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According to a 1937 news item in Variety, producers Jed Harris and William K. Howard purchased Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play with the intention of producing it on Broadway and making it into a motion picture. Harris did produce the Broadway version of the play, but a pre-production news item in Los Angeles Examiner notes that Sol Lesser bought the motion picture rights in 1939 for $75,000 as the first picture in his United Artists releasing deal. According to another pre-production news item in Hollywood Reporter, Lesser planned to film in Technicolor under the direction of Ernst Lubitsch. A later item in Hollywood Reporter notes that a scheduling conflict prevented William Wyler from directing the film. A column in Los Angeles Examiner notes that the Lesser deal to purchase the play was delayed for several months because of the difficulty of translating the play to screen. The play was produced on a nearly bare stage and its main character died at the end.
According to an article written by Lesser in New York Times, the producer worked very closely with Wilder to modify the play. Lesser wrote that Wilder was informed of all changes to the original play and no change was made without his permission. Publicity materials contained in the production files at the AMPAS Library contain much of the correspondence between Lesser and Wilder, including Wilder's consent to change the ending of the play. In the original play, the character of Emily dies in childbirth. Wilder wrote Lesser: "Emily should live....In a movie you see the people so close 'to' that a different relation is established. In the theatre, they are halfway abstraction in an allegory, in the movie they are very concrete. So, insofar as the play is a generalized allegory, she dies-we die-they die; insofar as it's a concrete happening it's not important that she die; it is disproportionately cruel that she die. Let her live-the idea will have been imparted anyway."
The spare setting of the play provided a challenge to production designer William Cameron Menzies, who, according to press materials in the AMPAS Library, presented 1,200 sketches of camera set-ups and proposed such techniques as air brushing long shadows in the moonlight scenes between Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi and Doro Merande. Publicity materials also note that actress Martha Scott, who played "Emily" in the play, was initially not considered for the role in the film because of her poor screen test for the character of "Melanie" in Gone With the Wind. It was only after auditioning many other actresses that the studio finally decided to audition Scott. This picture marked her screen debut. In addition to Scott, Frank Craven, Doro Merande and Arthur Allen reprised their stage roles. Except for two scenes, Craven, as the narrator of the film, worked entirely alone. A news item in Hollywood Reporter adds that backgrounds for the film were shot in Peterboro, NH.
The picture was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score and Best Sound Recording. In 1950, NBC broadcast a televised version of the play starring Burgess Meredith. That year, ABC presented another version of the play starring Edward Arnold. In 1955, Frank Sinatra starred in an NBC broadcast of the play. In his role as a song-singing narrator, Sinatra sang "Our Town," "Love and Marriage," The Impatient Years" and "Look to Your Heart" by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. NBC also produced a version in 1959 starring Art Carney and in 1977 starring Hal Holbrook.