Wednesday, August 25, 2010

1940 - Our Town

Happy Anniversary! Last week marked one year since the inception of Matt vs. the Academy. Hurrah! I want to thank you all for reading thus far, especially during this slower period of recent weeks. You'll be glad to know (or maybe you won't care) that Mid-Life: The Crisis Musical opened last week and so I am finally free of rehearsals and therefore experiencing some free time.

I have taken advantage of said free time by continuing with my review of the 1940 Best Picture contest. Next up is...

Our Town
Sam Wood
Thornton Wilder, Frank Craven, Harry Chandlee
(based on the play by Thornton Wilder)
William Holden, Martha Scott, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, Guy Kibbee, Frank Craven
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

Grover's Corners is a typical small town in early 20th century New Hampshire. Quiet, simple living is the order of the day. Our narrator introduces us to several of the town's residents and their daily routines, paying particular attention to the ambitious George Gibbs (Holden) and the smart Emily Webb (Scott). As teenagers, Emily innocently helps George with his homework but, as they grow up, their relationship develops and soon, marriage is on the cards.

This picture is the first screen adaptation of the classic American play that appears on many school curricula, but being educated outside the United States and never having seen a stage production of it, I was not overly familiar with its story. Paradoxically, however, my initial reaction after watching the film was that it just wasn't as good as the stage version.

From the outset, there's a definite theatricality to the picture. Although there is something comfortably soothing about the opening narration from a fourth-wall-breaking character, the regular interruptions set you apart from the action. While this device is perfectly appropriate for the stage, it isn't always effective on film.

In addition, there is the age-old issue with which a lot of films adapted from the stage have trouble tackling - that of loquacious dialogue. In Our Town, there are many slow and languid conversations. Indeed, the script and performances lean toward the superficial and sentimental, and not just due to the film's old-fashioned temperament.

Having said all that, I experienced somewhat of a moment of clarity an hour into the story during the wedding scene when a series of inner monologues by several characters served to illustrate that their cheery dispositions were merely facades to cover up the misery and self-doubt they all feel. Suddenly, the theatricality made sense. The townsfolk were all putting on a show. Nonetheless, this moment of clarity soon gave way to more sentimentality as the film concluded with its sentimental message of "appreciate life while you're living it". Interestingly, I discovered that the final resolution differs quite markedly from the stage play, which contains a much bleaker ending. You can always count on early Hollywood to make the ending cheerful. (Although, in all honesty, I actually appreciated the pick-me-up after the downer that is the final act.)

The other major difference is that the stage version is intended to be performed with the use of only a minimal set, chairs and tables representing entire houses. Playwright Thornton Wilder expressed his desire to allow the emotion of the characters to be highlighted without relying on scenery for enhancement. This film adaptation, however, makes full use of its production designer with complete set pieces in every scene - odd, considering Wilder is credited as one of the screenwriters. Plus, the knowledge of the playwright's original intentions seems to fly in the face of my epiphany about the theatricality of the film. It would seem that Wilder specifically wanted to avoid theatricality. So, either the filmmakers missed the mark on this one or I completely misunderstood the whole thing. Now, I'm confused...


  1. I suppose this will rank near the bottom of your ranking, no one likes it that much at all. Since you've now seen/review all of films of the Best Actress nominees, how would you rank them?

  2. Hmm, that's a toughie. They were all good performances. I guess I'd put Scott and Fontaine at the bottom, if only because their characters are relatively meek and therefore, the actresses don't get to show off as much. Then Davis in third place - hard to fault such a great performance. Then Hepburn in second place - another brilliant and intelligent portrayal from her. Which leaves Rogers taking my top spot, just like the Academy - probably helped by the fact that I was not too familiar with her work, other than the dancing, of course. She surprised me with her natural portrayal.

  3. Congratulations on your first year!
    I didn't care so much for this movie, but it was nice to see once and the cast was great. Like you, I would put Scott at the bottom but Fontaine is my clear winner!

  4. Our Town was the first film I watched from the 1940 group, and I've seen 46 movies since, so I had to refer to my notes :) I had seen it once before a very long time ago, so this was almost a first time viewing. It is pleasant enough, with a classic Americana story. The narrative structure and unusual third act to me make it most interesting. I'm not sure I'd include it with the other nine nominees especially considering a few noteworthy releases from 1940 not nominated.

    That said, Martha Scott did a very nice job. Her later career would be most remembered for her two films where she played Charlton Heston's mother: The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. William Holden on the other hand came off too shy and awkward for his jock character. It would take him ten years to hone his acting persona, and his output in the 50s any beyond was exceptional. Good supporting cast, with the ubiquitous Thomas Mitchell appearing once again.

    I think a great double feature would be Our Town and Dogville - the dark side of small town America. With its stage sets, sex and violence, this story of a depression era town that is first wary, then embracing and finally criminally cruel to a stranger that seeks shelter is a great contrast to Our Town, although as you pointed out Matt, the cheeriness of Our Town was to some extent a facade.

    As for my opinion of the Best Actress race I'd vote for Joan Fontaine with Katherine Hepburn a close second.