Saturday, May 21, 2022

Stubs - Our Town

Our Town (1940) Starring Frank Craven, William Holden, Martha Scott, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, Guy Kibbee. Director: Sam Wood. Screenplay by Thornton Wilder, Frank Craven, Harry Chandlee. Based on the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder (New York, 4 Feb 1938). Produced by Sol Lesser. Run time: 90 minutes. Black and White. USA. Drama.

Even before Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town went into production on Broadway, there were plans for a motion picture based on it. Producers Jed Harris and William K. Howard purchased Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 1937 with the intention of producing it on Broadway and making it into a motion picture. In 1939, producer Sol Lesser bought the motion picture rights for $75,000. Originally planned to be shot in Technicolor and directed by Ernest Lubitsch, the film adaptation had a major issue. The play was produced on a nearly bare stage and its main character died at the end.

But this is Hollywood and films are supposed to have happy endings. Lesser worked closely with
Wilder before changing the play. Wilder consented, writing to Lesser, "Emily should live...In a movie you see the people so close 'to' that a different relation is established. In the theatre, they are halfway abstraction in an allegory, in the movie they are very concrete. So, insofar as the play is a generalized allegory, she dies-we die-they die; insofar as it's a concrete happening it's not important that she die; it is disproportionately cruel that she die. Let her live--the idea will have been imparted anyway."

Transitioning from stage to film, especially a famous play, oftentimes involves actors from the stage reenacting those on film. Frank Craven (Mr. Morgan [The narrator]), Doro Merande (Mrs. Soames)        and Arthur Allen (Professor Willett) reprised their stage roles. Martha Scott, who played the lead, Emily, on Broadway was not such a shoo-in for the part. In fact, she was initially not considered for the role in the film because of her poor screen test for the character of "Melanie" in Gone with the Wind. However, after auditioning other actresses, the studio decided to audition her.

The Narrator (Frank Craven) serves as our guide through Our Town.

The film follows the basic three-act structure of the play. We meet the Narrator (Frank Craven), the small town’s druggist, on the road and he introduces us to Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, and the people living there as a morning begins in the year 1901. Joe Crowell (Tim Davis) delivers the paper to Doc Gibbs (Thomas Mitchell), Howie Newsome (Stuart Erwin) delivers the milk, and Mrs. Webb (Beulah Bondi) and Mrs. Gibbs (Fay Bainter) get their children Emily (Martha Scott) and Wally Webb (Douglas Gardner), George (William Holden) and Rebecca Gibbs (Ruth Toby) ready for school.

Dr. Gibbs (Thomas Mitchell) returns home after delivering twins while his
wife (Fay Banter) makes breakfast for their children before school.

Dr. Gibbs, who has just delivered twins, returns home and goes to bed before opening his practice for the day.

To give us some background on Grover’s Corner, The Narrator introduces us to Professor Willett, who speaks to the audience about the history of the town. We next hear from newspaper Editor Webb (Guy Kibbee), who speaks to the audience about the town's socioeconomic status, political and religious demographics. He even “takes” questions from the audience about the accessibility, or lack thereof, of culture and art in Grover's Corners. The Narrator cuts off the questions and then leads us through a series of pivotal moments throughout the afternoon and evening, revealing the characters' relationships and challenges.

George Gibbs (William Holden) talks to Emily Webb (Martha Scott).

After school, George talks to Emily about school and the future. Emily, who is very bright, is better at math and while he doesn’t ask her for the answers, she does agree to give him hints. He also tells her that he’s planning on being a farmer when he gets out of school. His uncle has a farm and has offered it to him if he’s good at farming.

Emily goes home and, while helping her mother, asks if she’s pretty. Her mother tells her she’s pretty enough.

Later that evening, George calls out to her and Emily gives him enough hints so that he can figure out one of the questions on their math homework.

Dr. Gibbs calls out his wife for gossiping about Simon Stimson.

It is during the evening, and at choir practice at the Congregational Church, we are introduced to Simon Stimson (Phillip Wood), the organist and choir director. Later, we overhear Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Web and Mrs. Louella Soames (Doro Merande) gossip afterward that he is an alcoholic. When Mrs. Gibbs tells her husband, he quietly tells her that it is not of their concern.

The next time we see the Narrator, three years have passed, and George and Emily prepare to wed. The day is filled with stress. Howie Newsome is delivering milk in the pouring rain while Si Crowell (Dix Davis), younger brother of Joe, laments how George's baseball talents will be squandered.

George makes an awkward visit to his in-laws, here Emily's father (Guy Kibbee).

George pays an awkward visit to his soon-to-be in-laws. The Narrator interrupts the scene and takes us back a year, to the end of Emily and George's junior year when Emily and George confess their love for each other. George decides not to go to college, as he had planned, but to work and eventually take over his uncle's farm.

