Her Twelve Men
Greer Garson received an Academy Award nomination for her first M-G-M film, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Over the next dozen years, she starred in many of the studio’s most successful and high-profile pictures, including Pride and Prejudice (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Random Harvest (1942), The Valley of Decision (1945) and That Forsyte Woman (1949). After completing Julius Caesar (1953), she would make only one more film under her M-G-M contract. Garson had hoped it would be Interrupted Melody, the story of Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence (1907–1979), a noted Wagnerian who continued to perform even after polio confined her to a wheelchair. Lawrence’s story inspired Garson, who threw herself wholeheartedly into preparing for the role, studying with an opera coach to lip-synch the arias (sung for the film by Eileen Farrell).
Dore Schary, who had become head of M-G-M in 1951 after ousting longtime studio chief and founder Louis B. Mayer, had other ideas, however. He wanted to move the studio away from the sort of “women’s pictures” on which the company had made its reputation, concentrating instead on grittier, more masculine dramas such as Take the High Ground (1953) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). When Schary put production of Interrupted Melody on hold, Garson protested the decision. Schary explained that—due to the project’s escalating costs—M-G-M would be better off shooting the film later in CinemaScope or 3-D to attract a bigger audience. The studio would eventually shoot the film in widescreen and color (but not 3-D) in 1955, with Eleanor Parker in the lead role.
Meanwhile, Schary suggested that Garson make a different film: Her Twelve Men. In June 1952, M-G-M had purchased the rights to Louise Baker’s memoir Snips and Snails, a simple tale about the misadventures of a female teacher at an exclusive school for boys. William Roberts submitted a screenplay (initially titled Miss Baker’s Dozen). At Garson’s request, Julius Caesar producer John Houseman agreed to produce the film, despite his lack of interest in the subject matter and his ongoing involvement with both Julius Caesar and Executive Suite. Houseman brought in Laura Z. Hobson (author of the 1943 novel Gentlemen’s Agreement) to tweak the script (her only screenwriting credit), but after Schary assigned studio veteran Robert Z. Leonard to direct, Houseman all but disavowed the project.
Filming of Her Twelve Men commenced in August 1953. Garson became furious when she learned that the studio was going to make Interrupted Melody without her, and hence took little pleasure from the tepid B-movie they forced her to make instead. When Her Twelve Men opened in August 1954, reviewers found the film wanting in substance—most were kind but clearly unimpressed. The Hollywood Reporter called it “mild and charming,” but the New York World-Telegram and Sun concluded: “A lot of high class talent has gone into the making of this film. They accomplish in expert fashion all they have set out to do. But they have set out to do so little. It’s like a group of skilled engineers getting together and folding a perfect paper hat.”
Composer Bronislau Kaper was an important part of that “high class talent.” Having recently completed his immensely popular score for Lili, he was at the height of his considerable powers and a valued studio asset. Kaper brought to the task his usual taste and understatement, creating a rather brief score that makes frequent use of a school song (composed for the film by Kaper, with lyrics by Charles Wolcott): “Oh! Mighty Oaks!” The composer varies the tune throughout the film, evoking emotions that range from pompous rigidity to caustic humor. Kaper also composed a gentle theme for the leading lady’s matriarchal relationship with her students—a theme that manages to be sentimental without being saccharine. There is a brief hint of a love theme, but Kaper never develops it, since any hint of adult romance remains hidden well below the film’s family-oriented surface.
- 15. Main Title and Prologue
- An ominous fanfare for Leo the Lion announces a very “serious” picture, but Kaper’s bustling main title fizzles like champagne, quickly changing the mood. Pizzicato strings, sparkling woodwinds, xylophone runs, muted brass and coruscating piano scales run amok around a joyful tune that (disappointingly) never reappears in the picture. The music settles into a waltz just before a voiceover introduces the main character, Jan Stewart (Greer Garson). She is on her way to become a teacher at The Oaks, an exclusive boarding school for young boys. A musical collage depicts her childhood dreams of being: a trapeze artist, for which Kaper utilizes the circus march Big White Top by Victor G. Boehnlein; the mother of eight four-year-old children; the dance partner of a crown prince (Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s “Would You” from San Francisco, later used in Singin’ in the Rain (1950); the bride of a junior state senator (Wagner’s wedding march from Lohengrin); a Wagnerian soprano (“Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre); a national heroine; and a famous starlet (Brown and Freed’s “You Are My Lucky Star” from Broadway Melody of 1936, also used in Singin’ in the Rain). Solo violin and dreamy glissandi bring her back to reality.
