Stage To Screen: Our Town

Playbill from Our Town’s 1938 run. (Playbill)

Our Town is a perennial favorite for a lot of people all over the world. It’s always being produced somewhere. Its setting, the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, even has its own website. This 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner follows the story of Emily Webb and George Gibbs, next door neighbors and childhood friends who grow up together. These two fall in love, get married, and have children, but sadly Emily dies in childbirth. However, she’s given a chance to come back and take one last look at her family. It’s about everyday life. It’s Seinfeld before Seinfeld, only minus the intentional comedy.

The play’s major question comes from Emily:

Do human beings realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?

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Thornton Wilder. (Library of America)

Our Town is both a blank canvas and a fourth-wall break. A character named the Stage Manager talks directly to the audience and to the characters. He never says his name or who he really is, but he’s there to chronicle the town and give commentary. Want to know about the elevation of Grover’s Corners, its principal crops, populationand the general attitudes of its people? The Stage Manager’s got it covered. He might bring in a few ringers to fill in the blanks, but other than that, he’s good. He also might play the soda fountain owner and the minister because he is a member of the town, but the Stage Manager’s real involvement is minimal.

According to the Pulitzer Prize website, Wilder was inspired to write Our Town in 1920 during an archeological dig. He was a student in Rome at the time, studying languages and archaeology, and he remembered looking at paintings by Aurelius by candlelight in an underground vault while streetcars rattled along above him. He began to realize that past and present aren’t as far removed from each other as they would seem. Births, marriages, deaths, and the inevitable observations on life and the state of the world, have been around since time began.

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John Craven and Martha Scott in the original 1938 Broadway production. (Playbill)

Our Town had a ten-year germination, with Wilder working on it here and there as he traveled around and went about his business. He even spent time in New Hampshire, and ended up basing Grover’s Corners on Peterborough in McDowell County. The play had a producer before it was finished, as Wilder met Jed Harris on a train trip from Florida in 1927.

Harris and Wilder would butt heads about various aspects of the play’s production, mainly because Wilder felt a little bit out of control, but the play’s tryout took place on January 22, 1938 at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, before moving on to Broadway, where it ran for over three hundred performances.

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Wilder played the Stage Manager in the play’s 1950 production at College of Wooster. (thorntonwilder.com)

I’ve liked Our Town ever since I saw an excerpt on The Wonder Years, which we’ll get to in a bit. My friend, Nick Smith played the part of George when we were both at Sierra College, and I remember he and the girl who played Emily standing at the tops of two ladders pretending to talk from their bedroom windows.

As far as translation to the screen goes, Our Town‘s filmography is a wee bit spotty. It’s only been made into a feature once, starring a very young William Holden as George and Martha Scott as Emily, supported by a sturdy cast featuring Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, and Guy Kibbee. Frank Craven, who played the Stage Manager in the original production, reprised his role in the film, joining his fellow cast member Martha Scott.

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Academy Award Best Picture Winners

The 1940 film was nominated for five Academy Awards and ranked thirty-sixth out of the top fifty films for that year, so it didn’t do too badly. Well, not at the box office, anyway. Spoiler alert: There’s scenery and the story’s metaphysical aspects are downplayed considerably because Wilder and producer Sol Lesser thought the original ending was too depressing for a world newly entered into a war.

Personally, I think this was an atrocious idea, because it nullifies Wilder’s original point about humans missing life’s significance while they still have it, putting it more on the level of It’s A Wonderful Life, where the protagonist gets a second chance. I’m guessing others have agreed this approach hasn’t aged well, because the film has lapsed into public domain. However, it is still fairly accessible.

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2013 production, Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C. (Ford’s Theatre)

Our Town seems to thrive most when allowed to be itself. There were several radio plays during the forties, including a 1946 broadcast starring Wilder himself (listen to it here), and even though these versions were heavily edited, they still got the point across.

My first experience with the play was, as I said before, when I saw the Wonder Years episode, “On the Spot.” In this Season Three outing, Winnie (Danica McKellar) joins the cast because she wants to try something new, while Kevin signs up to be a spotlight operator because he wants to get out of seventh period. Little does he know that nothing is ever simple or minor when it comes to Our Town (watch a clip here).

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YouTube

The play has also been filmed a few times (one of which stars Paul Newman in the 2002 revival), but the 1977 telecast starring Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager is, in my opinion, one of the best. It’s done just to Wilder’s specifications, with no scenery, the characters moving freely between the minimal props, and all of them sport regional accents. As the proverbial cherry on top, the telecast has perfectly synced sound effects. I’d say more, but I don’t want to ruin it. It’s that good.

What is it about Our Town that keeps people coming back, even eighty-plus years since its premiere? Maybe it’s because we can see ourselves in it. Maybe it reminds us of how fleeting life is and what we miss if we don’t pay attention. Maybe it’s because everyday life, with its predictable ebb and flow, is a comforting thing and excitement is highly overrated. Maybe it’s a mix of all of these things.

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YouTube

Thornton Wilder said it best:

Our Town is an attempt to find a value above price for the smallest events in our daily life.

The No True Scotsman Blogathon is on the way Monday. Thanks for reading, all, and have a good one…


Our Town (1940) is available on DVD or to stream from Amazon, as is the text of the original play. The 2002 revival and The Wonder Years are also available. The 1977 TV movie can be seen on YouTube.

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