In the present, neither George nor Emily are ready to marry, but they go through with the wedding.

Nine years pass and The Narrator takes us to the cemetery, which dates back to the 1660s. It is here that he informs us of the deaths since the wedding, including Mrs. Gibbs (pneumonia, while traveling), Wally Webb (burst appendix, while camping), Mrs. Soames, and Simon Stimson (suicide by hanging).

Meanwhile, back on the farm, Emily is about to give birth to her second child, but she is very ill. And while she wants to live, she can’t hold on.

In her dream, the dead Emily interacts with Mrs. Gibbs, who has also recently died.

The funeral takes place in the rain and once the attendees leave, Emily emerges to join the dead. Ignoring the warnings of Simon, Mrs. Soames, and Mrs. Gibbs, Emily returns to Earth to relive one day, her 16th birthday. She joyfully watches her parents and her younger self. She realizes that every moment of life should be appreciated. She delivers one of the better-remembered monologues from the play.

Emily Webb: Wait! One more look. Goodbye. Goodbye, world! Goodbye, Grover's Corners. Mama and Papa. Goodbye to clocks ticking, my butternut tree, and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee, and... new-ironed dresses and hot baths. And sleeping and waking up! Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?

It is then that the baby is born and Emily wakes up from what had been a dream. She is still very much alive and, in fact, looks stronger.

The film ends where it started with The Narrator on the road outside of town.

The Narrator then meets us back on the road outside of town. It’s late at night now and he bids us good night.

There were some who had doubts the play could be adapted for the screen. As Bosley Crowther writes in his New York Times review, “As a play it was done without scenery, thus evoking the most fragile imagery; and, for this reason, it seemed almost too spiritual for transference to the screen.”

The play was also considered metatheatrical, meaning that draws attention to its nature as drama or theatre, or to the circumstances of its performance. In the play, the narrator is The Stage Manager of the play and he even quips during the intermission between acts 1 and 2, “That's the end of Act I, folks. You can go and smoke, now. Those that smoke." Here, the narrator addresses the audience directly. Something that had been seen sparingly in films, the exception that comes to mind being Groucho Marx’s asides in early Marx Brothers movies. During Emily’s monologue, she even seems to be addressing the audience directly.

The general reception for the film was pretty positive. Not only did Crowther call it, “There is reason to take hope this morning, to find renewed faith and confidence in mankind…” but he concluded his review with, “We hesitate to employ superlatives, but of "Our Town" the least we can say is that it captures on film the simple beauties and truths of humble folks as very few pictures ever do: it is rich and ennobling in its plain philosophy—and it gives one a passionate desire to enjoy the fullness of life even in these good old days of today.”

The film was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Martha Scott), Best Art Direction, Black-and-White (Lewis J. Rachmil), Best Music, Score (Aaron Copland), and Best Sound, Recording (Thomas T. Moulton (Samuel Goldwyn SSD)). It would win none of them.

Martha Scott is obviously good as Emily. It’s a role that she knows well and she seems very comfortable playing the part. This was her first film of many, as she seemed to work steadily on-screen as well as on stage. She was featured in major films such as Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), and William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959), playing the mother of Charlton Heston's character in both films. She would also appear with Heston on stage, playing his wife in Design for a Stained Glass Window and The Tumbler in London.

William Holden was still a very young man when he made Our Town and a newly minted star, having had his first lead role the year before in Golden Boy. He seems too old for the teenage role he’s supposed to be playing at the beginning of the film, but he gives a good performance as George, baseball player turned farmer.

The supporting cast is full of great performances from Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter, and Beulah Bondi. By this time in their careers, they seem to be settled on playing parents and do a good job. I’m struck at just how talented Mitchell is, as an example, having played a series of memorable though not starring roles in such films as Stagecoach (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Gone with The Wind (1939). He’s one of those actors who seems to be able to play any non-lead role and make it very believable.

The pacing for Our Town matches that of the fictitious town it is supposed to be about. While this might have been okay for 1940 audiences, I’m afraid many today might get antsy as there is really very little action in the film. Not that that’s bad, but it is something to be aware of.

But slowness doesn’t equate to bad. Our Town is a little like Shakespeare, it is something that you hear how good it is but unless you see it you don’t appreciate it. While this is not the play filmed for cameras, with the exception of the happy ending, it is very close to what was performed on stage in 1938. It is a great time capsule for what audiences were looking for in films at that time. The film’s message is uplifting if you listen to it.

To that end, I would recommend Our Town. It is a chance to see a great play without having to leave your home. And you get to see the person who originated the role, Martha Scott as Emily. Remakes, of which there have been several, can’t give you that.

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