US (1947) Dir. William A. Wellman
Opinion polls – does anyone really take them seriously? It’s not as if they are truly accurate as the results are extrapolated from a smaller source in the first place, basically reducing them to a vague estimate at best. But what if one town could theoretically reflect the feelings of an entire country?
This is the conceit of this comedy from Oscar winning director William A. Wellman (Wings), based loosely on the Middletown Studies from 1929, in which Muncie, Indiana was selected to represent the US as an average town to monitor social change. Former basketball player Lawrence “Rip” Smith (James Stewart) runs a firm dealing in consumer surveys but is fast losing ground to bigger rivals, due to lack of funds and resources.
Rip reads a survey report by an ex-army colleague Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) taken in the small town of Grandview, that exactly matches a recent nationwide poll. Posing as insurance salesmen, Rip and his team, Ike (Ned Sparks) and Mr. Twiddle (Donald Meek), arrive in Grandview just as local newspaper editor Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman) is presenting a plan to build a new civic centre which will jeopardise Rip’s mission.
With the exact science of public opinion polls being a relatively new concept in 1947, it seem ripe for satire but this script by Robert Riskin and Joseph Krumgold doesn’t quite have the bite it needs. Instead of lampooning the inherent flimsiness of extrapolation, the story runs more along the lines of your average “relationship based on a lie” comedy drama.
Grandview isn’t quite as big as Muncie but an early study on education Rip sets up to demonstrate its worth is successful enough for him to go big. At first, he is welcomed into the town like any visitor, especially by Hoopendecker, who arranged Rip’s transfer, and the lads of the local high school basketball team, with whom he first makes his mark, by agreeing to coach them.
Rip then speaks out against the drastic change of Mary’s civic centre plan, realising that that Grandview must stay the same in order for Rip to get consistent results for his surveys. Unaware Mary is the editor of the local newspaper, Rip is irked by her article in the following day’s issue criticising him for his interference.
If you are thinking “I bet that after that first meeting, sparks fly and Rip and Mary fall for each other” then you clearly know your classic Hollywood script templates. However, it is all longing looks and passionate embraces, this is a chaste and slow burning affair in which caution is the key and their similarities are undermined by their differences.
One fabulous scene that provided the actors with a true technical challenge that they pull off to perfection has Rip and Mary discussing their favourite childhood books; Mary prefers Hiawatha while Rip champions the manlier Charge Of The Light Brigade. They then, in total unison, recite long passages from their chosen books with vigour and passion, neither one distracted by the other.
Because this mainstream baiting romance takes precedence over the survey angle, the first hour of the film meanders along with the usual fluffiness of the era, until Rip’s true motive for being in Grandview is revealed, and Mary goes on the offensive via her newspaper. A national outlet picks up the story and suddenly journalists and statisticians across the country descend on Grandview to get their opinions, turning its fortunes round.
A little too late but the satire finally arrives, with the locals selling their opinions to all who ask, along with a surge in new arrivals wanting to enjoy the kudos. Everyone prospers until they make the fatal mistake of suggesting they’d welcome a female President, a notion that turns them into a laughing stock, and turns Grandview into a ghost town where no-one socialises anymore through embarrassment.
I’d love to say “well, it was 1947” in its defence as to today’s enlightened sensibilities this would be deemed an outrageous issue for ridicule, but one would hope that back then, someone may have been progressive enough to say “Is that such a bad idea?”. Obviously not, so before you throw your toys out of the pram, look upon this as an illustration of how far social attitudes have come in the last 70 years.
Unfortunately, by this point, Rip has just ten minutes left in the film to save Grandview from its sullen implosion and once again is forced to employ some his trademark subterfuge to achieve this. Once again, the uneven plotting is exposed in how this all occurs in the final act rather than the boom period and the ensuing crisis point occurring earlier, to give Rip longer to earn his redemption.
The scope for incisive social commentary the plot invites is largely ignored in favour of a conventional small town romance tale, whilst the pivotal burden of persuasion rests on the shoulders of the local kids in the usual saccharine finale to send everyone home happy. Not that we shouldn’t expect as much from this era, but with his track record of provocative and grittier films, one assumes Wellman would have packed more of a punch.
Maybe it was because James Stewart’s previous film was a flop (amazingly, that film was It’s A Wonderful Life) and giving him something less “heavy” would rebuild his box office value. Sadly this was a flop too, but Stewart is his usual excellent self, charming, fast talking and impeccably human. Jane Wyman makes for an awkward love interest for this writer, but plays the formidable female role much more convincingly.
Perhaps it is because I am viewing this from a modern perspective that the missed opportunity to make an astute satire from the fertile premise makes this a slight disappointment, especially given the pedigree of the cast. But for an easy going, lazy afternoon viewing, Magic Town passes the time in an amiable enough fashion for old time film fans.