Thursday, January 14, 2016

Our Town

This month's TCM spotlight on production designer William Cameron Menzies continues tonight, starting at 8:00 PM with Gone With the Wind. The Menzies movie I'd like to mention, however, is Our Town, which you can catch overnight at 1:45 AM, or still late this evening out on the west coast.

This one is based on the classic stage play by Thornton Wilder which looks at life in the fictional town of Grovers Corners, NH, at the turn of the last century. More specifically, it looks at two people in that town, young George Gibbs (William Holden) and neighbor girl Emily Webb (Martha Scott). At the start of the film, they're high school students and, as you can guess, they begin to fall in love with each other, although we'l get to that more later in the movie. There's a life for people to live, and we first see what a wonderful place Grovers Corners is supposed to be for the rich panoply of people who live here, portrayed by some of the great character actors of the era: Thomas Mitchell and Guy Kibbee play Mr. Gibbs and Dr. Webb respectively; their wives are played respectively by Fay Bainter and Beulah Bondi. For all that Hollywood did in creating a stereotypical image of small-town America, Thornton Wilder may have topped them all.

Fast forward a couple of years. I mentioned that George was falling in love with Emily, and now that they're both fully-fledged adults, they're ready to get married. Of course, there are the worries about whether they'll be able to support themselves, and all the other other stereotypical worries about whether the wedding is going to go off, but since this is Grovers Corners, we know that the wedding is going to be beautiful and a show of love between our two young leads.

But this is life, and it turns out that not everything goes according to plan. People live their lives, which means they grow up, get married, have children, and then die. And sure enough, death is going to come for poor young Emily in childbirth. When Emily dies, she goes off to Thornton Wilder's vision of the afterlife, which has all the other dead wives and mothers overlooking the cemetery in Grovers Corners, commenting on life there but no longer having any real emotional connection to the town. Emily is horrified by this....

I'm going to give a bit away by saying that the ending of the movie is not the same as the ending of the play, although from what I've read Thornton Wilder specifically approved the changes for the movie since it still kept his philosophical vision that life is to be lived and savored. As for the story, I have to admit that it's not particularly a favorite of mine, since it comes across as so syrupy, especially the third act when Emily dies. It's not the actors' faults, they do as well as can be expected with the material But since the movie is being shown tonight for William Cameron Menzies' production design, I have to say there that the movie succeeds in spades, being highly evocative of an idyllic small town that never really existed anywhere. The scenes of the afterlife are also handled interestingly, although I don't know if that's down more to Menzies or the cinematography.

Our Town is a movie that everybody should see once, although I don't have any strong desire to see it a second time.

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