This is my contribution to the Golden Boy Blogathon hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema. Please visit and read the other postings, about a wide range of films starring William Holden.
One of William Holden’s earliest roles was as George Gibbs in a poignant screen adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about American small-town life, Our Town. This is a film well worth seeing, with a good director, Sam Wood, and a cast including Martha Scott and Frank Craven, who had starred in the original Broadway production, as well as character actors such as Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi and Guy Kibbee. It also has a stirring and atmospheric score by Aaron Copland. However, there is a big but!
Before getting into discussion of the film itself, I’d urge anybody setting out to watch it to learn from my mistake and be very careful about the print you choose. Unfortunately, this is one of those movies which has fallen out of copyright and into one of the lowest circles of public domain hell. There are dodgy copies around where the picture is grey and shaky and the surface noise is so loud you can hardly hear the dialogue or music. Worse still, some of these duped copies have huge chunks of the film missing. After initially starting to watch a truly dire copy, I belatedly realised it had a running time of only 75 minutes instead of 90 and gave up. Fortunately, I then found a complete version in reasonable condition, free to watch, at The Video Cellar YouTube channel, but I’d be interested to hear if anyone has seen a good DVD or Blu-ray of the film.
Back to the film. On stage, Our Town is usually performed in a minimalistic setting with few props, in accordance with instructions in the script. It’s frequently revived in the US and also sometimes in the UK, where I live. I’ve only seen one production, at school when I was a teenager, but have remembered it over the years. In the film, there is scenery, including houses and streets rather than a bare stage, making it all more realistic. But narrator Frank Craven, reprising his Broadway role as the Stage Manager, still stands between the characters in the story and the audience. The film begins with him standing on a hill looking down at the town, before the main characters are first glimpsed from outside, through the windows of their houses.
The original trailer has been lost, but here’s a link to a “faux” trailer at YouTube which does give a strong flavour of the film as a whole.
The film follows daily life in the small fictional town of Grover’s Corners in New Hampshire at the turn of the 20th century, covering the years from 1901 to 1913. Many of the events are the sort of minutiae which get left out of most films, such as the milkman going on his rounds, and mothers endlessly serving up breakfasts before the children head off for school. Even the central love story, between a boy and girl next door, is very different from just about any other movie romance, despite the best efforts of misleading posters to make it all look more conventional.
At times there could be a danger that the story might become too sweet and too slow, but fortunately there are jarring moments to break up the mood, like the choir practice where the drunken organist, Simon Stimson (Philip Wood) causes consternation with his bitter tirades.Wood actually died before the release of the film.
The Stage Manager doesn’t only tell us what’s happening now, but also sometimes foretells the future. For instance, after an apparently comic interlude with paper-boy Joe, the narrator abruptly says that Joe will go on to train as an engineer and then be killed in the war in France – so his education will be wasted. This prediction had been cut out of the poor-quality version I started to watch initially, making me wonder if some of the cuts were due to censorship for some later release.
Holden wasn’t quite 22 when the film was made, and does look very young. Even so, he is obviously far too old for the opening scenes where his character, George, is only 14 and playing practical jokes on his sister, Rebecca (10-year-old Ruth Tobey, who according to the imdb is still alive). Perhaps it would have been better to cast a younger actor for this section of the film. Funnily enough, although Martha Scott, who plays George’s sweetheart Emily Webb, was even older at 27, I think she gets away with playing a child better. In any case, if teenagers had been cast for these two roles, it might have caused a problem at the other end of the film where the characters are in their late 20s.
Despite looking too mature for those early scenes, Holden is brilliant at conveying the young George’s uncertainty, with nervous little movements of his hands and hesitant speech. There’s a great scene between him and Thomas Mitchell, playing his father, Doc Gibbs, where the dad upbraids George over spending all his time playing baseball and leaving his mother (Fay Bainter) to cut wood. I have to say the dialogue here is hard for a modern parent to swallow – I suspect most teenage boys now would snap back at their father during a conversation like this rather than being moved to tears! Of course, it was another era, but I do wonder if this saintly conversation would ever have been realistic.
The story jumps forward three years, with George and Emily about to marry, but then there’s a flashback to trace their courtship, as arguments and ice cream sodas quickly turn to love. Narrator Frank Craven jumps into the story at this point, running the soda shop. Both the young lovers have last-minute nerves, but at last the wedding goes ahead. Holden and Scott keep it all very simple and look young and nervous, but can’t avoid bringing a bit more glamour to the scene than it should really have.
I’m going to discuss the ending in this next bit.
The final section of the film is the part which has been changed most heavily from the stage play, due to pressure for a happy ending. Standing in the cemetery on the hill, the narrator tells us that there have been many deaths since the previous section, including those of Mrs Gibbs, Emily’s brother, Wally, and the organist, Stimson, who hanged himself. Now Emily herself is likely to die in childbirth.
In the play, she does die and is reunited with Mrs Gibbs and the other townsfolk, who urge her to try to forget her earthly life. But she can’t bring herself to do so and decides to relive a day of her life, returning as an unseen ghost to watch her 12th birthday. However, she finds it all too much to bear and returns to the afterlife, while George weeps over her grave.
The production company, Principal Artists Productions, felt this would be too bleak an ending for the film. So the story was changed in the fashion of A Christmas Carol, meaning the events Emily sees are a dream and in the end she wakes up to see her baby and doesn’t die after all. TCM’s article on the film explains that Thornton Wilder agreed to this change, because he told producer Sol Lesser a different relation with the characters was established in a film from the one on stage. All the same, the scenes of Emily revisiting her childhood are still heartbreakingly intense. Martha Scott received a deserved Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Emily. But the happy ending means William Holden didn’t get a chance to play the unforgettable final scene of the play where George weeps over Emily’s grave. It would be interesting to know how he felt about that.
Unusually, a shortened radio adaptation was broadcast on Lux Radio Theater just before the release of the film. This featured the same lead actors, including William Holden and Martha Scott.
There have also been several other adaptations of Our Town, including a 1955 TV musical, an episode of Producers’ Showcase, with Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager and Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint as George and Emily. I’d be very keen to see this version if it ever gets a DVD release, even though it’s strange to think of this play as a musical.