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DVD SAVANT

Our Town


Our Town
FOCUSfilm / National Film Museum
1940 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 90 min. / Street Date November 18, 2003 / 14.99
Starring William Holden, Martha Scott, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, Guy Kibbee, Stuart Erwin, Frank Craven, Doro Merande
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Production Designer William Cameron Menzies
Art Direction Lewis J. Rachmil
Film Editor Sherman Todd
Special Effects Jack Cosgrove
Original Music Aaron Copland
Written by Harry Chandlee, Frank Craven, and Thornton Wilder from his play
Produced by Sol Lesser
Directed by Sam Wood

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The tear-jerking stage classic Our Town, a Poetic Chronicle of Life and Death never fails to emotionally strike home, whether done on a big stage or in countless high school efforts (see OT: Our Town). Its combination of nostalgia and wisdom from beyond the grave addresses the issue of temporality and the fleeting joys of day-to-day life. Author Thornton Wilder masks his irony with bucolic touches, but even in the smallest details, the show defines life as a precious mix of happiness and sorrow.

Synopsis:

The stage manager (Frank Craven) relates the tale of the Gibbs and Webb families and how they lived in a small New Hampshire town in the first two decades of the 20th century. We step back from the town to learn about the cycles of life: those living it never seem to realize how precious and amazing it is. George Gibbs (William Holden) and Emily Webb (Martha Scott) fall in love and marry, and then the Stage manager jumps forward to see events 9 years later.

I'm sure a million high school reports have begun with the quote, "Isn't the moonlight terrible?" For a sensitive soul like Emily Webb, life is an emotionally stressing experience where even beauty and happiness have something painful for the human heart. The tactful stage manager leads us through chosen scenes in the history of Grover's Corners, where the beauty of family life is distilled into a few mundane moments. When Emily is allowed to relive one day, she's advised to pick an ordinary one, one where nothing exceptional happened. Even that is too painful to bear: it hurts to see parents young and lost relatives alive again, going through the day's routines with a complacency that now seems tragic.

Act three of the original play enters a ghost world far more real than a haunted house movie, as we feel the pain of ordinary lives that witness loss and sorrow. Thanks to the artistic contributions of its makers, this classic film version captures and amplifies many of the play's strengths, even while trimming its text considerably.

The main contributor to the impact of the film is designer William Cameron Menzies. Many of Menzies' favorite visual concepts are here, including the rail fences on steep hills that mark Gone With the Wind, King's Row and Invaders from Mars. Space is exploited both horizontally and vertically, especially with the use of large dark areas of the screen. When town drunkard Simon Stimson staggers away from the constable and Mr. Webb, he disappears into the dark half of a frame divided by a brick wall, as if leaving hope behind.

The family homes of the Gibbses and Webbs are two giant, realistic sets, but Menzies goes completely abstract for the finale in the graveyard. The return to the Webb household is a spectral nightmare, with Emily a glowing phantom. When she can't stand the memories any longer and begs to leave, special effects make the background recede and drop away behind her, fading like a memory. It's a chilling effect similar to the reversed-time montage at the end of Invaders from Mars.

The film has the power of an old photo album, one that brings up memories both good and bad. In 1940, the years 1903-1913 were only one generation old; I wonder if modern kids can picture the day-to-day reality of the lives of their parents, thirty and forty years before. Our Town succeeds in converting the play's timeless quality to the screen.

William Holden and Martha Scott are fine as George and Emily, even though Holden attracted some derision at the time for being too handsome and too old. Martha Scott is one of those actresses who can convey the mystery and confusion of adolescence; her teenaged Emily is flawless and heartbreaking. On stage, Emily's ghost return was to her 12th birthday. For the film it's been changed to her 16th so that the actress can play two versions of herself simultaneously. Beulah Bondi and Thomas Mitchell (It's a Wonderful Life), Fay Bainter (The Children's Hour) and Guy Kibbee are universal parents, people who seem like our own relatives.

