…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
You may be surprised to know that, for all the community theatre I have done and seen, prior to viewing this film I had not even once been exposed to Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, Our Town. With notable director Sam Wood at the helm, the 1940 film cast included recent Academy Award winners Fay Bainter (Supporting, Jezebel, 1938) and Thomas Mitchell (Supporting, Stagecoach, 1939), as well as Beulah Bondi and Guy Kibbee. Especially highlighted were fresh-faced William Holden and Martha Scott, reprising their Broadway roles as George Gibbs and Emily Webb, the central characters of the story.
This filming of Our Town, originally a play in three acts, manages to squeeze nearly 15 years into a mere hour and a half. Set in a fictional New Hampshire town called Grovers Corners at the turn of the century, the story follows the daily doings of the homespun town-folk, spins many a country yarn, and offers up some predictable nuggets of wisdom. There really is no main story to it, and most of the narrative is guided by the town apothecary, Mr. Morgan (Frank Craven). It is filmed, however, as if you are watching a stage performance, with Craven yelling ‘offstage’ to set technicians and telling cast members that ‘that is enough, we’re going to move ahead 2 years now’ at odd intervals. While one can appreciate the charming intent the filmmakers had with this device, it does little but remind us that this was, indeed, based on a stage play and was only intended to be rendered effectively as such. The overall result feels disjointed and at times, just plain corny – like the play itself. While the heart of the story revolves around the love affair between George and Emily, you need to disregard a few tangents that never get explained – including a drunk choir director who, completely soused, wanders the streets of town late at night, only to disappear until his death is brought up at the end of the picture. Rather sad, as for a moment, when he stumbled about and the musical score got strangely creepy, I was excited to see something interesting and perhaps even dangerous – gasp! – actually happen in this Snoozeville. And maybe it is just me, but the way in which this town was filmed seemed incredibly too dark and mysterious. I felt like I was watching an old episode of The Twilight Zone. I’m aware that truly good prints of this movie have yet to be issued on DVD (the one I watched was hideous), but it seems that a more delicate, breezy touch could have been used in filming life in cozy Grovers Corners.
William Holden and Martha Scott, who received her one and only Academy Award nomination in this movie, do an apt job of bringing to life the awkward relationship development between town sweethearts/neighbors George and Emily. I particularly enjoyed a scene between the two of them in the soda shop, even if it did seem a bit forced to push the youngsters toward deciding their best lot in life was to just marry one another (marriage seems to be a given in this community… my, how times have changed!). At age 28, Scott seemed a little too old to be playing a teenager by that time – and Holden, even at age 22, seemed awkward playing a 17 year old (perhaps because he was really quite a mature-looking man, even at a younger age). Watching them in these roles, it just doesn’t quite add up. Indeed, disappearing for large chunks at a time, it’s complexing why Scott garnered a nomination. Only at the end of the film does she seems to contribute most of her acting chops in a dream sequence, in which her character has supposedly come close to dying in childbirth. Lit brightly, like a gossamer angel of sorts, Emily reviews the events of her past, marvelling with poignancy at the swift passing of time and how we take life’s sweet, tender moments for granted (a central theme of the play). In the play, Emily does die in childbirth. In typical Hollywood fashion, the film’s producers disagreed with killing off the heroine and portrayed Emily struggling back to life with her family. This ironically defeats the purpose of the play, which ponders the fragility and swiftness of life. Apparently this point was missed.
While I have to admire Martha Scott for tackling a role she was most familiar with from the stage in this film adaptation, I believe that she was the weakest link of the 5 actresses nominated for 1940. Kate Hepburn was in top form reprising her own stage role of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, Ginger Rogers took home the gold for playing Kitty Foyle, and if Rosalind Russell had been justly tossed into the ring for her stellar performance in His Girl Friday, there might have been some pretty serious competition. Sadly, one of Russell’s crowning achievements was ignored by the Academy with a tip of the hat to Scott’s performance in Our Town, which – again – was surely more effective on stage than in this little film, which scarcely registers in the grand scheme of things.