Saturday, July 05, 2003

OUR TOWN (1940)

Thornton Wilder's stage masterpiece is brought to the screen with a couple of major changes but it survives the translation to become, if not a great movie, a respectable and effective version of Wilder's material. On the surface, it seems almost plotless, but there is a clear narrative line: a boy and girl in small town America during the early part of the 20th century fall in love, get married, and begin to raise a family. The play is narrated by a stage manager who quite literally manages the onstage proceedings. This device, which works well in the theatre, is kept in the film in the person of the town druggist (Frank Craven) who seems to be controlling the filming. The gimmick is a little creaky; sometimes, as in the beginning and end, it works well, but sometimes it doesn't, as in a section where Craven seems to invite audience participation. Martha Scott (who just died earlier this year) is Emily, a young girl who lives next to and falls in love with William Holden, a boy who is torn between going to an agricultural college and staying in town and taking over the family farm. The film begins in the New England town of Grover's Corners in 1940, but the events take place in 1901, 1904, and 1913. The adults are a fine group of character actors: Thomas Mitchell wisely underplays the role of the town doctor (Holden's father) and Fay Bainter is his wife; Guy Kibbee and Beulah Bondi are Emily's parents. None of the characters or situations are extraordinary, which is the point of the whole thing. A little bit like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, this is supposed to be about the everyday living that average, ordinary Americans go through (white middle-class Americans, that is). Most of the dialogue is made up of banal conversational chat, but the acting goes a long way towards making the film fairly compelling. The camerawork is also interesting, with lots of close-ups and interesting use of shadows, and some lovely backdrop matte paintings. The sets, in direct opposition to the play, are realistic and detailed. In the play, a major character dies which brings about a moving last section set in the town graveyard. In the movie, the character, suspended for a while between life and death, ultimately lives, but the material remains powerful. The dead are consigned to an afterlife in the cemetery; remembering the million little joys of life is too sad, so they learn to forget the past instead. It's a rather depressing idea, the strength of which is not compromised by the fact that in the movie, this section winds up being a dream; in the end, the melancholy mood of the play is kept almost intact. Worth seeing.

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