Our Town Movie Review
Director: Sam Wood
Starring: William Holden, Martha Scott, Fay Bainter, Dix Davis, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, Guy Kibbee, Tim Davis, Stuart Erwin, Frank Craven, Doro Merande, Philip Wood, Ruth Tobey, Douglas Gardiner, Arthur B. Allen, Charles Trowbridge, Spencer Charters
Oscar Wins: No wins.
Other Nominations: Best Actress (Martha Scott), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Original Musical Score, Best Music, Best Sound Recording, Best Picture
Ugh, nothing like a good, old-fashioned, 1940s black and white slow-burn.
Having gone to high school in America, I’m no stranger to Our Town. I feel like every high school lucky enough to have a theater department has staged it at least once. Though the ending is heartbreaking, the story is one of the most well-loved examples of idyllic Americana – and the no-frills set design makes this an easy option for even the most frugal of theater departments.
That being said, the same cannot be said for the film version.
Our Town opens much like the play, with the stage manager (Frank Craven) walking us through the streets of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Filmed to feel like a theater production, the stage manager addresses the camera directly, asking questions, polling the “audience” and giving us background information on some of the people we meet. He narrates what they’re thinking, tells us who ends up living and who dies in the coming wars. There are no secrets in this little town!
Made up of just over 2,000 souls, Grover’s Corners is simplistic to a fault. It’s a town where supposedly “nothing happens”, where life is routine and everyone knows everyone. Many of the events we see happen here are the sort of minutiae which gets left out of most films, such as the milkman going on his rounds or mothers cooking breakfast day after day before their children leave for school. The only interesting thing that happens is a blooming romance between Emily Webb (Martha Scott) and George Gibbs (William Holden), which ultimately becomes the center of our story.
Much like the lifestyle it mirrors, Our Town is broken up into 3 ‘acts’: romance, marriage and death. Each takes place in a different year – 1901, 1904 and 1913, respectively – and Emily and George are our constant throughout the storyline.
For the first two acts, the movie is pretty loyal to the play; however, the third act is personally where I felt the film fell apart.
Fair warning, spoilers to follow.
You have been warned.
OK, I’m gonna tell you how it ends.
OK, let’s go!
So if you haven’t seen the play, Our Town has a beautifully bittersweet ending. Our dear Emily dies in childbirth and, after her funeral, is allowed to spend one ‘typical’ day back on Earth. She decides on her 12th birthday, returning to her family home as a ghost. She sees her mom cooking breakfast, her father coming home with gifts, basically visions of a life she may have taken for granted. It’s a powerful scene, one that ends with a heartbreaking monologue by Emily’s spirit:
“I can't bear it. They're so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old?...I cant look at everything hard enough. Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me...Let's look at one another!...I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. All that was going on in life and we never noticed...Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?...That's all human beings are! Just blind people.”
In its totality, it’s a gut-wrenching speech about the fleeting joys of day-to-day life – how, like my soul sister Anne Shirley once said, “...the nicest and sweetest of days are not those which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens, but just those that bring simple little pleasures...". As I’ve grown older, it’s become a sentiment that hits home for me on a very personal level, as it does for most, I’m sure.
The film version, however, ended things on a lighter note.
The production company was worried the traditional ending would be too bleak. To have audiences leaving with a smile rather than a handful of tissues, they decided to turn Emily’s final scene into a dream, with Emily eventually waking up to see her new baby and her beaming husband.
Ending the film this way took away the poetry of the final act, which is a real shame. I mean, I get it…no one wants the main character to die, but for her speech to mean anything, her death is imperative.
In a movie about a town where nothing happens, it shouldn’t surprise you that things move kinda slow. Wilder was clearly interested in exploring those universal elements of everyday life – how one random day would look in a small town of about 2,000 people. Our Town is not exciting or earth-shattering. It’s in fact quite plain – the stage production often doesn’t even have a set so as to make the ‘town’ experience unique for each viewer. However, there’s no denying that it’s rich in its homely philosophy: treasure every moment, especially the simple ones.