders Mr. Scott before he and Jim are gunned down by security guards. Mary decides that she and Paul can never be happy and calls off their engagement.
The years pass with painful regret. Mrs. Scott sets Mary up in her own dress maker's shop that she continues to frequent even though her health is in steep decline. Paul marries Louise and the two have a son, Paulie (Scotty Beckett). But the marriage is most unhappy, fuelled by Louise's contempt for the mill and its workers, whom she regards as unworthy rabble beneath her station in life.
After Mrs. Scott suffers a fatal heart attack, Mary learns that she is to inherit her share of the mill with instructions that it be kept intact, despite Will Jr.'s greedy desire to sell his father's legacy for pure profit. Barely a day after their mother's death, Will Jr. convenes a family meeting where he encourages the other's to sell their shares in the mill. Constance at first agrees, for she and Giles have run out of money thanks to her wanton spending. But Mary and Paul implore Constance to reconsider.
Louise tells Paul that if he refuses to sell his shares in the mill she will leave the house and take Paulie with her, whereupon Paul at last declares his undying love for Mary and informs Louise that she is to pack her bags and get out of his life for good. The film ends with Paul escorting Mary by carriage back home, presumably to collect her things so that they can go somewhere and be happy together.
The Valley of Decision is compelling melodrama of the highest order, expertly played with conviction and heart; essential qualities that carry the film to its satisfying conclusion. The screenplay by John Meehan and Sonya Levien does a superb job of condensing Davenport's sprawling narrative without losing the romantic essence of the piece. Garson and Peck are excellent as star-crossed victims of unrequited love. Their scenes crackle with a sexual tension that makes their separation until the final fade out all the more lush and gratifying. Lionel Barrymore is at his caustic best, seething with self-destructive venom and vinegar. Donald Crisp and Gladys Cooper are in fine form as the idyllic wealthy couple whose shared familial love supersedes a desire for more wealth.
The Valley of Decision is a Warner Archive release and like other titles in this motley collection of less than well preserved classics, the resulting image quality falls well below par for what ought to be expected from a major outfit like Warner Home Video. The image is excessively grainy. The B&W image seems quite muddy with weaker than expected contrast levels. The image is rarely crisp and quite often softly focused. Age related artefacts are prevalent throughout and frequently distracting. The audio is equally problematic, crackling with a considerable amount of hiss and pop. Dialogue often seems to have been recorded too low while music cues practically shatter the speakers with a sudden sonic surge. As with other titles in the Archive Collection, the only extra feature is a badly worn theatrical trailer.
While this reviewer applauds the fact that Warner Home Video continues to make rare classic titles like this one available for home viewing, I would also suggest that less is more when it comes to releasing classic titles on DVD. This critic, for one, would rather see fewer titles released through the archive on a monthly basis, but with at least some digital restoration work done to make them more presentable than this!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)