29 NOVEMBER 1940, Page 11


" Our Town." At the London Pavilion.

Tuts film is pure both in its interest and exek.ution. It is also completely unorthodox in technique ; and it contains no stars. As a result it is difficult to place, at any rate as far as criticism is concerned. That it should be judged on the highest standards is certain ; but its philosophical approach is hard to pin down, chiefly because the visual impact is stronger than the words spoken by the characters, and the melting quality of softly photographed movement may tend to give a larger part to the emotions than the theme really warrants.

It begins with a pleasant-faced middle-aged man who stands on a hill and tells the audience about the little town of Grovers Corners, in New Hampshire—its population, climate, occupa- tions, and so on ; its typical residents, with their families. He calls on prominent citizens to supplement this information, which they do, even to the point of answering questions presumed to come from the audience (here an ingenious trick of sound perspective is used). Then we follow the fortunes of some of the inhabitants. Nothing sensational, just marriage, birth and death ; choir practice, gossip, family affairs. At times our commentator (who turns out to be the local drug-store keeper) interposes, signalling the passing of time, or even putting back the clock, returning to the past to explain the present. This reversal of temporal progress is important, for it prepares the mind for an astonishingly mystical final reel.

But before discussing this mystical sequence it is necessary to analyse a little further the persons and incidents selected from the odd score of years with which the film is concerned. The main story deals with two families ; the son of one grows up with the daughter of the other ; marries ; moves to a farm ; has two children, nearly losing his wife m the delivery of the second. The hopes and fears, no less than commonplaces, of the boy and the girl take up a large measure of the film, and are placed against a background in which the life of their parents plays a major part. Less emphatically a number of other citizens weave their existence into the story, including the milkman, the clergyman, and the pathetic figure of the choirmaster whose love of drink overmasters all too often his love of music.

The director, Sam Wood, depicts their simple lives, their

simple contacts, with a tenderness unequalled in any film since Murnau's Sunrise. The limits of our experience as ordinary folk are never overstepped. All that happens is that our own experiences are idealised. What we in our own lives have felt, or still feel, is abstracted into a Platonic world, where the things of the mind are real, and the things of circumstance shadows. Herein, of course, lies the film's major defect. The town we see is too cosy, too idyllic, to approximate to general life even in peacetime civilisation. A mental comparison with The Grapes of Wrath instantly reveals which is the greater work, and which the more urgent in terms of the abilities of film-making. Our Town is gentle and reminiscent ; it calls for no fury, no sympathy, no flash of mental or emotional thunder ; it represents the haven where we would be, where even grief is natural and part of the soil—a haven denied to too many in the twentieth-century world. The dwellers in Pittsburgh, in Hamburg, or in Birmingham will find no approximation to their circumstance and environment, and therefore will realise less fully the truth of the simple senti- ments which Our Town does in fact express and which they have in some measure actually experienced. For their Ma Joad is a truer, nobler and perhaps a more recognisable figure.

There remains for consideration the mystical finale. When the girl lies near death on her second childbed she visits in spirit the ghosts of her forbears in the hillside graveyard. She talks with them, simply and solemnly, and they answer her from the wisdom of those who are sinking into forgetfulness of their earthly life. Then, a ghost herself, she revisits her home, on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday. She sees her family and herself, sees the scene with the eyes of experience since obtained, and of unknown prophecies now fulfilled. Smiling through tears and ecstatic in agony, she attempts to speak to them to explain the splendour of life which she now sees ; but they move through her unsubstantial form unwitting, until it is to the audience that she must deliver her message. The message is a question and is memorable less in its wording than in its mood which recalls another question asked by Coleridge: " If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke—Aye! and what then? "