Miss Moffat (Bette Davis), an educated and very independent woman,
arrives in a small Welsh mining village in 1895 to live in a house she inherited
and start a school for the miners’ children. She is told, “Down here, they’re only
children until they’re twelve. Then they are sent away to the mine and are old
men in a week.”
None of the children can read or write, and few know any English at all. She
persuades Miss Ronberry (Mildred Dunnock) and Mr. Jones (Rhys Williams) to
help her, but the local landowner, called “the Squire” (Nigel Bruce), and the
owners of the mine are opposed and do everything they can to stop her. She is
about to give up when she sees an essay by Morgan Evans (John Dall), a young
mine worker, that shows a real gift. She tells him he is “clever,” which makes him
“want to get more clever.”
They work together for two years, but she does not realize he is becoming
resentful and impatient. His friends make fun of him for learning and call him
the schoolmistress’s dog. He quits. Later, when Mr. Jones persuades him to come
back, Miss Moffat prepares him for Oxford and even uses “soft soap and curtsying”
to persuade the Squire to recommend him. He wins a scholarship.
the dishonest and slatternly daughter of Miss Moffat’s housekeeper, is pregnant
with Morgan’s child. Miss Moffat adopts the child so that Morgan will be able to
go to Oxford. She tells him his duty is to the world. Then she tells herself, “You
mustn’t be clumsy this time,” and resolves to be more sensitive in raising Morgan’s
child than she was with him.
This movie is an adaptation of a play by Emlyn Williams, who
was actually saved from the coal mines by an understanding teacher. It has a lot
of parallels to My Fair Lady and Born Yesterday, which also deal with intense
teacher-student relationships that transform the lives of both.
Like Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday
and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Morgan is excited and disturbed by the way learning changes
him; he panics at the thought of losing everything familiar to him (including
ignorance), and he gets angry and impatient. Eliza would understand Morgan’s
telling Miss Moffat, “I don’t want to be thankful to no strange woman.” Like
Henry Higgins, Miss Moffat does not want thanks.
Miss Moffat is different because of her reason for teaching Morgan. She
responds to his spirit and his potential in that first essay. Perhaps because she
responds so strongly, she stays very distant from him, admitting she knows every
part of his brain, but does not know him at all. She cares for him deeply. The
contrast between her spirited response to the Squire when he prevents her from
using the barn for a school and her “soft soap and curtsying” to get him to help
Morgan shows how far she is willing to go.
Ultimately, she takes on Morgan’s child, knowing it means she will never see
him again, because both of them believe the child will be better off if the break is
Also worth discussing: the consequences of careless sexual involvement, the idea
that there may be something more important to some women than getting married (especially in that era, when married women had so little say over what happened
to them), and Bessie’s statement that she only had sex with Morgan to
spite Miss Moffat. Families should also discuss:
• Why didn’t the Squire want the Welsh children to learn?
• Why did the miners make Morgan feel bad about learning?
• Why did telling Morgan he was clever make him want to learn more? Why did
Bessie’s telling him he was clever have a different effect?
• What did Miss Moffat mean by “soft soap and curtsying” and how did she use
them? How did she feel about using them?
• Why was Morgan so angry about having to be grateful?
The real-life Morgan Evans, Emlyn Williams, became a
playwright and actor and can be seen in Major Barbara as Snobby Price. The
Squire is played by Nigel Bruce, best known as Dr. Watson in the Americanmade
series of Sherlock Holmes’ movies. Bessie’s mother belongs to a group like
the one Sister Sarah belongs to in Guys and Dolls, or Major Barbara does in the
film of the same name.
A good book about this part of the world is On the Black Hills, by
Bruce Chatwin, and there are some outstanding books about the history of coal
miners in many different parts of the world.