Our Town, dir. Sam Wood
starring William Holden and Martha Scott
Recommended | HIGHLY RECOMMENDED | Must-See
Though the genre doesn’t appeal to everyone, I love a sentimental drama. 1940’s Our Town is one of my favorite slightly-sappy film discoveries from recent years.
Set in the small town of Grovers Corner at the turn of the 20th century, Our Town explores several decades in the lives of George Gibbs (William Holden) and Emily Webb (Martha Scott). They go from neighbors to high school sweethearts, and from high school sweethearts to spouses. The ups and downs of life in a seemingly-ideal town are explored through this young couple and their families.
When I discovered this film in 2013, I reviewed it with a score of 4/5. I adored the performances of Scott (in her screen debut!) and Holden, praising the heart and emotion that they brought to the story, along with the equally-effective efforts of the supporting cast.
So, what of the critics of 1940? Did they love the film as much as I did, or did they find it weepy and dull?
Turning to the trusty ol’ Internet Archive to browse the MoMA Library’s collection of old movie mags, I was able to find a few mentions of the film.
One came as a small blurb in an article about Bette Davis’ love life. The article — in a Photoplay issue from 1941 — notes that Bette presented Martha Scott with a Red Book Award for her work in Our Town around Christmas time in 1940. The award had been won by Bette the previous year for Dark Victory, a stellar film… so someone must have loved Our Town in order to choose Martha Scott as the next recipient.
A later issue from 1941 includes brief mention of Our Town in Ruth Waterbury’s “Close Ups and Long Shots” column. Waterbury “introduced” her readers to Martha Scott, a “threat to Miss [Bette] Davis” despite the fact that her first two pictures — Our Town and The Howards of Virginia — were box office flops. Martha may have won a national magazine award for her role of Emily Webb, but the film wasn’t a money-grabbing hit with audiences.
Box office earnings be damned, the film was enjoyed by critics despite its flop. It was named one of the Best Pictures of the Month by Photoplay in July 1940, alongside the amazing Cary Grant/Irene Dunne comedy My Favorite Wife. The mag’s review mentioned the somewhat slow place of the film, but praised the “unusual” storytelling style, which they described as “like an animated newspaper.”
Variety gave the highest praise to the film, calling it “excellently written, directed, acted, and mounted.” The New York Times, meanwhile, described the film as “beautiful and tender,” with Bosley Crowther declaring “There is reason to take hope this morning, to find renewed faith and confidence in mankind——and, incidentally, in the artistry of the screen.”
So, while not one of the major money-makers of the year, the critics of 1940 and I can agree that Our Town is well worth a watch.