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Our Town

Our Town(1940)

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Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, USA. Dateline: 1901. Small town pharmacist Mr. Morgan (Frank Craven) introduces us to his sleepy hometown with personal, subjective insight into the daily dramas of small triumphs and quiet tragedies experienced by his neighbors. A baby-faced William Holden plays George Gibbs, the son of the local physician who falls in love with Guy Kibbee's idealistic daughter Emily Webb, played by Martha Scott in her film debut. It is their simple story of youth, courtship, marriage, childbirth, and other familiar journeys that is Our Town(1940).

Now available on DVD from FOCUSfilm Entertainment is Hollywood's first take on Thornton Wilder's famous stage play. Boasting a top-notch cast and crew, producer Sol Lesser's Our Town was nominated for five Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Martha Scott), and Best Score (Aaron Copland). The production was manned by veteran moviemaker Sam Wood, director of such Hollywood pictures as A Night at the Opera (1935) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939). But aside from Wilder, Lesser, and Wood, considerable talents all, it was the accomplishments of production designer William Cameron Menzies that turned a well-acted adaptation of a popular stage play into a visual gem. A dominant figure in Hollywood's movie design scene during the transitional years of the silent to talkie era, Menzies' prestige and talent solidified the production designer's role in Hollywood moviemaking. Menzies' considerable influence can be seen in two other productions released the year after Our Town, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).

The script was adapted by Thornton Wilder, Frank Craven (who also plays Mr. Morgan), and Harry Chandlee, based on Thornton's original play. Many of the cast members from the original Broadway production were carried over for the movie; William Holden was one of newcomers. Frank Craven's homespun Greek chorus/narrator pops into the drama via a subjective point of view structure. With the exception of Groucho Marx's occasional direct address to the camera, audiences were not used to the immediacy of a character talking to them, as if they were watching a stage play instead of a motion picture. This remarkable narrative device is not restricted to just Mr. Morgan though. Other supporting characters get into the action addressing the audience, such as Guy Kibbee taking questions about the socio-political demographics of the town from a viewer in the "audience."

Director of photography Bert Glennon's framing of the actors is often bizarre, unsettling and unexpected. Look at the church choir rehearsal scene. The actors are all crammed into the frame, creating an uncomfortable impression that runs counter to the homey, small-town feel. Not only the framing, but the interplay between shadows and light also contributes to this off-kilter feel for the small town. This is partially the work of the cinematography and production design, but the structure of the story as dictated by Thornton's play is just as responsible. In fact, the dark portrayal of Our Town may have convinced Alfred Hitchcock to tap Wilder to co-write Shadow of a Doubt (1943), a more unsettling, even homicidal portrayal of small-town America.

The audio and visual quality of the DVD is not the best. The soundtrack is muffled and scratchy, a disservice to Aaron Copland's sensitive score. Meanwhile, Glennon's careful black-and-white compositions and Menzies' expressionistic production design are often obscured and cloudy. The DVD's special features include the short film The Wizard's Apprentice (1930), boasting set designs by William Cameron Menzies and a story that is believed to be the inspiration for a segment in Fantasia (1940). Also among the extras is the 1943 short subject film The Town, a portrait of a "typical" Midwestern town and its residents produced for The American Scene film series by un-credited director Josef von Sternberg. Also of interest is a bonus audio track featuring the entire recreated production of Our Town for the Lux Radio Theater.

Our Town deserves a major restoration but this presentation will have to do in the meantime. To order Our Town, go to TCM Shopping.

by Scott McGee