Our Town (1940)

(Image via Movie Poster Shop)
(Image via Movie Poster Shop)

Grovers Corner is a small town that slowly finds itself going through changes at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s a pretty typical country town made up of hard-working people. All of the residents know each other on a first-name basis. Everyone feels comfortable and safe in this rural, by all accounts completely normal place.

One of the town’s residents, Doc Gibbs (Thomas Mitchell), lives with his wife (Fay Bainter) and two children, George (William Holden) and Rebecca (Ruth Tobey). Their neighbors are Charlie Webb (Guy Kibbee), his wife (Beulah Bondi) and their two children, Emily (Martha Scott) and Wally (Douglas Gardner).

Through these two families, the less-ideal aspects of life in Grovers Corner are portrayed. Julie, wife of Doc Gibbs, confesses that she wishes she could spend her time traveling. George Gibbs wishes he could become a farmer. Emily Webb longs to start a family. Though their lives are perfectly happy, they all feel trapped by the monotony of Grovers Corner.

Flash forward two years to 1903 and everything is much the same, save for a couple of small details. George and Emily are nearing graduation from high school, and they’re now dating. Julie has not yet fulfilled her dreams of travel, nor has George bought that coveted plot of farm land. In 1904, everything is still the same, but Emily and George are marrying. So goes life in the sleepy, small town, though complications do arise for both families as the years pass.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Life, death and nostalgia are explored in 1940’s Our Town, directed by Sam Wood (A Night at the Opera, For Whom the Bell Tolls). The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by Thornton Wilder. Though I haven’t seen the play, I trust that the adaptation is fairly solid, since IMDb reports that no changes were made without Wilder’s explicit permission.

A word of warning: this film is not technically in the public domain since it’s an adapted work, but it is public domain quality. The existing prints are not anywhere near top-notch. Beware of muffled sound and some visual distortion. Netflix’s streaming version is definitely watchable, but the film (like so many from the classic era) could stand a bit of restorative TLC.

(Image via Movie Poster Shop)
(Image via Movie Poster Shop)

Sentimental dramas such as this are an acquired taste. Many find them too sappy; many find them dull. I happen to love quite a few of them, especially when the performances are as effective as they are here. When the cast is good, “sentimental” can become synonymous with “emotionally effective,” “heartfelt,” “timeless” or even “haunting.” Stories that display true human emotion never get old, and the cast here — especially Scott and Holden, though the supporting cast is also spectacular — does a great job of bringing those emotions to life.

The first half hour or so of the film feels a little bit clunky, but once we begin to know the characters and see how their lives are progressing, this decades-spanning story is easy to get wrapped up in. Rather than simply showing us what’s happening, a clear storytelling framework is established through narration. This works in the film’s favor since the narration allows us to understand the significance of certain events, and to keep the passage of time straight in our minds.

Our Town is a solid “human experience” drama. I would recommend it for fans of Watch on the Rhine, The Southerner, Cheers for Miss Bishop and The Enchanted Cottage. The score: 4/5

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