Tuesday, October 4, 2016

How They Made a Movie Out of “Our Town”

In my day, every high school student knew Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town. It was a simple, wholesome depiction of life in a small New England town called Grover’s Corners, spanning the years between 1901 and 1913. Within the play’s cast are all manner of ordinary local folk: a milkman, a constable, two newsboys, a lady who cries at weddings, the local church organist who’s prone to melancholy and drink, and dies a suicide. But the play’s main action involves two local clans. The Gibbs family is headed by the town doctor. The Webb family patriarch is editor of town newspaper. The Webb and Gibbs houses are side by side, and in the course of the play young George Gibbs and Emily Webb fall in love and ultimately marry.

Nothing too unique there, but it was Wilder’s ideas about stagecraft that lifted Our Town beyond the conventional. Today’s literary commentators call Our Town a “metatheatrical” play. This newfangled term points to Wilder’s determination to comment on the nature of theatre by way of the play’s unusual staging. Wilder’s script calls for no realistic sets, just a few chairs and tables on an otherwise bare stage. When George and Emily communicate back and forth from their second-story bedroom windows, the effect is achieved by having them perch on the top of stepladders. The point, of course, is to require audience members to use their imaginations, filling in the details that the set design does not provide.

Helping the viewers along is a character known as the Stage Manager. In theatre parlance, he “breaks the fourth wall,” speaking directly to those who occupy theatre seats. (Traditionally this Stage Manager has been a folksy man smoking a pipe, but I saw a magnificent production in which Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt took the role.) It’s the Stage Manager’s job to fill us in on the life of the town: its history, its customs, its idiosyncrasies. He introduces characters, and guides us when the story jumps in time, from George and Emily’s high school years to the day of their wedding to the sad day, nine years later, when Emily is buried after failing to survive the birth of her second child. Yes, this is a play that is much concerned with the whole life-cycle, and also with the concept of eternity. A climactic section in the third act takes place in the town cemetery, where the newly-dead Emily is welcomed by the locals who have pre-deceased her. Against their advice, she revisits scenes from her past, then retreats from their everyday wonder, rapturously exclaiming, “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. . . . Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”

I became interested in the film version of Our Town while reading James Curtis’s biography of production designer William Cameron Menzies. Menzies began making his mark in Hollywood with spectacularly atmospheric sets for films like the original Thief of Bagdad. Our Town posed a very different challenge. Moving far beyond the job of a set designer, he helped the production team decide on a visual approach that would preserve Thornton Wilder’s stylized vision of small-town life. It was he who conceptualized how to handle the Stage Manager, who (instead of leaning against a stage proscenium) would speak to the viewer while casually lounging against a rural fence high above the town. Menzies chose  a cluster of stark black umbrellas to set the cemetery scene, and advocated for gauzy filters and unusual angles to show the dead returning to their past haunts. Bravo!

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