Monday, August 13, 2018

Our Town: A Review


Thornton Wilder's play Our Town is held as one of the landmarks of the American theater, a paean to small-town America that even those who never lived in a small town can relate to.  I cannot verify how close or far the screen adaptation of Our Town stays to the original production since I have yet to see a stage version.  However, the film we have I imagine stays close to the play, which shows why Wilder's work remains a hallmark of American theater.

Mr. Morgan (Frank Craven), our Narrator, tells us the story of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, a small town typical of the time and place, starting in 1901 and ending in 1913.  We learn of the population and some of the residents, particularly the Gibbs and Webb families who live next to each other.

The Gibbs family is made up of the local Doctor (Thomas Mitchell), his wife (Fay Bainter) and their son George (William Holden).  The Webb family is made up of local newspaper publisher Mr. Webb (Guy Kibbee), his wife (Beulah Bondi) and a daughter, Emily (Martha Scott).  Over time we see them live out their lives, with George and Emily eventually falling in love.

Emily and George both have doubts about marrying on their wedding day, but their parents, in their own way, guide their children filled with doubts and fears until they do have their church wedding.  George gave up college and baseball to take on his uncle's farm, and Emily, highly bright, also made sacrifices to be that farmer's wife.

It looks like Emily will join some of those at the local cemetery when giving birth to their second child.  Among those at the cemetery is her mother-in-law and her younger brother, who died after a burst appendix.  As the spirits offer her advise, especially about the pain of looking back, the newly-arrived Emily decides to look back on her 16th birthday.

There, she sees her family moving about their lives: her mother at the stove, her father coming down from a house call, and herself eagerly awaiting what the day will come.  Emily sees how despite their love she and her mother really don't spend much time together, both involved in living to do much with each other.  Emily yearns to reach out and talk to her still-living mother one more time, but as she is dead, she cannot.

However, we find that it was all a dream, for she awakens to find her newborn and her family there at her bedside, and Mr. Morgan the Narrator bids us all a good night.

Image result for our town 1940I think one of the reasons both the play and film Our Town works so well is because it is a simple story told simply. There are no big dramatic moments, no Earth-shattering events.  Instead, we learn about 'simple people', who live out their lives and have their own private hopes, dreams, fears.  There is Mrs. Gibbs' great wish to see Paris, but she is resigned to having a workaholic husband.  Our Narrator does inform us early on that Mrs. Gibbs will die as we see her for the first time, and he also tells us about a paperboy who will also die during 'the Great War' (World War I).

One could see this as a touch morbid, his fixation on telling us this Death Roll Call, but it is true to life: Death can strike at any time and it strikes all of us.

Most of the performances are absolutely beautiful.  I was particularly moved by Bainter as Mrs. Gibbs, her sweet and gentle manner showing her as an ideal mother.  It was also nice to see Guy Kibbee in a rare dramatic performance.  Kibbee tended to play besotted 'sugar daddies' to pretty young things or more comic types, but Our Town showed he could play straight and gentle drama.  Bondi and Mitchell perhaps didn't break type as Mr. and Mrs. Webb, but they did wonderfully in their roles too.

It's curious that while Holden was only 22 when he played George, he looked a bit too old to be a convincing high school student.  However, seeing him in this early role you see how beautiful he looked. You could also see him developing as a strong actor, his scene when he struggles to confess his love to Emily at a soda fountain so well-done.

While Scott earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for recreating her Broadway performance (with Craven also coming from the original Broadway production), I found her a touch too dramatic and mannered.  That isn't to say she didn't have some good moments, but at her pre-wedding jitters or her moments at the cemetery, it seemed a trifle overdone.

Image result for our town 1940
One that that wasn't overdone was Aaron Copland's lush Oscar-nominated score.  His music for Our Town was haunting and beautiful, and probably among his finest and sadly underappreciated film scores, especially compared to music for The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men and The Heiress, the latter winning him the Oscar.

I do not know if anyone has written how Our Town covers similar ground to the Spoon River Anthology poetry collection. Both have the dead talk about their lives and both focus on small-town America.  Perhaps the biggest difference is that despite the deaths in Our Town, there is a greater sense of hope and optimism there than in Spoon River Anthology.  The lives in Grover's Corners weren't as miserable as those in Spoon River.

This sense of hope might be why we had Emily live at the end, her visions of the grave resort to the Dallas-like 'it was all a dream'.  Given how moving this simple story was, it would seem slightly unfair to have film audiences have Emily die.  The theater, perhaps, could be more open.

"There's something eternal about every human being," a character says in Our Town.  There is such wisdom in those words.  Each person who has ever lived has their own unique story, one filled with laughter and tears, joys, pains, secret longings and public celebrations.  Our Town speaks to that, to the eternal in all of us.  It is a very moving experience and moving film, one that could do with a remake or at the least a greater appreciation.


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