In 1938, Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town. It was hugely successful, ultimately winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And as I’ve discussed, it is a fine play. Ultimately, what is most innovative about it can be found back in 1921 in Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. But not everything needs to be innovative. And Our Town does deal with a fundamental issue about the perspective of life in an omniscient context.
This is established at the beginning of the play when the Stage Manager talks about the newspaper delivery boy, Joe Crowell. The Stage Manager tells us that he is very bright and will go on to graduate high school at the top of his class. Then he will go to Massachusetts Tech and graduate at the top of his class there. He was going to be a great engineer. But then World War I came and he was killed in France. The Stage Manager sums it up, “All that education, for nothing.”
But in the context of the play, that can be said about everything. The one thing that is most clear throughout the play is that people die. They live their lives and then they die. There isn’t much more to it than that. We may have a positive or negative impact on others, but they too will die. The significance of our lives is like an asymptote that approaches zero the further we move in time. Wilder seems to have something to say about appreciating the present, but it is vague and the play itself seems most interested in death.
It is thus interesting to see what Hollywood did with the play when they first tried to film it in 1940. Clearly, they had to get rid of the obvious theatrical nature of play. So there are real sets much like we found in director Sam Wood’s earlier film, Goodbye, Mr Chips. But that doesn’t really matter. Trying to maintain the “theaterness” of a play in a film is usually a bad idea. It’s better just to film a play, which worked well for the filmed versions in 1977 and 1989.
The problem with the film is the ending. As Emily, dead from her second childbirth, goes to visit her 12th birthday, she has the same reaction that she has in the play. “Oh, Earth you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Oh, I want to live, I want to live, I want to live!”
And then she wakes up. It was all a delirium from her second pregnancy. Praise the Lord, they gave Our Town a happy ending! Or did they? After all, the film is otherwise very faithful to the play. We learn that Joe Crowell died in the war. Everyone dies. The film is still all about how people die and how they can’t see their lives in their completeness. But we are deprived of an edifying ending. We just get Emily having a bad dream. The film commits the same sin that the play indicts the whole of humanity for.
This is the problem with art as commodity. I can imagine the producers thinking that they needed to tack on a “happy” ending, even though the film itself isn’t happy. But it wasn’t just these money grubbing fools. The film was nominated for an Academy Award. If lost to Rebecca, but so did The Grapes of Wrath!
Anyway, I can’t imagine why people do this kind of thing. If you want to give people pleasant films, give them pleasant films. Don’t try to trick them into thinking that a sob-fest is okay because we get to end on a nice picture of Emily with her baby. Emily will die. And millions of women will die during childbirth. It’s a disgrace. Literally.