- 16. I Am a Creep
- A 10-year old fellow passenger is also on his way to The Oaks. Without realizing that Jan will be one of his teachers, he confides that, although the school and some of the staff are “OK,” women teachers are “creeps.” When he asks if she is someone’s mother, she reluctantly says, “I’m a creep.” A wry clarinet flourish segues to her arrival at The Oaks, where Kaper introduces the school’s theme song, “Oh! Mighty Oaks!” The composer here scores the tune primarily for woodwinds and reinforces the reaction of a trio of students who can hardly believe a woman teacher has arrived in their midst. A slightly warmer statement with horn and low strings accompanies Jan into the building. (The finished film does not use the passage at 0:18–0:34.)
- Jan’s initial encounters with her students are shaky ones—although she tries her best, the boys play tricks on her. As she prepares for bed, she practices a speech she intends to give the next morning, asking the boys for a fresh start. Gentle winds, warm strings and celesta develop a calm, nocturnal variation of “Oh! Mighty Oaks!” that is abruptly cut off when she pulls back her covers and a frog leaps out of her bed; her scream sets off squeals of delight from her students, who have been listening from their dormitory.
- Jan’s Montage
- More variations of “Oh! Mighty Oaks!” ensue as Jan seeks advice from some of her colleagues, each of whom suggests a different solution to her problems. For the teacher who suggests referring to encyclopedias for answers, Kaper provides an arabesque for woodwinds (with a prominent bassoon counterpoint); for the gym teacher (James Arness) who suggests exercise, the composer segues to a short but more up-tempo phrase; and for the headmaster (who suggests “authority tempered with justice”) he uses stern and more dignified strings. Jan mulls over this advice, accompanied by a gentle flute solo that floats above unsettled harmony until the barking of a puppy (which the boys have smuggled into the classroom) interrupts her thinking.
- 17. Hot Chocolate
- As matters slowly improve, Jan develops a loving and warm relationship with the boys. When one of them, Bobby Lennox (Donald MacDonald), receives a transatlantic phone call from his mother telling him that she will be unable to visit him at Christmas, Jan recognizes the boy’s deep need for maternal affection. She offers him a cup of hot chocolate and words of comfort and assurance. Kaper composed a lovely cue for this scene—a simple, folk-like tune reflecting childhood innocence and reassuringly orchestrated with delicate, chamber orchestra textures—but the completed film omits the cue entirely.
- 18. Class Room Montage
- A brief fugal variation of “Oh! Mighty Oaks!” accompanies a montage of classroom scenes depicting a typical day at the school.
- 19. Let Yourself Go/Dick Ignored
- Richard Oliver Sr. (Barry Sullivan), a wealthy Texas industrialist, brings his son (Tim Considine) to The Oaks. Frustrated because he cannot control Richard Jr. (known as Dick), Oliver hopes the school can teach the boy discipline. Dick’s negative attitude makes it difficult for him to fit in. One night, to show off, he sets off the indoor sprinkler system. The boys all get in trouble for the false alarm, but they follow their own code of honor and refuse to turn Dick in to the school authorities. Distressed, Jan turns to fellow teacher Joe Hargrave (Robert Ryan) for advice in dealing with the boys. A lumbering and queasy variation of “Oh! Mighty Oaks!” comments wryly on the situation, covering a segue to the following day, when the boys suffer their punishment (scrubbing the gym floor) while pointedly ignoring the actual perpetrator.
- 20. Letter for You
- Bobby is thrilled to receive a letter from his mother at last—although Jan actually wrote it herself. The sentimental melody from the unused cue “Hot Chocolate” (track 17) appears as she looks happily on, the delicate orchestration (featuring strings and harp) adding heartfelt poignancy to the scene while the boy excitedly reads the letter to his classmates. French horn concludes the cue on an unresolved note when Dick, upset by Bobby’s happiness, turns away.
