Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town is a 20th Century American ‘classic’. First performed in 1938 and winning the Pulitzer Prize for that year it has continued to captivate audiences around the world. It is amongst the three most performed plays in American high schools and colleges; the other two being George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You (1937) and Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1939). The first thing that is noticeable about these three plays is that the all come from the 1930s, and in many ways stand as reflections of the concerns of that decade. The second thing is that all three have been turned into successful films.
Wilder wrote Our Town partly as a response to the misery of the ‘Great Depression’, desiring to remind his fellow Americans of their inner strengths and values. He was also inspired by his friend Gertrude Stein and her novel The Making of Americans (1902-11). Subsequently there are ‘modernist’ elements in the writing that resonant with Stein’s work and others, such as James Joyce. That the play continues to be regularly performed throughout the world testifies to its greatness and universality, touching on themes of family and community, as well as matters of life and death – it is profoundly and poignantly human and humane.
Our Town is a piece of ‘meta-theatre’, deliberately drawing attention to its ‘theatrical’ nature, primarily through the character of the Stage Manager who guides the audience through the three acts that are set in different times in the fictional rural town of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, between 1901 and 1913. The three acts have been respectively titled ‘Daily Life’, ‘Love and Marriage’, and ‘Death and Dying’. Subsequently, the play taps into one of the major universal themes of word-drama – ‘Time’; a theme that is evident in the plays of Shakespeare as well as many others, including, in the early 20th Century, J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways 1937), and Joyce’s Ulysses (1918-22), as well as Wilder’s other Pulitzer Prize winning play The Skin of our Teeth (1942). It also inter-connects with other works, such as those by German Expressionist Georg Kaiser, as well as fellow American playwright Elmer Rice.
In the early 20th Century one of the main influences in discourses about ‘Time’ was the works of J. W. Dunne and particularly his An Experiment with Time (1927). Time and space prevents further discussion of Dunne’s influential theories as I wish to move on to the 1940 film of Our Town. Essentially, however, Dunne’s theories of ‘Time’ are associated with the notion of ‘Serialism’. The basic premise of ‘Serialism’ is that we have a relatively limited concept of ‘Time’, being locked into ‘Present Time’ by our conscious self. It is in our dreams, however, and in the sub-conscious self that ‘Past Time’ and ‘Future Time’ is unlocked and becomes ‘Present Time’; in the words of Marcel Proust it becomes ‘felt time’, and that the ‘Past’,’Present’ and ‘Future’ run together in a parallel universes. In many ways the place where dreams and the sub-conscious self is released and expressed is in the theatre, plays, movies, and other performing arts; after all ‘Hollywood’ has also been identified as a ‘dream factory’.
The 1940 film version of Our Town was very popular and successful when it was released, gaining numerous award nominations including an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. It is now, however, somewhat a curiosity piece. It was directed by Sam Wood, who had directed the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), as well as Goodbye Mr Chips (1939). In the same year of Our Town Wood also directed Kitty Foyle (1940) which garnered for Gingers Rogers her Academy Award for Best Actress. Wood was an arch conservative and founder of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Our Town would have complemented Wood’s conservative values; although I doubt that Wilder and others would have supported Wood and his ‘Alliance’ in informing the House of Un-American activities of suspected Communists. Wood kept a little black book noting down all those he suspected. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1949 after railing against a particular screenwriter.
The film of Our Town, however, is notable for other American artists than the controversial Sam Wood. This includes a film score by the great American composer Aaron Copland, and Production Design by William Cameron Menzies.
Copland’s music for Our Town is perhaps not as well known or regarded as his score for Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men (1939) or William Wyler’sThe Heiress (1949). Nonetheless, it is representative of Copland’s influential use of music in film, which included remaining silent in highly emotional and intimate scenes and only introducing music towards the end of a scene. William Cameron Menzies is also an extremely influential film designer and director. The term ‘Art Director’ was basically invented for Menzies, identifying his (and others) role in the overall design and look of a film. Menzies films include the silent film ‘classic’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924), as well as Gone With the Wind (1939), and the Dali-sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).
It is the Production Design of the film of Our Town that marks it as one of the two significant differences from the original play. Whereas the original play dispensed with naturalistic scenery and settings, similar in a way to Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003), the film of Our Town places the action firmly within naturalism – except for the final section that is set in the graveyard. Here the film takes on a more expressionistic setting and tone, complementing the final act of the original play. However, this sequence is also markably different from the original play. In the original the central character of Emily has died and joins the other deceased members of the Grover’s Corner in the town’s cemetery in what is essentially a poignant lament about life and death. In the film this is a ‘dream sequence’ with Emily hovering between life and death as she struggles to give birth to her second child.
It may well not be as powerful and potent as the original, except that it must be kept in mind that Thornton Wilder co-wrote the film’s screenplay and hence approved and contributed to the change from his original play. Other than these rather significant changes the film is faithful to the original play, including the attempt where members of the audience ask the Stage Manager questions about Grover’s Corner. It is perhaps not as successful as the ‘live’ play, but it does not detract from the genuine simplicity as well as theatricality and respect for the original play.
What is wonderful in regard to the whole film in general, is the participation of many of the cast from the original Broadway production, notably Frank Craven as the Stage Manager and Martha Scott as Emily. They are joined by other terrific ‘Hollywood’ actors, such as a very young William Holden, Fay Bainter, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, and Beulah Bondi.
It is, however, Martha Scott’s Emily that makes watching the film version of Our Town particularly rewarding. As previously stated, Martha Scott played Emily in the original Broadway production of Our Town. Emily is an extremely challenging role, ranging from being a young teenage girl, to about-to-be married bride, and finally a ghostly spirit of the deceased (or dreaming) Emily; in many ways Emily is the ‘spirit’, soul and essence of Our Town. Martha Scott’s performance as Emily is simply wonderful – and extremely rewarding to watch for any young actress about to play Emily. This is particularly so in the final graveyard sequence where the emotional range and dynamic expression of the character is at its most heightened and challenging. No wonder that Martha Scott was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film of Our Town; a newcomer up against ‘stars’ such as Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Fontaine and Ginger Rogers.
I hope this review of Our Town will trigger interest in finding and watching this film – a curiosity now perhaps, nonetheless, extremely rewarding.