Oct. 9, 2005

Our Town (1940)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Sam Wood
Stars: William Holden, Martha Scott, Thomas Mitchell

What it's about. This curious film was based on Thorton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Our folksy but otherworldly narrator Frank Craven takes us on a tour of the past of a small town. The focus is on pretty young Emily (Martha Scott) and her equally golly-gosh athlete boyfriend George (William Holden, so young as to be unrecognizable). George's father is Thomas Mitchell. Emily's dad is Guy Kibbee. Aaron Copland provides the score.

How I felt about it. Can a film made a lifetime ago seem original today? Yes. Here is a film with an ageless, all-knowing narrator who can move through time at will, yet interacts with the audience and fellow characters of any era. He looks like a homely social security retiree with unusual confidence and intelligence. When he notes that a character will die in a few years, his delivery is as matter of fact as if he was telling us the temperature.

Beyond the simple boy-next-door courtship, which goes down as easily as a teaspoon of honey, the film promotes the work ethic, modesty, and duty of small town life. Nostalgia for the past is strong. Thus, the automobile is an enemy, an agent of unwelcome change.

The narrator visits 1901 and lingers there not because Queen Victoria died that year, but because the principal characters, Emily and George, are the proper age to have lengthy futures of some promise ahead. The world is always better when you are young, at least in your own biased eyes.

The problem with nostalgia is that it can cloud your view of the past. Emily and George are perfect teenagers who mind their parents and never pass the hand-holding stage of their platonic relationship, at least until they are wed at the usual time (at the time), the week after high school graduation. Children follow, although one wonders how, given how impossibly innocent our wide-eyed lovers are. But teens were the same in 1901 as they were in 1951 or 2001. We pretend they were better behaved long ago, because that's how we'd like to believe they were.

The film incongruously kills off its major character, but this only increases her screen time. In her eternal afterlife, she stands immobilized at her grave, always in view of her dead neighbors in nearby cemetary tombs. Everybody stares straight ahead waiting for Judgment Day. The dead can go back in time to relive their youthful glories, like the ghost of Christmas Past, as a witness able to see and hear but not communicate.

I suspect that the real intention of Our Town is not to invent new myths of the afterlife, but to embellish the known mythology of the small town. It is a place with no crime, although there is a 1940 reference to a jail, and some folks with possessions take to locking their doors at night. This amuses their neighbors, who would never think of taking anything. In the idyllic small town, the peaceful life is yours if you conform to common wisdom, and avoid public gossip by not walking the streets drunken.

Never having seen the big city, are the small town dwellers missing out? Not so, Our Town implies, since all you need (family, love, your father's middling vocation) is provided for, almost like manna from heaven. The only problem is an unusually high death rate. What Grover's Corners really needs is a better hospital.