This week, I had a chance to see Our Town, a 1940 film based on the play by Thornton Wilder. It is a masterpiece. Set in a small New Hampshire village, it follows the lives of several residents from 1901 through 1916, showing the intimate interconnectedness that defined our idea of community in those pre-technology days. The fact that it is an old movie only adds to the feeling that we are genuinely travelling back in time.
The film has a unique narrative style. One of the characters—called the Stage Manager in the original play—serves as our guide, speaking directly to the audience and, occasionally, even giving instructions to the crew. He tells us a little about the town, introduces the characters and their situations, and notes the passage of time between scenes.
Beyond the structure, though, is the story, which follows several families and individuals in the town over the years. The focus is on a young couple—played by William Holden and Martha Scott in her first film role. We meet them as high school sweethearts and follow them through the years as they court, marry, start a family, and face crises, the passing of the older generation, and other trials of life.
Wilder wrote that he used the methods of archaeology to write the play. “An archaeologist’s eyes,” he wrote, “combine the view of the telescope with the view of the microscope. He reconstructs the very distant with the help of the very small” (Wilder, Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, p. 657). The central theme of the play, he noted, was: “What is the relation between the countless ‘unimportant’ details of our daily life, on the one hand, and the great perspectives of time, social history, and current religious ideas, on the other? What is trivial and what is significant about any one person’s making a breakfast, engaging in a domestic quarrel, in a ‘love scene,’ in dying?” (ibid.)
Today, almost 80 years after the film was released and more than a century after the action takes place, Wilder’s archaeological perspective rings even more true. It is a peek into the world of a century ago, a sensitive imagining of life—both the wonders and tragedies—at its most personal.
Watch Our Town on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sCzytzemfI
-----Wilder, Thornton. Collected plays and writings on theater. New York: Library of America, 2007.