Monday, September 8, 2014

Our Town (1940)

Director: Sam Wood

Home is the place most dear to one’s heart. It is a location ever familiar to person, but is always changing at the same time. There one shares many memories from joy to sorrow and as time marches on becomes more of a place of ever changing moments leaving behind the memories of the familiar past. This is the heart of the story of Our Town, the motion picture based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play. The film takes a romantic look at small town America at the beginning of the 20th century showing how the passage of time is both a beautiful and tragic as life moves in a harmony of fluctuating moments as many individuals’ lives in a small, close knit community.

Our Town is a tale about a small New England town, its friendly inhabitants, and how in the course of thirteen years manifests the changes in individuals lives from growth, to marriage, and the idea of eventual death centering on the story of one young couple. The tale takes place in the tiny rural community of Grover’s Corner, the type of town where everyone knows each other and everyday living resembles a Norman Rockwell painting. Guided by a friendly, all-seeing narrator (most commonly referred to as Stage Manager in the play, played by Frank Craven), we are first introduced to the town and it many inhabitants, becoming familiar with how the various characters are connected to everyone else in some fashion. More importantly we are introduced to George (William Holden) and Emily (Martha Scott); two teenage neighbors whom we watch them mature with each other through the picture.

Young Lovers.
The three act structure of the picture proceeds from the first act being introductory day-in-the-life-of section to the engagement and wedding of George and Emily. The third and most complex act shows an ailing Emily near death envisions her own transition to the afterlife. There Emily meets once again many familiar figures who had passed since we saw her in the first act and her wish to revisit her carefree and joyful younger days, which is fulfilled in her third person viewing of the morning of her 16th birthday. Through this experience Emily experiences dread that she cannot actually savor the joys of the days she took for granted. Upon learning this valuable lesson which she wishes the audience would learn Emily awakens from her unconscious vision to the lights of her newborn son she just gave birth to, which signifies the rise of a new generation of life in the town.

The film plays a lazy, slow moving stroll through life reminiscing of the good old days of familiarity and life. Taken from the play is the narrator of the story, common referred to outside of the story as the Stage Director, who periodically pops up as side characters in important moments in George and Emily’s relationship together. The picture tugs on the heart strings of the nostalgic viewers looking back on a simpler time, such as that of a child knowing all the nuances of his/her home town. It paints a pretty picture that draws the audience in by perhaps making parallels to their own childhood.

The story structure follows an overly simplified three act play. The first act is, as always, the introduction to the characters and their surroundings. The drama begins as the two main characters decide to take that next big step in life, marriage, and the idea that they are growing up. The third act is that of Emily’s envisioned death, teaching that that she must cherish every moment in life and not take them for granted as she views her own life.

Although the acting of the two main characters, played by William Holden and Martha Scott is melodramatic and over the top, which we see many times from adult actors playing much younger characters, the overall picture is still rather well made in production and emotion. There are many singular moments in the film that can remind one of simple moments that feel amateur in quality similar to that of a community theater production, giving away the case that the source material is from a successful play.

Contrasting these moments is the production value that filmmakers have over any stage version, most notably the scene where a ghostly Emily views her 16th birthday. Special visual effects made it possible for a translucent Martha Scott to act around various character including her herself as the living teenage version of Emily. The root of the plot still manages to somehow get under the skin of those nostalgic of the past that bring a smile to one’s face along with the challenge and promise of growth.

The play Our Town by Thornton Wilder opened in New Jersey in January of 1938, shortly followed by opening in Boston and New York. Winning the Pulitzer Prize the play was commonly produced will an empty stage with no sets and the actors mimicking the use of imaginary props. The idea of making the stage production a motion picture allowed for the first time the use of physical sets to actually envision the town of Grover’s Corners. Many of the actors form the successful Broadway run reprised their role on stage, most notably Frank Craven as Stage Director, who drives the feature along, and Martha Scott as the lead female character of Emily. These transitions of actors from stage to screen helped bring the core of the tale to motion picture adaptation.

Death envisioned by Our Town.
The supporting cast was a strong group of talented actors form Academy Award winner Thomas Mitchell and the lovable Guy Kibbee as the two family patriarchs, to the critically acclaimed Fay Bainter and talented Beulah Bondi and their motherly wives. Frank Craven, though not high in the cast bill provides his vital role as our guide in the movie, was already very well-traveled both on the stage and on the screen. 

The stars, Holden and Scott, were very new to the motion picture business. This would be Holden’s second starring role as a fresh faced actor on the rise, while Our Town was the first film role ever for 28 year-old Martha Scott. With her performance Scott would thrusted immediately into the lights of the best actresses in Hollywood as she was nominated for an Academy Award in her very first screen appearance.

The picture would be nearly as enjoyed on screen as it was on stage as the film racked up six Academy Award nominations, including the nominations for best picture and score by composer Aaron Copland’s. The production of Our Town as a play would far outlive this screen adaption. In fact, many more adaptions would be made of the play in the future for both the big screen and for television along with several revivals on stage. This particular version would fade away in the existence of cinema with the help of its copyright not being renewed and the picture falling into public domain, which unfortunately leads to a lack of quality preservation because of an absence of ownership by a singular entity.

Our Town remains a strong adaption of the original play. It contains one glaring difference form the source material as Emily actual passes away in the original play, but in the Hollywood version the death is made into a dream. (A Hollywood trick used far too often) The film leaves the story on a bit more of a sugary high note with a happy mother and her newborn child, but the heart of the story is still there. Our Town continues to bring nostalgia to stages across America in professional and amateur theaters throughout, but here remains a permanent record of a production that utilizes players for the original cast that started it all guided by the man that originally penned the story as the screenwriter preserving  a strong reminder of the story’s origin.

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