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Our Town (1940): Ready, Set… Set… And Another Set… What Are All These Sets Doing Here?

Our Town (Sam Wood, 1940)

photo credit: Wikipedia

America in 1901 and America in 2001… not as different as we would like to believe.

Sam Wood’s 1940 film adaptation of Our Town was a missed opportunity from the very start. “Ill-conceived” is a great way to describe it. For why would you take a play whose main draw is its complete lack of sets—it makes the audience rely on their imaginations in order to fill in the blanks—and provide it with those very sets? You’ve cut out a great deal of what makes the play so distinctive. The other side of the coin is that Wood stocked the film with a number of fine actors, and the caliber of the performances lessens the blow somewhat.

photo credit: mubi

“Why, yes, I’ve always enjoyed rolling in the hay. Why do you ask?”

In case you’ve been living under a rock since 1938 and have somehow managed to avoid being exposed to Our Town at all, the plot: …well, there really isn’t a plot. Our Town is a slice-of-life film that takes place at the turn of the 20th century. The main storyline has to do with the romance of George Gibbs (Sunset Blvd.‘s William Holden), the son of the town doctor (It’s a Wonderful Life‘s Thomas Mitchell), and girl-next-door Emily Webb (the film debut of Martha Scott, reprising her Broadway role). But, as is usually the case with films like this, there are any number of other storylines that loom large in the background, ready to take over the narrative at any time—the lonely, repressed life of the town’s choirmaster, Simon Stimson (Room Service‘s Philip Wood, another stage actor, who died a few months before the film’s release); family drama at the Gibbs household; George’s impending baseball career; etc., etc.

photo credit: dvdsentertainmentonline.com

“Why, yes, I’ve always enjoyed rolling in the hay, Father. Why do you ask?”

Underneath the film’s bucolic exterior is a rather nasty heart, and whether you are going to end up enjoying it relies entirely on whether you assume (as I did) Wilder meant that as a criticism, or whether he meant to celebrate it. You get the first stirrings of this very early on (the narrator tells us that the town’s population “is two thousand, six hundred forty-two, not counting about five hundred Polish immigrants”), but the real nastiness, that casts a pall over the entire film, is the town’s treatment of Stimson, who is both gay and alcoholic. The latter, presumably, growing out of his need to keep the former secret. All of the town’s wonderfully friendly ladies, who wouldn’t think of locking their doors at night (even with all those Polacks so close by!), treat Stimson with the barest veneer of civility covering their scorn, even when he’s supposed to be commanding them at choir practice. It might be a minor spoiler to say that, for the careful viewer, this storyline does take over the plot during Act 3, though in such a way as to preserve deniability on the part of everyone involved. (To say how, on the other hand, would constitute a major spoiler; all I can say is that Stimson and Emily briefly become best buds.)

Normally I’d take such a critical attitude as a given, but if so—and this is a problem with the source material, not the film, I rush to add—Wilder pulled his punches at the end, which tacks on a cheese-puff moral that has sweet FA to do with all that underlying criticism of turn-of-the-century American heartland life, and effectively hamstrings it, leading me to even have to ask this otherwise ridiculous question. Rather than ponder it, I’m going to take the turn-of-the-century American heartland attitude towards it, assume that my assumption is correct, and stop thinking about it, because otherwise this watchable, if minor, film becomes an offensive mess that you’re better off never knowing existed. (For the record, to lend credence to my interpretation of things, Wilder is widely considered to have been homosexual, albeit closeted in much the same way Stimson is). ***

The full movie, available on Youtube.

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

One response »

  1. Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for William Holden Tuesday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

    Reply

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