- 21. Beyond the Call of Duty
- In the film’s most extended musical sequence, Kaper scores a fluid montage covering a great deal of plot exposition. After Dick suffers an injury in a fall (the result of a prank perpetrated by the other students), his father insists the boy come home. The headmaster, Dr. Barrett (Richard Haydn), tells Jan she must accompany Dick on his flight back to Texas. “Oh! Mighty Oaks!” comments stoically as she reacts to the news, but dissolves into a “love theme” built from a five-note cell when Joe shares his concerns. Although he does not say outright that he has feelings for her, the music suggests that perhaps he does. The mood abruptly dissipates when the headmaster returns with further instructions, although the “love theme” resurfaces as Joe wishes her “bon voyage.” Lovely, sensitive writing—first horn and winds, then strings—underscores Jan’s motherly care both on the trip and at the Oliver home. “Oh! Mighty Oaks!” makes a brief but dignified appearance when she empathizes with Dick about his peer problems.
- 22. Jan & Dick Return
- Jan makes a breakthrough with Dick (and consequently attracts romantic attention from the boy’s father), but after they return to The Oaks, each has misgivings—Dick about how his schoolmates will receive him and Jan about her relationship with Joe. “Oh! Mighty Oaks!” announces their arrival, but tentative woodwind phrases build suspense until the song erupts in a burst of childlike exuberance when Dick’s classmates greet him enthusiastically.
- Faculty Meeting
- Jan takes Bobby to the sick ward when he complains of an upset stomach, but leaves him with reassurances that all will be well. A fragment of the gentle tune from “Hot Chocolate” segues to “Oh! Mighty Oaks!” as the scene transitions to Dr. Barrett’s office, where the headmaster briefly addresses the assembled faculty prior to graduation exercises. This cue did not appear in the finished film.
- 23. Commencement
- A noble, Elgarian development of “Oh! Mighty Oaks!” accompanies Dr. Barrett’s commencement speech. His words about leaving The Oaks behind seem addressed not just to the graduates but also to Jan, who has submitted her resignation. Although she is about to depart with Mr. Oliver and Dick, she is torn between her feelings for the wealthy businessman and her colleague, Joe.
- 24. Bobby’s Letter/Bobby Asleep
- Jan visits Bobby in the hospital. As Joe watches, she reads the boy a loving letter from his mother, but Joe soon realizes she is making it all up—the letter from which she is reading is actually her own letter of recommendation from Dr. Barrett. Kaper begins the cue “Bobby’s Letter” with a reference to the “love theme” from “Beyond the Call of Duty,” subtly suggesting the actual thoughts of both Jan and Joe. Bobby’s sentimental tune takes over, alternating with “Oh Mighty Oaks!” in a tender passage that makes its dramatic point with the intimacy of chamber music. Bobby falls asleep, a picture of contentment, but the music swiftly rises to an abrupt cut-off as Joe grabs Jan, kisses her, and finally admits his true feelings.
- 25. End Title and Cast
- As Jan begins to leave with Mr. Oliver, the boys step forward and give her a farewell gift—a coffeepot. Their “testimonial” so moves her that she abruptly changes her plans. Seeing Joe in the distance, she announces to the boys that she will return the following year as their teacher and then runs after Joe, leaving Mr. Oliver behind. The “love theme” swells and, as the boys start to argue among themselves, a brisk up-tempo arrangement of “Oh! Mighty Oaks” brings the film to a celebratory conclusion over the “End Cast.”
- 26. Dormitory Radio
- On her first night at The Oaks, Jan sees the boys off to bed. Kaper likely intended this brief (and ultimately unused) western-flavored cue for small orchestra as source music coming from one of several radios visible in their dormitory.
- 27. Dinner for Three
- Early in the film, Jan visits Joe at home to ask for his advice in dealing with the boys. In an awkward moment, she watches as Joe’s girlfriend drops him off after a date. To provide a somewhat more “contemporary” sound for the scene, Kaper recycled this theme from A Life of Her Own, orchestrated—both in the earlier film and here—by Wally Heglin.
- 28. Oh! Mighty Oaks!
- The faculty and students sing their school anthem twice in the film: at an assembly kicking off the school year and again at graduation. This version—a pre-recording made in August 1953—employs nine children’s voices, accompanied by organ. It is clearly the basis for the graduation rendition, but the film mix also incorporates adult voices (including those of the principal actors), which were perhaps recorded “wild.” —