Our Town

Director: Sam Wood
Screenplay:Thornton Wilder, Frank Craven, Harry Chandlee (based on the play byThornton Wilder)
Stars: William Holden (George Gibbs), Martha Scott (Emily Webb), Fay Bainter (Mrs.Gibbs), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Webb), Thomas Mitchell (Dr. Gibbs), Guy Kibbee (EditorWebb), Stuart Erwin (Howie Newsome), Frank Craven (Mr. Morgan, the narrator)
MPAA Rating:NR
Year of Release: 1940
Country: USA
Our Town Poster

Playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder believed that life was only worth living if youtreasured each moment in time. In the late 1930s, he won the Pulitzer Prize for one his firstlong plays, "Our Town," a three-act piece that was designed to be performed without sets.

In that sense, it is somewhat ironic that the 1940 film version of "Our Town" was heraldedfor the wonderful set design by William Cameron Menzies, who also designed the sets for"Gone With the Wind" (1939). While the film was greatly successful at the time of itsrelease (it was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture), today it seems quite datedin its theatrical clunkiness.

This is not to say that the film does not retain a certain level of effectiveness. In fact, muchof the dialogue still sounds fresh and realistic, even by today's standards that usuallyrelegate older movie dialogue to camp status, and there are a number of truly arrestingscenes that capture the eye and burn into the mind. One of the best is a high shot of a lineof people under identical black umbrellas trudging up a hill in the rain toward a funeral. It is acliched shot to be sure, but it is so simple and primal in its emotional impact that it stillpacks a wallop.

"Our Town" takes place in a fictional New Hampshire village at the turn of the 20thcentury (one of the film's persistent themes is the unavoidable nature of natural change).The story is narrated by the local druggist, a man named Mr. Morgan, who essentiallytakes the audience on a guided tour through the folksy town, introducing characters andlocations while offering a bit of history.

The movie version is clunky precisely because it relies on the theatrical device of Mr.Morgan (Frank Craven) as an omniscient narrator who both interacts as a character withinthe story and also speaks directly to the audience. The breaking of the fourth wall betweenthe narrative and the audience is so complete in "Our Town" that, at one point, the narratorasks various characters to "talk" to the audience about the town. He even asks if membersof the audience have any questions, and we hear several fabricated voices from the"audience" throw out queries. This may have worked well in the close, physicalenvironment of the theater, but on celluloid it comes across as goofy and forced.

However, "Our Town" does have its strengths, most notably the fine performances of thelead actors. A young William Holden, ages away from the embittered, dying outlaw hewould play in Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" (1969), plays a genial teenager wholongs for his next-door neighbor, Emily (Martha Scott, reprising the role she created in theoriginal stage production). Much of "Our Town" is their story, a youthful melodramaabout burgeoning love and the realization of the need to enjoy each moment in its own. Thenarrative uses a near-death experience as a device to allow Emily to look back on her lifeand reassess all the moments she had taken for granted. In a way his devices is hokey, butat the same time, the eloquent manner in which it is staged by director Sam Wood allows ittakes on great emotional and spiritual significance (it is also aided greatly by a wonderfulscore by Aaron Copland)..

Sam Wood directed many other notable films in the '30s and '40s, many of which weremelodramas in the same vein as "Our Town." Here, he keeps the emotional lid fairly tightand doesn't let the melodrama go overboard (as he did in the ludicrously over-the-top 1942film "Kings Row"). In some ways, this makes "Our Town" seem a bit staid, which is notnecessarily a bad thing. Instead of pounding forward with tragedy after tragedy, the filmmoves with the gentle, sometimes tragic rhythms of life that one would associate with anidealized small town.

Many scenes are content to depict simple conversations between friends and familymembers, and it is in these exchanges that we grow to understand why Wilder cherishedeach moment so much: because they are, in the end, fleeting.

Our TownDVD

Audio1.0 Monaural
SupplementsRecording of a one-hour radio production of "Our Town" for the Lux Radio Theater
"The Wizard's Apprentice," 1930 short film
"The Town," 1943 short documentary

Although the press materials claim the film was "fullyrestored" from original negative elements secured from Thorton Wilder's estate, theresulting image is very poor. There are, of course, certain expectations that a 60-year-oldfilm will have some imperfections, but the image on this DVD is simply awful. There isquite a bit of damage in the form of tears, dirt, and scratches, and the image is highlyunstable and flickers a great deal. Grain is abundant throughout, and the black levels changefrom scene to scene. A few of the sequences come out nicely, and in them you can get asense of what a beautiful film this was when it first came out. Unfortunately, the vastmajority of this transfer is fuzzy, washed out, and low in contrast, which makes onewonder what passes for "digital remastering" these days.

The 1.0 monaural soundtrack is roughly equal in quality tothe image. Sounding somewhat like an old record, it is filled with audible hiss and occasionpopping and crackling that reach the point of distraction. Dialogue is often difficult if notimpossible to understand, and the overall feel of the soundtrack is flat and somewhatdistorted, especially in the higher ranges. Aaron Copland's beautiful score manages to shinethrough dimly from time to time, even though it sounds like it is coming from the far end ofa tunnel.

This DVD release of "Our Town" is equipped with aninteresting, definitely eclectic, set of extras. The supplement most obviously related to thefilm is a recording of a one-hour production of the play for the Lux Radio Theater in 1940.This radio production features most of the actors who appeared in the movie, as well as theoriginal musical score, and it is given an introduction by producer Cecil B. DeMille (not tomention a long commercial for Lux flakes). The soundtrack for this radio production isexquisite, with no hiss or distortion at all, which only points up how bad the movie'ssoundtrack is. The other two extras are a pair of short films. The first is "The Town," an11-minute documentary about Madison, Indiana. The film, which was shot by legendarydirector Josef von Sternberg, was part of the "The American Scene" series of filmsproduced as propaganda tools for the Office of War Information during World War II. It isan interesting piece of work, and its propagandistic intent is readily obvious in the way itworks to build small-town American pride. At the same time, though, it captures an imageof how America wanted (and, in some circles, still wants) to see itself. The other short filmis a little oddity made in 1930 called "The Wizard's Apprentice." Based on the same sourcematerial that inspired part of Disney's "Fantasia" (1940), it is a short fantasy film that hasgreat surrealistic sets and an interesting use of camera angles and editing. The only reason Ican figure that it was included with on a disc with "Our Town" is because William CameronMenzies designed the sets for both films. The visual and audio quality of both "The Town"and "The Wizard's Apprentice" are roughly the same as "Our Town," which means theyare quite poor.

©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2.5)

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