Equally important is Frank Craven, the omniscient Stage Manager who doubles as a drugstore owner. He seems to control the secret of time, making reality play out in a strange convoluted pattern. He interrupts when he sees fit to interject ironic comments, and information such as the future fates of many of the people we see. He has a New England calm quite different from the rough enthusiasm of Edward Arnold in The Devil and Daniel Webster; It would be great to imagine a play where The Stage Manager and Mr. Scratch come nose to nose. Interestingly, although Thornton Wilder's universe has churches and seems to be Christian (the inhabitants of the graveyard are souls apparently waiting for the resurrection), the ultimate and pervading sadness of life makes the unseen eternity seem doubtful. Wilder's dead have no joy. Happiness is seen as a fleeting illusion for the living. 1

In a small but visible part as a local gossip is Doro Merande, a favorite Savant actress familiar from funny parts in Billy Wilder movies, most notably Kiss Me Stupid. Here she keeps her vocal mannerisms in check. She becomes frightening in her second appearance as a living-dead soul, speaking in spectral tones like one the possessed zombies of Invaders from Mars.

There is a caveat about Our Town in this film version. In a foolish desperation move to somehow give the film a happy ending, the producers or United Artists changed the finale in a way that severely dulls the impact of the play. It's one of the prime examples of Hollywood screwing up an otherwise brilliant adaptation, and critics have been protesting it ever since the film's original release. I'm not sure, but I think the film's ending was already altered at its first showing.  2


FOCUSfilm's DVD was strongly desired by DVD Savant because I'd never seen a really watchable version of Our Town, only extremely dupey and broken public domain copies where dialogue was indecipherable and the picture a blurry, contrasty mess. Released by United Artists in 1940, the film has suffered the same fate of many classics without caretakers. It's entirely possible that a vault fire destroyed the prime elements for Our Town along with so many others. In the case of public domain pictures, original elements may have been thrown away. There have been other DVD releases of this title, but this is the only one authorized by the Wilder estate.

Our Town on disc is good news, but not completely good news. The picture quality is better than adequate. Framing and contrast are good, with only a bit of unsteadiness now and then and almost no film breaks. There is one jolting jump at the beginning of the graveyard scene but the rest of the picture is intact. More of William Cameron Menzies' crowded frames are visible than I've ever seen before. I've seen Our Town at least 3 times, but this is the first copy good enough to assess its visual qualities.

The box claims that the DVD was sourced from 'original negative elements' but the picture on display looks at least one generation away from anything original - it's good, but not terrific. Suffering a bit more is the soundtrack, which I'd have to surmise has been adapted from the optical track of a good 35mm print. It is strong most of the time - this is also the first time I've been able to appreciate Aaron Copland's dramatic score - but weak in subtle details. At least one quiet graveyard speech is lost in the bottom hiss. I can't help but think that some audio processing would have helped; perhaps it was already done just to reach this level of quality.

The disc adds two interesting and appropriate short subjects. The Wizard's Apprentice is a terrific expressionist short subject and special effects trick film designed by William Cameron Menzies. It tells the same story and uses the Dukas music identically to the Mickey Mouse segment of Fantasia, proving again that Walt Disney was a tasteful appropriator as well as an innovator. The Town is an okay print of a now obscure Josef Von Sternberg WW2 morale film. It extolls the virtues of small-town Americana with its freedom of religion, secret ballot, and tolerance of melting-pot immigrants. These happy Americans are all white, of course, and Wal-Mart has yet to hit town.

There's also a complete Lux Theater radio presentation of Our Town with some of the original cast. FOCUSfilm has done its best and presented the best version of Sam Wood's Our Town yet available, and possibly the best that will ever surface.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Our Town rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good-
Sound: fair
Supplements: Short subjects The Wizard's Apprentice and The Town; Radio drama version
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 25, 2003


Footnotes:

1. A major tangent: Made the same year, Warner's film City for Conquest is an ambitious New York tale about a boxer who loses his sight trying to help his brother become a famous composer. As part of its melodramatic makeup, it originally had an opening where a Stage Manager-like character introduces New York, the city of the title, and makes a speech. At the end he comes back to put the play to sleep, so to speak. It's obvious that these scenes were cut for a 1948 reissue, because of ragged picture and music jump-cuts at the beginning and end of the film. The ending is severely harmed; a poignant City Lights- like situation between James Cagney and Ann Sheridan is rising in both emotion and music, when it is cut off rudely for a 'the end' title.

The odd thing here is that Frank Craven of Our Town plays the omniscient 'stage host' in City for Conquest as well. He has third billing in Conquest, but in the short version has only a few moments on screen as a small bit character, similar to the soda jerk he plays in Our Town. The short version is all that's been seen for over half a century. This is a major film for restoration, Warner Brothers!

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2. (spoiler) Another ripple-down effect between Menzies films - the added shots of William Holden peeking into Emily's room are very similar to the ending angles in Invaders from Mars, especially the alternate ending shot for the English release.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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