I knew almost nothing about Our Town when I went into it, even after my usual bit of research, which is almost always a red flag for me; even the film’s Wikipedia page was devoid of the usual summary and production sections, opting for a few opening lines with a cast list and tiny Awards section, and nothing else. What I was able to find out was that this was a film adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning stage play, and so I made a mental note to be cognitive of the film’s dialogue and staging, which I expected to be above average. It was about a half hour into the film’s short running time that I began to wonder what the film was really doing, in just about every aspect of storytelling and filmmaking, as it seemed to be shirking every convention that was prevalent in Hollywood at the time, which would’ve been fine and perhaps even encouraging if the film really had anything to show for doing so. Instead, I ended the film truly wondering why one should even spend the scant hour-and-a-half with this film at all.
The film doesn’t have a traditional straight narrative, but is instead a picturesque view of life in Grover’s Corners, a small town in New England at the turn of the century. Where other films would take a premise like that and frame it as a slice-of-life spanning the years in the lives of several characters, Our Town takes it a step further, opting to make the film itself a cultural study of the town in question. The film even opens with what might as well have been a museum tour guide or curator giving a rundown of various facts about “our town”, as if this were a newsreel instead of a fictional film made for entertainment. The narrator-slash-tour-guide even stops the film at one point to bring in a historical professor to rattle off facts about the town’s past and demographics, which was more than an unusual move to see. I could see what the filmmakers were going for with why they opted to do the film this way, but the nagging thought in my head behind it all was: why should we really care that much about this town? It’s not important in the slightest; the narrator and historical guests even make that readily apparent at several points, which pretty much kills the angle they’re trying to achieve with why they made the film the way they did. Even so, the mood of the film was, to put it in a single word, swell, even if the technicals were a little off-putting in a few peculiar ways. The framing of some of the shots was odd, sorta like some of the shots were choosing to focus on something innocuous or unimportant instead of the person or people talking, and not in the Chekhov’s Gun kind of way. Not to mention the film’s strange framing of the actors, which outright broke several of the standard rules of framing shots without gaining anything in return for doing so, which bugged me a little more than often. I will say, though, the way the ending was handled does make up for a lot of the oddness the film had done up to then, even if it was changed from the original stage play and still feels like it was changed unnecessarily.
I’m really at a loss when it comes to trying to find nice things to say about this one; not because it was bad, but because it was weird, and there wasn’t any real reason for it to be. In film school, for instance, during one of the earlier classes on cinematography and camerawork, we had an exercise where we had to break down and figure out how to shoot a scene or two, and every time one of the students would try and do something in the shot without having a purpose behind it or because they “thought it would be cool or neat”, we had to stop and come up with something else, something more substantial. It taught us the lesson that doing things on the screen willy-nilly or for no actual reason other than self-indulgence was, well, self-indulgent, and didn’t actually serve the story being told or the film being made, which should always be priority number one. Our Town completely fails in this regard; I couldn’t ascertain why it did almost all of the things it did, or if I could, I could figure or reason out that it could have been done better if done differently, so then why indeed was it done the way it was? This was one of two films director Sam Wood helmed that ended up nominated for Best Picture for 1940, and thankfully, Wood got a nom for Best Director for the other film he put up instead of this one; if he had been nominated for this, I would’ve cried foul immediately. This isn’t really a bad picture, but it just flouts reasoning so much that I honestly can’t allow myself to call it a good one.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10