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