Okay, this is an unpopular opinion, and you have every right to disagree with us.
We (yours truly) are unreasonably annoyed with the drama Our Town (1940), because it tries to pull a Fast One on the audience.
We don’t disagree with the message that friends and family are important, and that we should appreciate loved ones while we’re still alive. The film reminds us our Time on earth could be shorter than we think.
Our Town is a thoughtful look at life in small-town New Hampshire, where everyone Knows everyone else’s Business, but they’ll also Pitch In if you find yourself in a Jam.
The story centres around a young girl (Martha Scott), a young man (William Holden), and their respective families. There’s no domestic drama here, no fights between neighbours, no running off with someone’s spouse. The people in this movie live a quiet, predictable life. (A minister muses – rather unfairly, we think – that only one in a thousand of these people is actually interesting.)
But, near the end of the film, a character looks back on their life and expresses regret about how busy everyone was and how no one even looked at each other.
The audience has just watched almost an entire movie of families spending time together, eye contact included, and now the script is trying to tell us we didn’t see that.
Seriously, Hollywood? You should make up your mind about how it’s going to be, and spare us the lecture about not seeing what we plainly saw.
(We warned you about being unreasonably annoyed.)
Whew. Now that we’ve gotten that off our chest, let’s turn our attention to one of the best things about this film: William Holden.
William Holden was 22 years old when Our Town was released, and, for the most part, he looks like his seventeen year-old character. Holden plays a sweet and innocent young man who is immature, but has a good heart.
Look at the way Holden moves at the start of the film; it’s as though he hasn’t yet become comfortable with his height. He has the nervous energy of an ambitious person who suffers the mundane things in life, like homework and chopping wood.
But look at him when he’s talking to Scott, and how nervous he is in her presence. We can tell he loves her – probably always has – and that he pushes down his feelings for her in case it scares her away.
Watch him on his wedding day, as a young man of twenty, when his mother (Fay Bainter) chastises him for improper footwear, and his father (Thomas Mitchell) tells him, “Listen to your mother.” Holden balks a little at this treatment, but accepts it without acrimony. He doesn’t hold grudges.
It takes a skilled actor to reveal such traits without dialogue. It shows Holden understood this character, and embraced him, warts and all.
In fact, it’s hard to believe this is the same William Holden who would later appear in such gritty, cynical films as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Stalag 17 (1953).
Our Town was based on a stage play by American novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, who also co-wrote the script. Those who have seen the play say the film is a faithful adaptation, except for the ending.
This film was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Scott.
Should you make the time for Our Town? We think so, because you’ll probably be more forgiving of the script than we are. It’s more unconventional than we’ve led you to believe, especially the last act.
It’s the performances, though, that really make this film worth it, specifically William Holden’s portrayal of an amiable, unspoiled youth.
This post is an entry for The 5th Golden Boy Blogathon, hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood, The Wonderful World of Cinema, and The Flapper Dame.
Our Town: starring William Holden, Martha Scott, Faye Bainter. Directed by Sam Wood. Written by Thornton Wilder, Frank Craven, Harry Chandlee. Sol Lesser Productions, 1940, B&W, 90 mins.