Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Task of Living

"It seems to me, once in your life, before you die, you ought to see a country where they don't speak any English, and they don't even want to."

Mrs. Gibbs (Fay Bainter)

Martha Scott was a good actress, one who has not been given enough credit — perhaps because, in a career that spanned seven decades, from the stage to the big screen to the TV screen, she was only nominated for a Best Actress Oscar once.

That was for her performance in "Our Town," which premiered on this day in 1940. She lost — but, to be fair, she had some stiff competition. She was up against Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine and the winner, Ginger Rogers.

"Our Town" also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Sound Recording, Best Score, Best Original Score and Best Black and White Art Direction. It deserved all six nominations — and lost all six awards.

To more sophisticated 21st–century eyes and ears, "Our Town" probably seems hopelessly corny, but to me it seems pretty representative of small–town America well into the 20th century. There were things about the story that reminded me of the then–small town in Arkansas where I grew up. It was set in the first decade of the 20th century in New Hampshire, right next door to Vermont, which my family visited when I was a child because my parents had friends there, and that small New Hampshire town easily could have been the small Vermont town in which my parents' friends lived.

It was the kind of place where milk and newspapers were home–delivered on a daily basis, and nobody felt the need to lock the doors before going to bed at night. Changes did come to the fictional town — Grover's Corners — as they did in my hometown but at a glacial pace. The most important changes were the ordinary, everyday things that were happening in the lives of the town's residents — births, deaths, weddings, going to school, going to work, falling in love, falling out of love. You know, life.

Because that really is what is going on — life, whether it is in the big city or the small town. People are living their lives, doing the best they can under sometimes difficult circumstances. Sometimes the challenges seem to be too great and the rewards too few, and that seems to draw people together. It's all part of life, be it in New York City or Grover's Corners, at the turn of the 20th century or the turn of the 21st.

Scott played Emily, the young bride of George (William Holden), and it is about this couple that the story revolved, from their first meeting to their tenuous courtship to their wedding day — to the day when Emily died in childbirth, and George and the family took her to the town cemetery for her burial. Grief, of course, is a part of life, too, and Emily's death was devastating for George.

The movie was based on a play in which Scott played Emily so she was reprising a role she knew well. The movie retained many of the tactics of the stage play — for example, the presence of the narrator (called the Stage Manager) who, along with the audience, observed the events, the joys and the sorrows of Grover's Corners.

When Emily died in the stage play, the theater audience observed her conversation with her mother–in–law, who had died some time before, as the mourners trickled away from the cemetery. The scene was effectively re–created in the movie.

Against the advice of her mother–in–law and the others in the cemetery, Emily chose to go back and re–live a random day in her life. When it was over, she delivered a memorable tribute to the world of the living: "Goodbye, goodbye, world. Goodbye, Grover's Corners ... Mama and Papa. Goodbye to clocks ticking and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new–ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."

"Our Town" was remade for TV in 1977 with Glynnis O'Connor playing Scott's part — passably but not exceptionally.

Martha Scott did it better.