“It’s a nice town. Know what I mean?”
“Our Town,” a play by Thornton Wilder, is the portrait of the events in and people of a small American town in the early 1900s and has been justly recognized as a true American classic. Recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, it was a highly successful Broadway play whose motion picture rights were acquired by independent producer Sol Lesser in 1939. The film Our Town was released by United Artists in mid-1940 to considerable acclaim for its overall impact, acting, production design and musical score. Some 60 years later, despite its simplicities, the film’s straightforward, sensitive portrait of an era long past retains its power to make us care about the everyday living and concerns of small-town life.
Our Town is a public domain title which has long suffered the fate of such films — fuzzy, noisy dupes by the many companies specializing in such material. FOCUSfilm Entertainment has now released the title on DVD along with several interesting supplements.
Grovers Corners is a small town in New Hampshire just after the beginning of the 1900s. Next-door neighbors are the Gibbs and Webb families. Doc Gibbs and his wife Julie have a son George and daughter Rebecca while Charlie Webb (the town’s newspaper editor) and his wife Myrtle have a daughter Emily and son Wally. Julie worries about her husband being overworked and dreams of taking a vacation trip with him, perhaps to Paris. Meanwhile, George and Emily seem destined to be together and over the next three years, their romance blossoms and plans are made for them to marry soon after high school commencement is over. A further nine years pass, more modern conveniences come to Grovers Corners, lives are led, some lives end, and Emily is very ill as she expects her second child. As she seems to sink into death, the image of the town’s graveyard and voices and memories from the past appear to envelop her…
Our Town is an evocative profile of small town America. We see the simple everyday routines of the townspeople, experience their triumphs and setbacks, and share their hopes and fears. We see the progression of life that usually makes its way naturally to a conclusion, but sometimes ends unexpectedly. It is, I suspect, a film that could not be made now, for modern audiences have become too inattentive to sit still long enough to watch the simple acts of living that it so lovingly portrays. Fortunate it is then that we still have Our Town available. For those willing to take the time to watch it, the time is well spent.
The year of Our Town‘s release was 1940 and it is a Hollywood film, so it’s probably not giving anything away to reveal that the film’s ending was happy. That was the exact opposite of how the play ended. The change made for the film was, however, apparently done in close consultation with Thornton Wilder. In fact, Wilder wrote producer Sol Lesser: “Emily should live…In a movie you see the people so close ‘to’ that a different relation is established. In the theatre, they are halfway abstraction in an allegory, in the movie they are very concrete. So, insofar as the play is a generalized allegory, she dies-we die-they die; insofar as it’s a concrete happening, it’s not important that she die; it is disproportionately cruel that she die. Let her live — the idea will have been imparted anyway.” I’m not sure that I agree with Wilder’s reasoning process, but I do agree with his conclusion that, in the film, Emily should live. The dream sequence in the graveyard and the testimonies of the town’s departed are sensitively done and the power of the scene remains with us long afterward, so that any necessity for Emily to die is removed.
One of the great strengths of Our Town is the performance of Martha Scott as Emily Webb. The role had the potential to become sappy in the wrong hands, but Scott brought an earnestness and sincerity that shone through in nearly every scene she was in. She had originally created the role on Broadway, but apparently was not at first considered for Emily in the film on the basis of a poor screen test for “Melanie” in Gone with the Wind (1939, MGM). Eventually, however, she was cast and Our Town became her film debut. She was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress (but lost to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle [1940, RKO]).
Unfortunately, Our Town is less well served by William Holden who portrays Emily’s suitor, George Gibbs. Holden is very young here — 22 years old and only 5 films and 2 years from his film debut in Prison Farm (1938, Paramount). His chief expression in Our Town seems to be one of frowning perplexity. He’s not a detriment to the film, but neither is he a strength.
