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Classic Film and ‘The Colonies’: The Howard’s of Virginia (1940)

Here we are! We’ve spent the last two weeks diving into classic cinematic depictions of the Colonial Era in the United States. Our first two films of focus have been some unconventional gems (1776 and The Time of Their Lives). This week though, things are feeling a bit more “traditional” as we shift our attention to a studio era, historical drama. However… is tradition always a good thing? Here’s what you need to know about The Howard’s of Virginia.

The Howard’s of Virginia follows the life of Matt Howard (Cary Grant), a young man who pulls himself up by his metaphorical bootstraps in the years leading up to the American Revolution. There’s love, grief, and… a strong sense of duty. Martha Scott, Cedric Hardwicke, Richard Carlson, and Alan Marshal costar in the picture. Frank Lloyd directs the film from a screenplay by Sidney Buchman.

If there were a dictionary entry for sweeping, studio system, historical epics, The Howard’s of Virginia would be one of the movies pictured. The film has majestic, grandiose ideas, taking Matt Howard from his youth in the lead-up to the French and Indian War before providing a textbook look at the American Revolution during which he comes into contact with The Stamp Act and The Boston Tea Party.

Everything about The Howard’s of Virginia should work on paper. However, there’s one problem in the execution… The lead. It is hard to hit Cary Grant. I mean, he’s Cary Grant after all… he’s always good. The problem here though feels less like a flaw in his performance and more an issue with star persona.

At this point, Cary Grant had been on movie screens for roughly a decade. His stardom began to solidify after roles towards the end of the 1930s in films like Suzy, The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby. Coming in 1940, The Howard’s of Virginia fits into his filmography right between My Favorite Wife and The Philadelphia Story. Grant was well on the way to becoming the legend he is today.

However, The Howard’s of Virginia spends most of the movie trying to convince the audience that Matt Howard is a rough and rugged man of the wilderness. He’s rough and tumble and far happier working his farmland than in maneuvering through the sophisticated world of his wife Jane (Martha Scott). This is a common character archetype, celebrating the individualistic nature often celebrated in American culture. However, Cary Grant is not the first performer one thinks about for rugged masculinity. Grant is his usual charming self. He’s witry, charming and urbane.

The film would have been served far better with someone like Jimmy Stewart or even a Joel McCrea as Matt Howard. Throughout their careers, both men easily conveyed a sense of rugged, “working class” masculinity that would have fit with the character. This is a man who never quite fits in with the aristocratic elite. He’s more comfortable with the farmers in the country. As it is currently played on screen, Grant simply feels like an aristocrat “slumming” as opposed to someone with a genuine liking for the lifestyle and this does affect the narrative.

Behind Grant, the cast is certainly solid, particularly Martha Scott as Jane. Her performance is at the heart of the narrative and it’s her growth with whom audiences are most invested. At the same time, her presence is felt through her effect on the other characters. This is seen most prominently in Phil Tayor as Matt and Martha’s son Peyton. It is a small part, but the young man gives a poignant and memorable performance and manages to stand out with screen time.

As mentioned, The Howard’s of Virginia skirts around the goings-on during the Colonial Era. The characters are very much there and see the events we’ve read about in so many textbooks, but everything is just somewhat detached. There is little emotional weight behind the story. In fact, it takes until well into the third act for the Howard family to even become involved in the War for Independence. For much of the movie, they’re simply observers, leaving the power and authority to come from other characters. For example, The Howard’s of Virginia makes an interesting, but subtle use of Patrick Henry to set the scene.

At the same time, the story tries to tie the narrative into history through the use of Thomas Jefferson (Richard Carlson) as Matt’s friend. Carlson is smartly cast, bringing a sense of youthful intelligence which works well with the character. Though, he doesn’t have too much to do in the script aside from being Matt’s friend and being “Thomas Jefferson”. His presence in the story serves as a gigantic blinking reminder that there’s bigger action at play here. He’s a plot device to situate the story, but unfortunately very little else.

On paper, The Howard’s of Virginia should work smoothly. Unfortunately, though, nothing manages to quite gel together on screen. Everything could just be a little bit better, from the casting to the plot development. This is a textbook historical drama, but it ultimately ends up feeling cold and detached and it really shouldn’t.

The Howard’s of Virginia is available here!

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1940s, Drama


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