The Also-Rans Project – Our Town (Best Picture Also-Ran 1940)

Original movie poster for the film Our Town (1940 film).jpgDirected by Sam Wood

Screenplay by Thornton Wilder, Frank Craven and Harry Chandlee, based on the play by Thornton Wilder

Starring William Holden, Martha Scott, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, Guy Kibbee, Stewart Erwin and Frank Craven

The notion seeming to underlie the “Make America Great Again” slogan is a desire to return to a different, simpler time in our history, when the grass was always greener and everybody was prosperous and people knew their place.  In other words, it years for a fictional time in our history where life was never tough for anybody, especially for white people.

In other words, it desires the world of Our Town, minus the tragedy.

Unfortunately, Our Town will always have the tragedy.

And even if times were better for some people, it’s because it was bad for everybody else.  When white unemployment was low, it was because black unemployment was high.  When white poverty was low, black poverty was high.  When a white man could earn enough money to comfortably support a family of four without any skills and only a high school diploma, a black man could starve with a PhD.

What the “Make American Great Again” slogan really does is ignore the reality that underlying that economic greatness was oppression and poverty.  So, when I hear people spout that line I hear somebody saying they want nothing more than to return to a time of overt racism and oppression.  Because it’s easy to be great when you don’t let blacks vote, and hold women as subservient, and treat homosexuals as mentally ill, and make damn sure to shut all non-Christians out of the process.

In the end, whenever I hear/see “Make America Great Again” I can only see it in terms of “Make American Oppress Again.”

And somewhere in here we have Our Town.

What It’s About

Our Town is a slice of life of neighboring families in a small New Hampshire town, observed at three different times over a number of years.  It shows the progress, but also the tragedy often underlying the idyllic image.

How It’s About What It’s About

Our Town was a theatrical breakthrough.  Eschewing sets, costumes and most props, it relied solely on the audiences’ imagination to decorate the action.  In this way, while the play looked back with nostalgia on small town life, and seemed to lionize the simpler aspects of it, it was also explicitly modern and forward-thinking,[1] making plain by its form that it would not succumb to the slow death of trying to relive the past.  In the end, it insists that the only thing needed to make great art is the will to do so.

Image result for dogville

Dogville sets

Despite this, the stage aesthetic remained on the stage – the film has sets and costumes.  And only a handful of times after has the aesthetic actually be onscreen, most notably by Lars Von Trier in Dogville, which defined an entire town with painted lines on a studio floor and limited props.   Certainly, some of the experimental nature of Our Town carried over to the film and in a way, it was highly experimental – the fourth wall is broken at will, sometimes to take questions from the ‘audience’, the sets are almost intensely artificial, and it contains a strange hallucination sequence at the end.  But, while the movie experiments, it doesn’t go all the way at all in the way the play did, much to its detriment.

What is kept is the nostalgia and yearning for the ‘innocent’ past.  But more than simply keeping it, the film doubles-down on the earnestness, almost to the point of being naïve.  And up until the end that was how I took the film – as naïve and worthy of dismissal on those grounds.  As being nothing more than pablum aimed at the Christian-movie market before there was one.[2]  Except…

Except the ending undercuts it completely.

Despite the earlier nostalgia, over the last half hour of Our Town we are treated to Martha Scott, as Emily, hallucinating herself as a ghost, trying to relive happy days from her life to fill up her death.  Only, when she returns to those days she finds herself unable to participate in them, can only spectate.  And by being forced into the role of bystander, she experiences the terrible part of death, which is that there is no living in death.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939 film) poster.jpgWhat Else?

Our Town was directed by Sam Wood, a director whose name I knew, but had only limited exposure to.  I’ve seen Goodbye Mr. Chips and A Night At The Opera, but neither of those really stuck with me for directorial reasons.  One was buoyed by the charm of Robert Donat and Greer Garson, while the other is all about the verbal wit of the Marx brother.  If nothing else, Sam Wood was an adequate director, which is not the worst thing one can be.[3]

But with Our Town, Sam Wood really jumped out at me.  Certainly, he’s not a stylist on the level of Kubrick or Hitchcock, but he did bring a visual flair to the movie, even if on a smaller scale.  His camera was lively and he filled every frame with objects and props, showing everything close together, as if using the way the story was told to emphasize the coziness and tight-knittedness of the community.  Based on this film, I look forward to seeing him again and given he has a film in the 1943 Best Picture race – For Whom The Bell Tolls – I may get to see something else by him sooner than later.

William Holden and Martha Scott

William Holden and Martha Scott

William Holden plays the ostensible lead in the film – he’s top-billed – but is almost unrecognizable in both appearance and voice.  By appearance he looks appropriately young enough for the part, and doesn’t seem to have the bulkier physique he’d acquire later on in starring roles in Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17 and Bridge on the River Kwai.  In voice he sounds like a different person altogether, probably owing to not yet having smoked 10,000 cigarettes and not yet having drank 1,000 pints of whiskey by the time he made the film.

Martha Scott plays Emily, the co-lead in the film, and while she’s good in her role – she better be good, given she originated the part on-stage – she is just always too-old for the part.  At no point can she pull off being 16, nor can she convince us she’s all that young and innocent.  At all times, she looks exactly like the grown woman she was, which is a major drawback of the film.  On stage, when she’s at a distance, she might pass, but up close, and on celluloid, she doesn’t.

Frank CravenFrank Craven plays the stage manager – he also originated his part on-stage.  In the role he’s quite enjoyable but, enjoyable as he is, it’s hard to say if he does any solid acting in it.    After all, his job is simply to float through the story, giving context and commentary, which isn’t really acting at all.  If anything, he’s the Greek chorus.  Since it doesn’t call for much from him dramatically, I’m not sure if you put him in another movie he’d be this good.  But, since he’s not in that film, he’s in this film, it only matters he’s good here.

Guy KibbeeGuy Kibbee played Emily’s father, the local newspaper publisher, and is quite charming.  He is most memorable to me for his part as the financier in another Also-Rans Project entry, 42nd Street.

Rebecca 1940 film poster.jpgBetter Than The Best?

Is Our Town better than the Best Picture winner of 1940, Rebecca?  Not only no, but hell no!  In my ranking of Best Picture winners that went along with The Best Picture Project I ranked Rebecca #1 of them all – the Best Picture of Best Pictures.  Through that project and this I have yet to see a film that even could sniff at the hem of Rebecca’s dress.  Whatever that means.

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Please Read/Buy…

See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.

Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project in book form:  E-Book or Paperback.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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[1] So modern and forward thinking there could easily be a gay-themed twist on Our Town called Out Town that changes nothing but the actor’s sex.

[2] How is it possible that Kirk Cameron hasn’t yet made an explicitly-Christian version of Our Town yet?

[3] He also contributed to the direction of Gone With The Wind, but given the way that film cycled through three directors, and had David Selznick’s hands all over it, who knows what parts he actually took charge of.

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