Our Town provides a grand opportunity for Hollywood’s rich stock of character actors and actresses to show their stuff and show they do. Memorable are Fay Bainter as Julie Gibbs, Beulah Bondi as Myrtle Webb, Thomas Mitchell as Doc Gibbs, Guy Kibbee as Charlie Webb, and Frank Craven as Mr. Morgan, the town pharmacist. In his portrayal of Morgan, Frank Craven acts somewhat as a custodian for the film. He introduces the town to us and guides our journey in time and space through it. He comments on the action; he introduces characters to us and has them speak to the camera, or to us; and at one point, he even reaches out to the camera to stop one scene and start another. It’s an effective mechanism that Craven conveys in a chatty, relaxed manner.
The film itself was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture. In addition to the virtue of its acting, other strengths are the evocative art design by William Cameron Menzies and the lyrical musical score by Aaron Copland, both themselves nominated, as well as efficient, straight-forward direction by Sam Wood that does not distract from the intimate mood of the proceedings. (Interestingly, two years later, Wood would direct King’s Row [1942, WB], a small-town drama of an entirely different kind.)
So how has FOCUSfilm done with Our Town? Well, I’d like to be able to report that this is the definitive version, but that’s far from the case. The DVD does look better than any VHS version of the film that I’ve seen, but as DVDs go, the image quality isn’t great. The packaging claims digital remastering from original negative elements. That may well be, but if so, the original negative is in pretty bad shape. The picture is somewhat shaky to start off and is quite soft. The shakiness soon disappears, but the softness rarely does. At many points, there’s an overall haziness that seems superimposed on the image. Given that, annoying scratches and blemishes are somewhat less evident than one might expect. The sound is mono and shows its age, but is fairly clear throughout. Overall, though, I would have to say that transfer quality is much closer to a Madacy effort than to some of the best B&W efforts from the major studios.
That said, there are some very interesting extras on the disc. First, we have an 11-minute 1943 short entitled “The Town,” prepared for the Office of War Information. Its director, uncredited, was Josef von Sternberg. The short focuses on the town of Madison, Indiana and extols the real-life virtues of American small-town living. The parallels with Our Town are evident and it is fascinating to compare the look of the real thing with the Hollywood version. Sound and image are marginally worse than those of Our Town. Secondly, there is a 9-minute 1930 curiosity called “The Wizard’s Apprentice” which plays out a short tale to the music of Paul Dukas’ “The Sorceror’s Apprentice.” The short’s introductory screen suggests it to be the inspiration for The Sorceror’s Apprentice sequence in Fantasia, and upon viewing it, one can readily see why that may have been the case. What has it to do with Our Town, you ask? Well, not much, except that its production credits include William Cameron Menzies, which I presume was the connection FOCUSfilm intended. Incidentally, read the introductory screen carefully. After you’ve watched the short, you’ll notice that the notes about the short’s storyline don’t gibe at all (I’m still looking for that chase sequence!) Sound and image are both fairly poor. Finally, FOCUSfilm has included the original 1940 Lux Radio Theater presentation of Our Town as presented by the same cast as in the film. Sound quality is quite good for the 60-minute program that is presented as an audio track with still-frame images from the film accompanying it. The program is intact with a Lux promo and a Cecil B. DeMille introduction at the beginning.
I have to return to the quality of the feature presentation on this disc. FOCUSfilm is charging $29.95 for its DVD and for that we should expect a better effort to present topnotch image and sound. FOCUSfilm may think they’ve done their best here, but they should look to the competition to see what the consumer has come to expect. At such a price point, I have to feel that Criterion would have done much better and if they couldn’t, I also believe they would have rejected doing the disc at all. Adding supplements doesn’t justify a price for a film whose quality would otherwise not justify more than a $10 price on DVD.
How badly do you want Our Town? The film itself is one of the really fine ones. This DVD version is not. It’s better than any VHS version out there, but it’s also SRP $29.95 (available at about $21 if you shop around). The supplements are quite intriguing and in the case of the Lux Radio transcript, presented in good shape. For some, they may justify a purchase of this disc. But as I’ve said before, the film’s the thing and here its presentation is marginal compared to what we’ve come to expect on DVD.