Would you believe... an action-packed movie about public opinion polls?
The 1947 comedy Magic Town could best be described as "Capra Corn," only Frank Capra didn't handle the direction (improbably, it was helmed by "Wild Bill" Wellman), and the corn it serves up has been transmogrified into a sticky, unsubtle concoction. Enjoyable but subject to some bizarre choices, the film's "huckster in a small town" story unfolds as if Norman Rockwell decided to draw an EC horror comic.
Despite the iffy subject matter and execution, Magic Town does have one shining asset in that it stars James Stewart, who's at his most James Stewart-y playing the protagonist here. Stewart's Rip Smith is a cocksure yet genial big city pollster who journeys to the picture perfect Anywhere, U.S.A. that his character believes is the most statistically perfect town in America. Troubled times have come for Rip's polling company, which he runs with the help of two eccentric older gentlemen played by classic cinema faves Donald Meek and Ned Sparks (Magic Town is nothing if not typecast). Although Rip is suffering from a lack of clients, he's hit upon the existence of a statistically perfect community which might save his company. Despite his co-workers' resistance, Rip hatches a plan for the three to book a stay in the town of Grandview and discreetly conduct a series of low-cost polls while the men pass themselves off as insurance salesman. A foolproof scheme, right?
Rip's plans for Grandview are dependent on the town keeping its quaint, small-town values, which immediately puts him at odds with Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman), a progressive city council member and acting editor of the town's newspaper. They become bitter adversaries after Kip foils Mary's proposal to build an expensive new city center which will attract new residents to the area. Of course, they eventually fall for each other, which complicates matters when Mary finds out the truth about Kip and publicizes it in the newspaper. With Grandview now swarming with dozens of gawkers, what will happen to Kip's enterprise? And will true love prevail with Kip and Mary?
While it's much too flawed to count as an undiscovered treasure, Magic Town is worth seeking out for fans of Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman. One can quibble with them individually, both being typcast and Stewart's overplaying of Kip's wilder scenes, but they're excellent together. Much of the film's enjoyment derives from whenever their characters alone occupy the frame, such as the scene where Stewart lifts Wyman in the air, the descent causing the hemline of her skirt to lift up (pretty racy for 1947). Both actors put a lot of effort into this admittedly hokey story (which must have seemed awfully dated by then), and they are vividly complemented by an able lot of pros in support - "hey, it's that guy" types such as Kent Smith, Wallace Ford, Regic Toomey, Ann Doran and Ann Shoemaker.
The small-town whimsy that permeates Magic Town obviously marks it as a Frank Capra-inspired project, doubly so since it was produced and scripted by frequent Capra collaborator Robert Riskin (responsible for gems like It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). Why Capra ultimately didn't direct this is unknown, but that job is filled here by an interesting choice, William Wellman. Perhaps Wellman relished the chance to do something different after a string of heavy dramas and war pictures, but the result of his efforts is a mighty odd fit. Apparently lacking any affinity for the small-town setting and its humble simplicity, Wellman instead chose to (over-) emphasize the quirkiness of the story and characters. Sometimes it works, but mostly it winds up coming across as coarse and unbelievably dumb (including the scenes with crowds of obnoxious masses taking over Grandview, a sequence as horrifying as any given giant monster on the rampage pic). Even the supposedly quiet, touching scenes are done with a startling lack of finesse. This is one film that practically screams out for a lighter touch.
Note: images do not reflect the contents of the Magic Town Blu-Ray.
Although it appears that the film wasn't digitally restored for this release, Olive Films' Blu-Ray edition Magic Town sports a handsome 1.37:1 picture. While the print has a constant, subtle texture of grain and occasional white flecks, it is nicely preserved overall with no instances of obvious damage such as splices, tears or jumpy frames. Light and dark balances are fine, and the mastering is good quality.
The sole audio option here is the film's simple but serviceable mono soundtrack, which shows a few signs of age but is generally agreeable, with a proper mix between dialogue, sound effects and music. There were a few scenes with a slight, distracting echo, otherwise it's a pleasantly unobtrusive track. No subtitle track is offered.
Olive's blu ray merely sports a simple main menu design, with a sub-menu for scene selection.
Magic Town may well be the most Frank Capra-esque film not directed by Capra himself, a strident yet enjoyable tale of a big city pollster taking advantage of a small town's gullibility (maybe it should've been called Mr. Smith Goes to Grandview?). The appeal of stars Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman, plus a mildly diverting storyline, are just enough to counter William Wellman's head-scratching direction. Olive Films' Blu-Ray edition is a spartan but nice looking effort. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.