Film Score: Aaron Copland Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Starring: William Holden, Martha Scott, Frank Craven and Thomas Mitchell
Our Town is one of those plays that has been done by everyone, in every way imaginable, and in nearly every town in America, from Broadway and off Broadway, to college and university theater programs, local playhouses, all the way down to high school productions. If any piece of art can hold claim to being a genuine piece of Americana, it’s this 1940 film version of Our Town. From Thornton Wilder’s screenplay, to Frank Craven’s expert narration, to Holden and Scott’s fresh faced acting, to Aaron Copland’s magnificent score, it really is the definitive version. America may not have always been like his, or may never have been like this, but it’s what we like to imagine it always was.
One of the brilliant aspects of Wilder’s work is the poignancy that he brings to it. Where it could have been coy and cloying--and the early scenes with Holden and Scott can be at times--there is an undeniable realism at work. In the opening scene we’re not only told about the birth of twins in Polish Town, but also of the death of Mrs. Gibbs and the paper boy. It’s a harsh realization, even more so when we learn of Mrs. Gibbs’ burning desire to go to Paris before she dies, a trip we know she’ll never make. It mirrors something of what Scott’s character will go through later in the film. And that is what the best films do, find a way to make the viewer feel the same emotions as the characters.
Our Town is the story of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s the story of George and Emily, neighbors who have grown up together all their lives, fall in love, and get married. But it’s so much more. It’s really an homage to those who lived their lives complete, without the desire to be more or have more, and never felt the lack of anything. It’s for the millions of people who felt that the lives and opportunities they gave to their children was their purpose for existence. It celebrates the ordinary people of our world who are born, grow up, and die without ever having Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. It’s one of the saddest and most mournful films ever made, and yet it is the finest celebration of life ever put on the screen. It is truly a masterpiece.
To begin with, the cast couldn’t be better. William Holden and Martha Scott have just enough youth left to pull of the high school scenes, and their two families are star-studded affairs, with Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, Guy Kibbee and Fay Bainter doing magnificent work. The real star of the show, however, is Frank Craven. Not only is he the quintessential narrator, but he also helped re-write some of his parts for the film with Wilder. The direction by Sam Wood is good, and at times great: the girl’s walk that turns into chickens, the church organist caught in the spider web of alcoholism, the gorgeous backgrounds. Normally I don’t care for classical composers who try their hand at films scores, but for this film Aaron Copland is as perfect as it gets. The ending was altered in true Hollywood fashion, but it’s forgivable. If you only see one version of Our Town in your life, this is the one to see, truly a national treasure.