Our Town [DVD]
Screenplay : Thornton Wilder, Frank Craven, Harry Chandlee (based on the play by Thornton Wilder)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1940
Stars : William Holden (George Gibbs), Martha Scott (Emily Webb), Fay Bainter (Mrs. Gibbs), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Webb), Thomas Mitchell (Dr. Gibbs), Guy Kibbee (Editor Webb), Stuart Erwin (Howie Newsome), Frank Craven (Mr. Morgan, the narrator)
Playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder believed that life was only worth living if you treasured each moment in time. In the late 1930s, he won the Pulitzer Prize for one his first long plays, "Our Town," a three-act piece that was designed to be performed without sets.
In that sense, it is somewhat ironic that the 1940 film version of "Our Town" was heralded for the wonderful set design by William Cameron Menzies, who also designed the sets for "Gone With the Wind" (1939). While the film was greatly successful at the time of its release (it was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture), today it seems quite dated in its theatrical clunkiness.
This is not to say that the film does not retain a certain level of effectiveness. In fact, much of the dialogue still sounds fresh and realistic, even by today's standards that usually relegate older movie dialogue to camp status, and there are a number of truly arresting scenes that capture the eye and burn into the mind. One of the best is a high shot of a line of people under identical black umbrellas trudging up a hill in the rain toward a funeral. It is a cliched shot to be sure, but it is so simple and primal in its emotional impact that it still packs a wallop.
"Our Town" takes place in a fictional New Hampshire village at the turn of the 20th century (one of the film's persistent themes is the unavoidable nature of natural change). The story is narrated by the local druggist, a man named Mr. Morgan, who essentially takes the audience on a guided tour through the folksy town, introducing characters and locations while offering a bit of history.
The movie version is clunky precisely because it relies on the theatrical device of Mr. Morgan (Frank Craven) as an omniscient narrator who both interacts as a character within the story and also speaks directly to the audience. The breaking of the fourth wall between the narrative and the audience is so complete in "Our Town" that, at one point, the narrator asks various characters to "talk" to the audience about the town. He even asks if members of the audience have any questions, and we hear several fabricated voices from the "audience" throw out queries. This may have worked well in the close, physical environment of the theater, but on celluloid it comes across as goofy and forced.
However, "Our Town" does have its strengths, most notably the fine performances of the lead actors. A young William Holden, ages away from the embittered, dying outlaw he would play in Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" (1969), plays a genial teenager who longs for his next-door neighbor, Emily (Martha Scott, reprising the role she created in the original stage production). Much of "Our Town" is their story, a youthful melodrama about burgeoning love and the realization of the need to enjoy each moment in its own. The narrative uses a near-death experience as a device to allow Emily to look back on her life and reassess all the moments she had taken for granted. In a way his devices is hokey, but at the same time, the eloquent manner in which it is staged by director Sam Wood allows it takes on great emotional and spiritual significance (it is also aided greatly by a wonderful score by Aaron Copland)..
Sam Wood directed many other notable films in the '30s and '40s, many of which were melodramas in the same vein as "Our Town." Here, he keeps the emotional lid fairly tight and doesn't let the melodrama go overboard (as he did in the ludicrously over-the-top 1942 film "Kings Row"). In some ways, this makes "Our Town" seem a bit staid, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Instead of pounding forward with tragedy after tragedy, the film moves with the gentle, sometimes tragic rhythms of life that one would associate with an idealized small town.
Many scenes are content to depict simple conversations between friends and family members, and it is in these exchanges that we grow to understand why Wilder cherished each moment so much: because they are, in the end, fleeting.
|Our Town DVD|
|Supplements|| Recording of a one-hour radio production of "Our Town" for the Lux Radio Theater|
"The Wizard's Apprentice," 1930 short film
"The Town," 1943 short documentary
|Although the press materials claim the film was "fully restored" from original negative elements secured from Thorton Wilder's estate, the resulting image is very poor. There are, of course, certain expectations that a 60-year-old film will have some imperfections, but the image on this DVD is simply awful. There is quite a bit of damage in the form of tears, dirt, and scratches, and the image is highly unstable and flickers a great deal. Grain is abundant throughout, and the black levels change from scene to scene. A few of the sequences come out nicely, and in them you can get a sense of what a beautiful film this was when it first came out. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this transfer is fuzzy, washed out, and low in contrast, which makes one wonder what passes for "digital remastering" these days.|
|The 1.0 monaural soundtrack is roughly equal in quality to the image. Sounding somewhat like an old record, it is filled with audible hiss and occasion popping and crackling that reach the point of distraction. Dialogue is often difficult if not impossible to understand, and the overall feel of the soundtrack is flat and somewhat distorted, especially in the higher ranges. Aaron Copland's beautiful score manages to shine through dimly from time to time, even though it sounds like it is coming from the far end of a tunnel.|
|This DVD release of "Our Town" is equipped with an interesting, definitely eclectic, set of extras. The supplement most obviously related to the film is a recording of a one-hour production of the play for the Lux Radio Theater in 1940. This radio production features most of the actors who appeared in the movie, as well as the original musical score, and it is given an introduction by producer Cecil B. DeMille (not to mention a long commercial for Lux flakes). The soundtrack for this radio production is exquisite, with no hiss or distortion at all, which only points up how bad the movie's soundtrack is. The other two extras are a pair of short films. The first is "The Town," an 11-minute documentary about Madison, Indiana. The film, which was shot by legendary director Josef von Sternberg, was part of the "The American Scene" series of films produced as propaganda tools for the Office of War Information during World War II. It is an interesting piece of work, and its propagandistic intent is readily obvious in the way it works to build small-town American pride. At the same time, though, it captures an image of how America wanted (and, in some circles, still wants) to see itself. The other short film is a little oddity made in 1930 called "The Wizard's Apprentice." Based on the same source material that inspired part of Disney's "Fantasia" (1940), it is a short fantasy film that has great surrealistic sets and an interesting use of camera angles and editing. The only reason I can figure that it was included with on a disc with "Our Town" is because William Cameron Menzies designed the sets for both films. The visual and audio quality of both "The Town" and "The Wizard's Apprentice" are roughly the same as "Our Town," which means they are quite poor.|
©2000 James Kendrick