Our Town’s “Happy” Ending

Our Town 1940

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 16th birthday (12th in the play), 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. It 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.

Original movie poster for the film Our Town (1940 film) by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

10 thoughts on “Our Town’s “Happy” Ending

  1. I didn’t really like Our Town. I know a lot of people do, but to me it was just a kind of boring play with an obvious message that has been around since ancient Greece. YMMV.

    • It is highly production dependent. There’s lots interesting in it. But even in 1938 it wasn’t that interesting. It’s good for schools because it has low production costs and a large cast.

  2. I really disliked “Our Town” for many years, until I saw a production of it that just destroyed me emotionally. It was the only production I have ever seen that made me “get” what that play is really about it, and it was chilling and heartbreaking at once. I’ve been a big fan ever since. Previous to that, I’d only ever seen (and performed in) corny versions of it that focused on the wrong elements. I can’t remember now where I saw this version–it was just some dumpy community or college theater-but it was totally brilliant. But this play, to really have impact, requires a very special touch. I think most directors think it’s just a simple, sweet play about a small town, but it is so much more than that. I actually think it has a lot in common with “Waiting for Godot”, another play that I can’t watch without wanting to throw myself off a bridge for full week after seeing.

    • I think it all depends on the character of the Stage Manager. If the Stage Manager is too aw-golly-shucks (think Hal Halbrook as Mark Twain, or better yet bad imitations of that performance), the play is cheesy. If the Stage Manager is too manipulative of the characters (think Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat) then the play’s too creepy.

      • I think Holbrook is really good in the part. He doesn’t give a thing away. You really have to decide what he thinks. He doesn’t tip his hand. Spalding Gray does it in a totally different way. He scoffs at the social conventions but shows great love of the humans. You’re right: the SM is the key. And I think it can be done in an infinite number of ways.

    • Ah, I was writing about the connection to Godot in another comment thread. They are both existential plays. It’s clear that Wilder isn’t interested in small town life because the SM keeps interrupting it. It’s like, “We’ve had enough; you get the point; life is life.” Does the doctor’s wife get to go to Paris? Of course not! And it doesn’t matter. She’d be dead at the end if she had gone or not. I think you should check out the 1989 filmed stage production of it. I think it works really well. Let me know what you think if you do.

  3. I see that both Wikipedia & your review mention her 12th birthday – in the movie version, it is her 16th birthday…
    (Side note – When she bounces down from the last step- she has a resemblence to Lea Thompson in Back to the future part I – (I wonder if Lea played from that.))

    • Good catch! It’s 12 in the play, which I know much better. In fact, I don’t even remember watching this film! I fixed it. Thanks!

      Interesting about Lea Thompson because she’s always reminded me of Penelope Ann Miller who plays Emily in the 1989 production!

  4. I read the play years ago and loved it. Today I watched the 1940 film. I was not happy that Emily survived her second child’s birth. It was too sterile, too unreal.

    • I also think filmmakers greatly underestimated what people wanted to see. Tacking on a happy ending doesn’t make it a happy film. And people often like sad stories.

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