Our Town is a 1940 American drama romance film adaptation of a play of the same name by Thornton Wilder starring Martha Scott as Emily Webb, and William Holden as George Gibbs. The cast also included Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, Guy Kibbee and Frank Craven. It was adapted by Harry Chandlee, Craven and Wilder, and directed by Sam Wood.
The film was a faithful reproduction of the play except for two significant changes: the film used scenery, whereas the play had not; the events of the third act, which in the play revolve around the death of one of the main characters, were turned into a dream from which Emily awakens — she is then able to resume a normal life. Producer Sol Lesser worked with Wilder in creating these changes.
A radio adaptation of the film on Lux Radio Theater on May 6, 1940, used the altered film ending.
The U.S. copyright of the film was not renewed after its first term expired in 1968. However, because it is a derivative work from a play that is still under U.S. copyright, it is not deemed to be in the public domain.
Our Town was first performed at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey in 1938. It later went on to success on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It remains popular today and revivals are frequent.
Act I: Daily Life
The Stage Manager introduces the audience to the small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, and the people living there as a morning begins in the year 1901. Professor Willard speaks to the audience about the history of the town. Joe Crowell delivers the paper to Doc Gibbs, Howie Newsome delivers the milk, and the Webb and Gibbs households send their children (Emily and George, respectively) off to school on this beautifully simple morning.
Act II: Love and Marriage
Three years have passed, and George and Emily prepare to wed. The day is filled with stress. Howie Newsome is delivering milk in the pouring rain while Si Crowell, younger brother of Joe, laments how George’s baseball talents will be squandered. George pays an awkward visit to his soon-to-be in-laws. Here, the Stage Manager interrupts the scene and takes the audience back a year, to the end of Emily and George’s junior year. Emily confronts George about his pride, and over an ice cream soda, they discuss the future and their love for each other. George resolves not to go to college, as he had planned, but to work and eventually take over his uncle’s farm. In the present, George and Emily say that they are not ready to marry—George to his mother, Emily to her father—but they both calm down and happily go through with the wedding.
Act III: Death and Dying
Nine years have passed. The Stage Manager opens the act with a lengthy monologue emphasizing eternity, bringing the audience’s attention to the cemetery outside of town and the characters who have died since the wedding, including Mrs. Gibbs (pneumonia, while traveling), Wally Webb (burst appendix, while camping), Mrs. Soames, and Simon Stimson (suicide by hanging). Town undertaker Joe Stoddard is introduced, as is a young man named Sam Craig who has returned to Grover’s Corners for his cousin’s funeral. That cousin is Emily, who died giving birth to her and George’s second child. Once the funeral ends, Emily emerges to join the dead; Mrs. Gibbs urges her to forget her life, but she refuses. Ignoring the warnings of Simon, Mrs. Soames, and Mrs. Gibbs, Emily returns to Earth to relive one day, her 12th birthday. The memory proves too painful for her, and she realizes that every moment of life should be treasured. When she asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly understands the value of life while they live it, he responds, “No. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.” Emily returns to her grave next to Mrs. Gibbs and watches impassively as George kneels weeping over her. The Stage Manager concludes the play and wishes the audience a good night.
Stage Manager – a narrator, commentator, and guide through Grover’s Corners. He joins in the action of the play periodically, as the minister at the wedding, the soda shop owner, a local townsmen, etc., and speaks directly to Emily after her death.
Emily Webb – one of the main characters; we follow her from a precocious young girl through her wedding to George Gibbs and her early death.
George Gibbs – the other main character; the boy next door, a kind but irresponsible teenager who matures over time and becomes a responsible husband, father and farmer.
Frank Gibbs – George’s father, the town doctor
Julia (Hersey) Gibbs – George’s mother. She dreams of going to Paris, but doesn’t get there. She saved $350 for the trip from the sale of an antique furniture piece, but ultimately willed it to George and Emily. Dies while visiting her daughter in Ohio.
Charles Webb – Emily’s father, editor of the Grover’s Corners Sentinel
Myrtle Webb – Emily’s mother
Joe and Si Crowell – local paperboys. Joe’s intelligence earns him a full scholarship to MIT where he graduates at the top of his class. His promise will be cut short on the fields of France during World War I, according to the Stage Manager. Both he and his brother Si hold marriage in high disdain.
Simon Stimson – the choir director and church organist. We never learn the specific cause of his alcoholism and suicide, although Dr. Gibbs observes that “He’s seen a pick of troubles.” He remains bitter and cynical even beyond the grave.
Howie Newsome – the milkman, a fixture of Grover’s Corners.
Rebecca Gibbs – George’s younger sister. Later elopes with a traveling salesman and settles in Ohio.
Wally Webb – Emily’s younger brother. Dies of a burst appendix on a Boy Scout camping trip.
Professor Willard – a rather long-winded lecturer
Woman in Auditorium – concerned with temperance
Man in Auditorium – concerned with social justice
Another Woman in Auditorium – concerned with culture and beauty
Mrs. Louella Soames – a gossipy townswoman and member of the choir
Constable Bill Warren – the policeman
Two Baseball Players – who mock George at the wedding
Joe Stoddard – the undertaker
Sam Craig – a nephew of Mrs Gibbs who left town to seek his fortune. He came back after 12 years in Buffalo for Emily’s funeral.
Bessie – Howie Newsome’s horse (visible to the characters, but not the audience)
Wilder wrote the play while in his 30s. In June 1937, he lived in the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, one of the many locations where he worked on the play. It is believed he drafted the entire third act during a visit to Zürich in September 1937, in one day after a long evening walk in the rain with a friend, author Samuel Morris Steward.
The play is set in the actual theatre where the play is being performed, but the year is always 1938. The Stage Manager of the 1938 production introduces the play-within-the-play which is set in the fictional community of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. The Stage Manager gives the coordinates of Grover’s Corners as 42°40′ north latitude and 70°37′ west longitude (those coordinates are actually in Massachusetts, about a thousand feet off the coast of Rockport).
Wilder was dissatisfied with the theatre of his time: “I felt that something had gone wrong….I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive.” His response was to use a metatheatrical style. Our Town’s narrator, the Stage Manager, is completely aware of his relationship with the audience, leaving him free to break the fourth wall and address them directly. According to the script, the play is to be performed with little scenery, no set and minimal props. The characters mime the objects with which they interact. Their surroundings are created only with chairs, tables, staircases, and ladders. For example, the scene in which Emily helps George with his evening homework, conversing through upstairs windows, is performed with the two actors standing atop separate ladders to represent their neighboring houses. Wilder once said: “Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in ‘scenery.’ “
Wilder called Our Town his favorite out of all his works, but complained that it was rarely done right, insisting that it “should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness–simply, dryly, and sincerely.”
Our Town was first performed at McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey on January 22, 1938. It next opened at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts on January 25, 1938. Its New York City debut was on February 4, 1938 at Henry Miller’s Theatre, and later moved to the Morosco Theatre; this production was produced and directed by Jed Harris. Wilder received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938 for the work.
In 1946, the Soviet Union prevented a production of Our Town in the Russian sector of occupied Berlin “on the grounds that the drama is too depressing and could inspire a German suicide wave.”
1938 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
1989 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival
1989 Tony Award for Best Revival